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Monday, April 30, 2012

Updated: Pilarczyk on Infanticide in 19th century Montreal

Ian C. Pilarczyk of Boston University has an article in the May 2012 issue of Law & History Review, entitled ‘So Foul A Deed’: Infanticide in Montreal, 1825–1850.

UPDATE: Ian advises the paper is available on SSRN and also his website: and also on my website here:

From the introduction:
Yesterday morning the bodies of two infants, supposed to be twins, were found in the Canal firmly enveloped in a linen bag, in which were also two bricks. There was also a shawl round the bodies, which it is to be hoped may lead to the discovery of the unfeeling mother. The Police are on the alert, and we are confident that no exertions on their part will be wanting to discover the perpetrator of so foul a deed. The bodies were interred, and the shawl may be seen at Police Station B.1
The preceding narrative is, in many ways, illustrative of the complex and contradictory phenomenon of infanticide in the district of Montreal during the first half of the nineteenth century. Although notices regarding the finding of infant bodies were frequent, discovery of twin infant bodies was not. This account was also unconventional in its tone: lacking the usual sterile narration typical of newspaper coverage of that topic, it cried out for the apprehension of the “perpetrator of so foul a deed.” Although the call for justice might have appeared strong, infanticide prosecutions were fairly rare and convictions rarer still. The prevalent view might have been to characterize the responsible party as an “unfeeling mother,” but the reality surrounding infanticide was altogether more complicated, yet fully as tragic.

This article argues that infanticide, and the legal and social responses thereto, exhibited a compromise between conflicting sentiments, realities, and paradigms. As a result, the actions of defendants, prosecutors, judges and jurors, and the public at large were characterized by competing motives and countervailing sympathies. The infant victims were nominally the focus of the law, but in reality these acts were viewed as crimes against social conventions. The issue of infanticide during this period therefore presents a fascinating study in this heavily gendered area of nineteenth-century criminal law, reflecting stark differences between law and custom. This article will provide a brief discussion of the historiography and underlying methodology, followed by the political and historical context for the Montreal experience, before moving on to the issue of infant abandonment, coroner's inquests, and the legal mechanics of infanticide prosecutions.

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