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“The Body of an Infant There and Then Laying Dead”: Infanticide in Coroner’s Inquisitions At The Library of Virginia

Editor’s Note: The Library of Virginia, in partnership with Virginia Humanities, sponsors residential fellows during the academic year to conduct in-depth research in the Library’s collections. Kristen Green, an independent author whose previous work was Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, spent the year researching and writing The Devil’s Half-Acre.

A newborn girl smothered just after birth. A baby girl killed after being struck on the forehead and above the mouth with a brick. An infant boy strangled to death.

All three cases of infanticide were the subject of coroner’s inquisitions in Henrico County in the 1830s and 1840s– and in all three cases, the victims were born to enslaved women and therefore were also enslaved. Virginia law stipulated that the slave status of the babies followed that of their mothers.

When juries were assembled to investigate the three suspicious deaths, each one pointed the finger at the enslaved mother of the baby.

Perusing the Library’s digital collection of inquisitions from around the Commonwealth, I was drawn to these stories of dead babies and the enslaved women investigated for murdering them. Coroner’s inquisitions are county investigations into deaths that are violent, unnatural, or suspicious, and juries are assembled to determine how the person was killed and by whom. The inquisitions, which exist from 1789 to 1942 for Henrico County, list causes of death ranging from suicide to exposure to elements, and drownings to train accidents. They frequently refer to a death by natural causes as a “visitation by God.”

The infant struck by a brick was described as “mulatto.” The Henrico County jury selected to perform a coroner’s inquisition found that “Fanny a slave, the property of Mrs. Fox of the County of King William,” had “killed and murdered the said female infant (her own child!)” The jury found that at 2 a.m. on 19 May 1844, Fanny was “moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil.” They claimed that “with a certain Brick or other weapon which she the said Fanny then and there held in her right hand,” she had “struck and brused” the infant on the forehead and above the mouth, giving her “several mortal wounds,” including a three-inch wide injury. The baby girl died instantly, the jury found.[1]

Transcription, Henrico County (Va.) Coroners’ Inquisitions, Unidentified, 3 June 1844, Local government records collection, Henrico County Court Records. The Library of Virginia.

A June 1841 coroner’s inquisition provided even fewer details. A jury in Henrico County found that a “negro woman slave by the name of Amanda,” who was owned by Patrick Nowland, “did kill and murder the said infant by strangulation after being delivered of the same.” The baby’s complexion was not mentioned. “Jacob a slave” and Mrs. Mildred Turpin apparently provided evidence that the child was murdered between 29 May and 31 May 1841, but what evidence they provided was not included in the coroner’s inquisition. No other details of why Amanda was believed to be responsible were provided.[2]

Transcription, Henrico County (Va.) Coroners’ Inquisitions, Unidentified, 5 June 1841. Local government records collection, Henrico County Court Records. The Library of Virginia.

The investigation into the smothered infant’s death on 13 April 1834 provided slightly more context. The baby girl’s mother was believed to be “Kesiah a slave…the property of Henry L. Carter.” A local doctor, who was called by Carter to look at the body, noted that “there were no marks of violence on the body at all likely to produce death.” Fanny, an enslaved woman who was also owned by Carter, served as a witness for the jury assembled by the Henrico County Coroner’s Inquisition. She told the jurors convened to investigate the death of a “female colored infant” that Kesiah “acknowledged to her that she had been delivered of a child, and that the child was alive and cried, that she put her hand on its face and that it did not cry anymore.” Fanny said “this happened about 10 or 11 o’clock in the night” and that Kesiah “took the child just before day and carried it down the hill.” The next day, when the Carters discovered Kesiah had had a child, Fanny showed them where Kesiah had put the baby’s body.[3]

Lidia, another enslaved woman belonging to Carter, told the jurors that Kesiah “had always denied being pregnant of which she had frequently charged her.” Lidia said that Kesiah also acknowledged that she gave birth to a child “that was live and cried, and that she put her hand on its face and that it did not cry any more.”[4]

The jury found that “Kesiah not having God before her eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil,….feloniously, voluntarily and of her malice aforethought then and there did kill and murder the aforesaid infant by putting her hand on its face and keeping it there until it was dead, and that she committed this murder on the same night and a few minutes after she was delivered of the said infant.”[5]

Transcription, Henrico County (Va.) Coroners’ Inquisitions, Unidentified, 15 April 1834. Local government records collection, Henrico County Court Records. The Library of Virginia.

Looking through the coroner’s inquisitions, I considered the kind of misery in which these enslaved women lived—a misery that may have led a mother to kill her child to keep it from having to endure a life of enslavement. I considered how much slavery shaped motherhood, and the ways in which slave mothers were denied many opportunities to mother their children. Slave mothers of newborns weren’t given maternity leave, and those who worked in the fields were expected to get back in the fields immediately. They might be called out of the fields to nurse their babies but otherwise spent the whole day separated from them.

The care of their children went to someone else while they worked in the fields. They were deprived of this primitive need—and, for many, desire—to mother a child, and thus were deprived of the most natural of relationships. As I read the coroner’s inquisitions, I felt empathy for these women who may have taken the lives of their own children because they couldn’t bear to watch their daughters and sons grow up enslaved and because they couldn’t bear to one day be separated.

I wondered how many more of these infanticides went unreported, and how often someone other than the baby’s mother might have been responsible, particularly when the reports noted that the child was of mixed race. The mixed-race victims may have been the offspring of a master or one of his family members, who did not want others to see the evidence of him having sexual relations with an enslaved woman. In the cases when Virginia coroners were called to investigate the deaths of slaves, they were often reluctant to point fingers at the owner.

The coroner’s inquisitions records at the Library of Virginia are a valuable source of history, especially for researching African Americans. The gender and race of the deceased was often noted in the inquests. If the deceased was an enslaved person, the inquest would include the name of the enslaver.

While the coroner’s inquisitions do answer some questions, they leave many more unanswered. What would the juries have learned if they truly listened to the enslaved women they accused of killing their babies, if they considered the women’s lives? Instead, the outcome of the coroner’s inquisitions in these cases often meant white juries imposed motives on black bodies, as they have throughout history.

-Kristen Green, 2018 Spring Virginia Humanities Residential Fellow

Editors’ note: Many coroner’s inquisitions concerning enslaved and free African Americans prior to 1870 have been digitized and can be found in Virginia Untold.

 


[1] Unidentified: Coroner’s Inquisition, 3 June 1844

[2] Unidentified: Coroner’s Inquisition, 5 June 1841

[3] Unidentified: Coroner’s Inquisition, 15 April 1834

[4] Unidentified: Coroner’s Inquisition, 15 April 1834

[5] Unidentified: Coroner’s Inquisition, 15 April 1834