"She who is stepping from time into endless eternity" The social function of Scottish 'last speeches' on infanticide concerning women (1650-1800)

Tabea Hochstrasser
This master’s thesis examines the gendered constructions carried out by eighteenth-century Scottish gallows speeches from women condemned for infanticide. By analysing Lowland broadsides it argues that broadsides could contain authentic traces of lower class women’s voices. By confessing and making a ‘last speech’, women simultaneously made themselves subservient to authorities and acquired an agency to articulate their own opinions on their crime and sentencing. Moreover, they acquired a spiritual authority on the brink of their death, serving as an example on the gibbet which should not be followed, being able to warn others as they had confessed their sins and were about to face a higher judgement. Thus, this thesis argues, Scottish gallows speeches did not only serve to reinforce the judgement of authorities, but also to spread lower class, female opinions on the early modern justice system.

“Ik heb mijn kind gedood.” Moeders aan het woord.

Ook dit jaar trekt niet voorbij zonder nieuws van een kindermoord. Altijd gaat zo een bericht gepaard met vraagtekens, met onbegrip. Waarom gebeurt dit? Hoe kan een moeder zoiets doen? In onze tijden blijven dergelijke vragen vaak onbeantwoord, waarna ongeloof de leegte vult. Dat was echter niet altijd zo.

De laatste woorden voor de dood

Vandaag brengen moeders na veroordeling een deel van hun leven in de gevangenis door, maar enkele eeuwen geleden betaalden ze nog de uiterste prijs: de dood. Vele ‘laatste woorden’ van vrouwen uit het achttiende-eeuwse Schotland zijn bewaard gebleven, die ze lieten optekenen vlak voor hun terechtstelling. Het gaat vaak om de bekentenissen van moeders die terechtgesteld werden voor ‘infanticide’: de moord op hun pasgeboren baby. In die periode zette de protestantse kerk in Schotland namelijk veel druk op zulke vrouwen om te bekennen, zodat het grote publiek van hun zondige verhalen zou kunnen leren om niet dezelfde fouten te begaan.

Een populair nieuwsbericht

Dergelijke bekentenissen werden verspreid in de vorm van een ‘eenbladdruk’: één blad, goedkoop en snel geproduceerd. Oftewel, betaalbaar nieuws, heet van de naald. Er werden miljoenen eenbladdrukken gemaakt tussen de 17de en 19de eeuw. Vaak werden ze voorgelezen of opgehangen in publieke ruimtes zoals de markt en tavernes – een beetje alsof je ze nu zou aanplakken in een bushokje of posten op Facebook. Eenbladdrukken zijn dan ook een belangrijke bron voor historici om de ideeën die circuleerden in de leefwereld van gewone mensen te bestuderen. De doorsnee bevolking liet vroeger immers weinig bronnen na en die zijn ook zelden bewaard gebleven. Er hebben echter genoeg ‘laatste woorden’ de eenentwintigste eeuw gehaald om de zelfperceptie en motieven van moeders veroordeeld voor infanticide te bestuderen.

Reputatie en overleven

De laatste woorden van moeders bevatten enerzijds biografisch materiaal, anderzijds uitgebreide beschrijvingen van hoe ze zwanger geraakt waren en hun misdaad gepleegd hadden: precies wat een nieuwsgierig publiek wilde weten. Vrouwen die hun kind ombrachten waren veelal jonge dienstbodes afkomstig van het platteland, relatief arm en ongehuwd. Ze spraken vaak over een minnaar die hen in de steek had gelaten. Oftewel, ze waren zwanger geraakt maar tegen hun verwachtingen in toch niet getrouwd – ze zouden een bastaardkind krijgen. Dit veroorzaakte sociale uitsluiting en deed hun toekomstperspectieven teniet. Het huwelijk was voor dienstmeisjes de enige logische stap vooruit, maar een bastaardkind tekende ze als ‘zondige vrouw’ die nooit meer een geschikte huwelijkskandidate zou zijn. Een beschadigde reputatie maakte het bovenal onmogelijk om een job te behouden en om een nieuwe job te vinden. Een verlies van inkomen liet vrouwen amper toe om zichzelf nog te voeden, laat staan een extra mond. Veroordeelde moeders spraken kortom vooral over sociaaleconomische motieven en benadrukten dat hun intenties niet boosaardig waren. Velen lieten hun kind achter in de open lucht, zodat ze het niet met eigen handen zouden moeten doden.

Onschuldig kind = schuldige moeder

De religieuze autoriteiten en de overheid vonden het goed dat dergelijke bekentenissen op grote schaal circuleerden, zodat anderen afgeschrikt zouden worden om een gelijkaardig zondig pad te kiezen. Laatste woorden eindigden dan ook steeds met een verklaring van de veroordeelde moeder dat ze haar straf als gerechtvaardigd beschouwde. Volgens de Bijbel was een kind, laat staan een baby per definitie onschuldig. Volgens de wet werd de moeder bovendien terecht schuldig bevonden en ter dood veroordeeld. Dat zij dit zelf nog eens verklaarde, legitimeerde dus zowel de logica van religieuze als wereldlijke machthebbers. Maar toch gebruikten vrouwen hun laatste woorden om ook hun eigen interpretaties van hun veroordeling uit te drukken. Terwijl ze hun straf rechtvaardig verklaarden omdat ze hun kind hadden gedood, brachten ze tegelijk ook allerlei ‘verzachtende omstandigheden’ aan. Ze beschreven zichzelf vaak als radeloos of door ongeluk getroffen; ze spraken over hoe ze onopzettelijk hun baby verwond hadden omdat ze op hun eentje hun eerste bevalling doormaakten; en soms spraken ze zelfs over anderen die hen op het slechte pad gebracht hadden. Zulke opvattingen van slachtofferschap of niet-kwaadaardige intenties circuleerden dus zij aan zij met verklaringen dat terechtstellingen gerechtvaardigd waren. Het is dan ook interessant om vast te stellen dat naarmate de achttiende eeuw vorderde, verbanning als straf begon te primeren op ophanging, tot in het begin van de negentiende eeuw de doodstraf voor infanticide in Schotland zelfs werd afgeschaft.

