“A deed at which humanity shudders”. Mad mothers, the law and the asylum, c1835-1895

  • Alison Pedley

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The central theme and focus of my thesis is an exploration of the passage of married women who murdered their children through the medico-legal and asylum systems of Victorian England and Wales. In the thesis, I follow the life-journeys of a discrete group of women over a sixty year period from 1835 to 1895. I start by examining their social backgrounds and circumstances. I then sequentially trace their passage through judicial process on to institutional incarceration and onwards to either discharge or retention in those institutions. By examining the histories of this group of criminally insane mothers, I create a detailed analytical study of the varied responses of the legal and the medical establishments to the crime of maternal child-murder and its perpetrators. The responses and attitudes of the male-dominated authorities to insanity in women, especially when it was coupled with criminal violence towards children, reveal much about Victorian cultural constructions and expectations. Contemporary beliefs that a woman’s physiology and neurology was inherently fragile and unstable, seemingly helped to shape sympathetic and compassionate views of the accused women. Belief in such female frailty supported the idea that a woman’s mental equilibrium could be upset by any mania associated with reproduction. By analysis of asylum records, medical literature, trial transcripts and newspaper reports, I demonstrate that gender-driven socio-cultural and medical assumptions impacted upon both the mothers’ legal and medical treatments. Overall I argue that, despite their mental state and the fact that they had committed “a deed at which humanity shudders”, the women in this unique group received sympathy and compassion from Victorian society and, in particular, from the male legal, medical and governmental establishments of the day.
    Date of Award27 Oct 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Roehampton
    SupervisorMichael Brown (Director of Studies) & Margaret Arnot (Co-Supervisor)


    • 19th Century England and Wales
    • Medico-Legal History
    • Criminal Insanity
    • C19th Asylums and Mental Health Care
    • Maternal Infanticide
    • Child Homicide

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