Nineteenth-century men who killed their children

I recently wrote about the media’s reporting of criminology research on family ‘annihilators,’ a label for men who kill their children (see this post here). I complained about the attempts to dramatize the findings by linking the causes of men killing several of their small children to a supposed ‘masculinity crisis’. Writing the post prompted me to suggest that this type of killing had some characteristics which did not seem to have a long historical precedent and I commented that we need more historical research in this area.

Since writing this, I’ve discovered (thanks to the wonderful #twitterstorians) that there are several historians working on aspects of this crime, including Cathryn Wilson, History, University of Essex and Krissie Glover at Royal Holloway. Their research will be forthcoming, but I’m also glad to say that an article was published earlier this year in The Journal of Victorian Culture by Jade Shepherd, based at Queen Mary (brilliantly, you can read it here).

I’ve read Jade’s article and thought I’d update my post with a few observations gained from Jade’s published research, which illuminates the cases of family ‘annihilation’ in modern western society.

Jade examines 60 men who killed their children between 1864 and 1900 and were deemed insane as a consequence and committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. These men were often considered by witnesses to have been good fathers who worked hard before they killed their child.  They were understood to have no motive for the murder, and therefore must be insane.


Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Aslyum. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

She compares these cases with attitudes towards men who were convicted of killing their children at the Old Bailey. Jade tells us that these offenders were often identified as having had a history of abusing and neglecting their wives and children. Thus hatred, revenge, and cruelty were seen as their motives for killing their children. The press did not report these convicted killers with any sympathy, but instead as unnatural men.

These conclusions are really helpful in thinking about paternal child murder over time.

One of the things that strikes me about the paternal child-murderers of the later nineteenth century is that they did not all kill ALL of their young children. Jade mentions one father who did kill his three children, and no doubt there might be more, but it does not seem to have been a feature of the crime. These were not family annihilators.

Another difference is that we see family annihilators today as primarily targeting their wives when carrying out this horrific crime and that ‘motive’ seems absent as one of the causes ascribed by nineteenth-century medical and legal practitioners.

There were some similarities between the cases in the nineteenth century and those today. Economic issues relating to ideals of fatherhood seem important. Jade found that the paternal murderers deemed insane had delusions about their inability to support their children, due to failures in getting an income. They couldn’t be breadwinners so they snapped and killed their child instead. The defence in these cases also used the argument of the father being drunk. Alcohol abuse was seen as making men mad and bestial. The men convicted at the Old Bailey, on the other hand, were seen as cruel and revengeful. These two kinds of arguments have been offered for fathers who kill their children today. A good summary of rescent research into types of family killers is here on the BBC News Website.

If there is anything to conclude, it is that attitudes to crime are shaped by the culture and society in which it occurs. It would be nice to think that evidence like that provided by Jade will help persuade modern commentators to discard ‘easy’, facile causes for such awful crimes.



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