From “That Wicked House”: Reputation and Infanticide in 17th-Century Massachusetts

Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:30 AM
Room M101 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Emily Romeo, University of Chicago
For women in Puritan New England, the consequences of having a child out of wedlock could be dire. Courts handed down more frequent and severe legal punishments for women than their male partners, such as public whippings rather than fines or child support. Women’s families and households also faced public shame and the contempt of their communities, particularly among other women, who policed sexual indiscretion through rumor and denunciation. In such an environment, infanticide can be viewed as a pragmatic, if terrible, attempt by women to preserve not only their own reputations, but just as importantly, those of their households. My research indicates, paradoxically, that after breaking Puritan laws against extramarital sex, these women responded by breaking other Puritan mandates against concealment and taking life in order to ensure that they and their households would remain a valued part of that system. 

My paper offers a new interpretation of why colonial Englishwomen committed infanticide, complicating existing categories of “social” vs. “anti-social” violence for colonial women. In doing so, it examines the profound role rumor and household reputation played in these women’s crimes. The public portrayed women accused of infanticide as disgraced perpetrators of unimaginable acts. But by examining the impact of fornication, adultery, and bastardy prosecutions on women and their households, as well as evidence from infanticide cases, we can see that women in seventeenth-century Massachusetts committed infanticide as part of a conservative desire to protect the interests of their households and kin groups in their communities. During a period in which infanticide was policed and prosecuted with unprecedented intensity, these women’s acts of violence helped perpetuate the very social order and structures of authority that sought to condemn them.

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