Wednesday, February 17, 2010
When a mother cruelly murders her children, the public is often deeply shocked by the crime. Though it's rare, fortunately, a look at the historical record in the United States shows murder of children by their mothers seems all too common.
The colonists in the New World kept records of those who were hanged. One of the most common reasons women went to the scaffold was for the murders of their own offspring. In many instances they were babies smothered at birth, the crime labeled "concealment of birth," and it was for centuries a death penalty offense. But not all of the crimes fit this pattern.
The first known case of an American mother who murdered not an infant but a child, and not to conceal a birth but as an act born of mental illness, took place nearly four hundred years ago. Today we still simply don't know what to do with women such as she, the Medeas of the world, mothers who are as "mad as Ophelia," who suffer from psychosis and murder their own children. Execution? Life imprisonment? Commitment to a psychiatric hospital?
Before Andrea Yates drowned her children, before Darlie Routier stabbed her children, before Susan Smith drowned her children, before Deanna Laney stoned her children, before Maggie Young drowned her five children in a bathtub in 1965 . . . there was Dorothy Talby, the first woman in North America known to have murdered a child while in the throes of delusion. And the date of the event is very early indeed.
Dorothy Talby and her husband John came from England to settle in Plymouth in colonial Massachusetts. The painstaking records kept by the colonists offer a full picture of their life together. After obtaining an allotment of land, Dorothy and John had several children; the last was a daughter named Difficulty, who was baptized on Christmas, 1636.
The Talby marriage was a tortured one. Mr. Talby had difficulties of his own and some suggest he was a poor provider. After the birth of her last child, Mrs. Talby "became melancholy and possessed of delusions." Dorothy quite evidently suffered from a severe mental illness, probably postpartum depression or perhaps schizophrenia, and often threatened her family. Dorothy's husband complained of her bizarre behavior to authorities in Salem, who, in 1937, sentenced her to be chained to a post for "frequently laying hands on her husband, to the danger of his life."
The treatment was ineffective, and she was excommunicated. This was also ineffective. When she became increasingly violent, she was publicly whipped. Then, in 1638, "her mind again became more clouded." The rest of the story comes from the original records:
She believed that God revealed to her the necessity of taking the life of her baby, in order to save the child from future misery. . . . [S]he was led to take the child's life, by breaking its neck. She made no secret of the murder, and when apprehended confessed the deed.
In the [Salem] court, on this day, upon her arraignment, she, however, stood mute a good while, -- until the governor told her that if she did not plead she would be pressed to death. She then confessed . . . she was duly sentenced. . . .
Mrs. Talby asked to be beheaded, but the sentence imposed by borrowed English law was hanging in Boston two days after her conviction in December, 1638. At the time of her hanging, she had to be forcibly detained. When her face was covered with a cloth, she ripped it off and stuffed it in the rope that had been placed around her neck. She was then "cast off, and, after a swing or two, she caught at the ladder."
In another age, Dorothy Talby might be committed to a hospital. Oliver Wendell Holmes thought that tender care for the balance of her life would have been the most appropriate punishment. Today there is no saying what her punishment might be. She might have been executed, if she committed her crime in a death penalty state. She might have been incarcerated. Four hundred years later, we still do not know what to do with Medea.Tweet