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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 … read more »