Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What Should We Do with Mothers Who Kill?

by Laura James 
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.


Rose said...

very very good blog entry. A good read. It's so sad that mothers do this.

Scobberlotcher said...

You pose interesting points. I was so enthralled with this subject that my debut novel was about a mother who kills and asks these same questions. During my research, I found that there are currently 11 women on Death Row in the U.S. for murdering their own children. And, the leading cause of death for a child under the age of 4 is homicide (from either parent). I even interviewed Andrea Yates' prison doctor and learned a few surprising facts. This is sobering, indeed. I came up with a few spare conclusions about this subject; most centered on the need for the loved ones around mothers to respond appropriately and not live in denial if she seems to be in crisis.

First time to your insightful blog, by the way!

Cheryl Kaye Tardif said...

I had the misfortune of actually knowing 2 parents who killed their son. Their case made all the headlines because it was one of the most horrific cases in Canada. They kept their son locked in a closet, beat him regularly and starved him to death.

When I knew them, he was a military man and she was his wife. I never noticed anything definitive when their son was a baby, though I did question her use of leg restraints--a contraption strapped to the crib. The excuse I was given was that it was for medical purposes. I bought the story.

The only other thing I ever saw was once when her baby was lying next to my daughter in the middle of their living room floor, the mother said she didn't feel bonded to her son. I thought she was just tired and having trouble coping with her first baby. I never suspected it went deeper than that.

When I saw them in the news, I was sickened to the core. How could any parent do that to their child? Yet some do. These women NEVER should have had children. And they shouldn't be allowed to conceive again. Sterilize them!

Both parents in this case were sent to prison. I believe they are out now. I know they divorced and of course he was booted out of the military. For all I know she could be married again, with children. That's even too horrible to contemplate.

Cheryl Kaye Tardif
Canadian suspense author

Suzanne Arruda said...

I am very surprised that they didn't condemn her for witchcraft (hearing voices would be construed as communicating with demons back then). But clearly this woman had mental problems. There is some indication that diet (such as omega 3's) can alleviate some post partem depression and I imagine this woman's diet was terrible, esp. if her husband was a poor provider. Most tragic.

California Girl said...

Andrea Yates is to be pitied. Routier, Smith, Diane Downs and few others are in a completely different category. Had Andrea Yates husband been more aware of her mental state, the deaths might not have occurred. He knew that she had mental difficulties in the past. Why did he keep having children with her knowing that she had a fragile mental state?