The Georgians and Crimes Against Children

By today’s standards, the Georgian age, in which my Cragg and Fidelis mysteries are set, was a particularly callous one. Unequal rights for women, the slave trade and cruel capital punishment were all widely accepted, though not by all. My latest novel Skin and Bone is specially concerned with the treatment of children, and in such cases matters were no more humane. Minors could be brutally chastised, forced to work, bought and sold, and hanged for what we would consider relatively insignificant crimes. These attitudes and practices persisted into the 19 th century, when a more emollient public opinion, modified by campaigners like Charles Dickens, led to changes in the penal code, new laws against child labour, and the beginning of the idea that the rights of children needed special protection.

Nevertheless, 18 th century England had always clearly drawn the line at child murder. In fact, the killing of a child was regarded as especially heinous, not for sentimental reasons, but because it was a crime against the future – the continuation of one’s family and one’s own protection in old age. The trouble was that murder could be very difficult to detect. In the absence of science, and with no organised police force, invstigators such as magistrates and coroners would often fall back on various occult ways of discovering whether a murder had been committed, and who had done it. If you made a suspect touch the corpse of someone who’d been killed, and fresh blood was then observed to flow from the victim’s wounds, the suspect would be brought to trial and probably found guilty. If that doesn't seem very plausible, it is hardly less convincing than the proof of murder by haunting. This came from the idea that the ghost of a murdered person would appear to its killer, which could lead to anyone foolish enough to say that a dead person had appeared to them being tried for murder. Shakespeare made dramatic use of the belief in both Macbeth and Richard III.

Dead newborn babies – like the one they find at the beginning of Skin and Bone – presented a particularly tough problem at a time when the true cause of any death was hard to determine. Baby murder was quite common, as the last thing an unmarried girl wanted was a child and, without contraception, pregnancies would quite often end with a concealed birth and the killing of the child. But how could you distinguish between a suffocated baby and a stillborn one? In the early 17 th century the government had decided that, unless there were witnesses, this was impossible and a law was passed automatically treating any woman who concealed the birth of a dead child as a murderer. This law remained in force a hundred years later, although by now a test had been developed in Holland to resolve the issue, and was actually used by some English magistrates and coroners.

It was admittedly a rudimentary test that rested on questionable assumptions. The procedure was to remove some lung tissue from the corpse and attempt to float it in water. If there had been air in the lungs, it was argued, the tissue would float, indicating that the child had died after birth. If the tissue sank, it would indicate a stillbirth as the baby had never breathed.

In my story the test is used by Dr Luke Fidelis. Certainly it is fallible, yet it was one of the first manifestations of the attempt to use what we now call forensic science. Trials and inquests turning on evidence about bleeding corpses and ghostly apparitions were now set to come to an end, and be gradually replaced by justice that depended on solid evidence scientifically appraised. In the mid-18th century, when my stories are set, this was still a  long way ahead. But the “floating lung” test as used by Fidelis in Skin and Bone was, at least, a start.


Posted on November 11th, 2016


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