En vandaag?

In de achttiende eeuw spoorde de Schotse maatschappij vrouwen op de rand van de dood, veroordeeld voor de moord op hun baby, aan om het verhaal van hun misdaad te vertellen zodat ze vergeven konden worden door God. Na hun bekentenis werden veroordeelde moeders dan ook als religieuze voorbeelden weer in de samenleving geaccepteerd. Ook vandaag de dag is een samenleving nog nieuwsgierig naar het waarom van een moeder die haar kind doodt. Wanneer ze nu echter bekent moet ze verder leven als een sociale buitenstaander, geestelijk meer buiten de samenleving gesloten dan vrouwen die enkele eeuwen geleden stierven, veroordeeld voor dezelfde misdaad.

The last speech and confession and dying words of Hellen Marishal

The Last Speech and Confession and Dying Words of Hellen Marishal (1720). NLS, Ry.III.c.36(069). Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Bibliografie

Abbreviations

 

            ESTC              English Short Title Catalogue

            EUL                Edinburgh University Library

            ML                  The Mitchell Library

            NLS                 National Library of Scotland

 

 

Primary sources

 

“ACT Anent Murthering of CHILDREN. July 19th. 1690.” ESTC R468990, NLS, RB.I. 106(63) and EUL, Special Collections Df.1.32/46.

 

“A LETTER FROM Doctor Dalgleish to his Patient Mrs. M'Leod, and her Answer.”, NLS, Ry.III.a.10(106).

 

“A Letter from Helen Hutton, who was Execute at Haddington, on Friday last, the 25th of February, written to her Mother a few Days before her Execution.”, NLS, Ry.III.c.36(103).

 

“AN ACCOUNT OF The life and actions of Mrs. McLeod. Nemo sine crimine vivit.” ESTC T183514, NLS, Ry.III.a.10(109).

 

“An elegy on the never to be lamented death of Mirs. McLeod, who was execute on Wednesday the 8th of March, 1727.” ESTC T182517, NLS, Ry.III.a.10(110).

 

“GROANS FROM THE DUNGEON; OR THE Sorrowful Lamentation of Agnes Crockat, now under Sentence of Death in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, for murdering her own Child.” ESTC T228949, NLS ABS.9.95.1.

 

Margaret Dickson’s penitential Confession.” ESTC T171747, NLS, Ry.III.a.10(076).

 

“Mrs. McLeod’s last farewel to John Gibson.” ESTC T170683, NLS, Ry.III.a.10(107).

 

“News from MUSSLEBURGH, Giving a faithful Narrative of the wonderful Restoration of Margaret Dickson to Life, who was execute in the Grass-Market of Edinburgh, the 2d of September, 1724.” ESTC T182162, NLS, RB.I.179(91).

 

Register of marriages of the city of Edinburgh, 1751-1800, F.J. GRANT and R. HERALD eds. (Scottish Record Society Register of Marriages for the Parish of Edinburgh, 1595-, Volume 53), Edinburgh, 1922.

 

“The Apparition.” ESTC T189665, NLS, Ry.III.a.10(111).

 

“THE CONFESSION Of Agnes Craig, Daughter to the Deceased John Craig and Agnes Grierson, who Lives at the Bridge-End of Minnijoe, in the Paroch of Glencairn when the said Agnes Craig was Execute in Drumfries, on Wednsday being the 5th of June, Anno 1717. For the Murdering of het own Child.” ESTC T201684, NLS, Ry.III.c.36(35).

 

“THE Last SPEECH and CONFESSION AND DYING WORDS OF HELLEN MARISHAL Who was executed at the Grass-Market of Edinburgh, upon the Thirty Day of March, One thousand seven hundred and twenty, for the Crime of Murdering her own Child. ESTC T193508, NLS, Ry.III.c.36(069).

 

“THE LAST SPEECH AND CONFESSION OF ANN CAMPBELL, who was execute at How-Gate-Head of Glasgow, on Wednesday the 10th of October 1722. for murdering her own Child.” ESTC T192968, NLS Ry.III.c.36(91).

 

“THE LAST SPEECH AND CONFESSION OF Anne Fogget, Burnt for the Murder of her Husband Abraham Fogget. Who was Executed at York September 10. 1716”, NLS, Ry.III.c.36(025).

 

“The last Speech and Confession of Jannet Riddle, who was Execute, for Murthering her own Child, in the Grass Market of Edinburgh, January 21st. 1702.”, NLS, Ry.III.a.10(103).

 

“THE LAST SPEECH AND CONFESSION OF JEAN WILSON, who lived in the Paroch of Calder. And was Execute at the How-Gate-Head of Glasgow, upon Wednesday the 30th of August, 1721. For murthering of her own Child.” ESTC T193454 Ry.III.c.36(75).

 

“THE LAST Speech and Confession, OF Margaret Anderson, who vvas Executted at Edinburgh, on Wedensday being the Tvventy 2d. of April 1713. for the murdering of her own Child.” ESTC T193455, NLS, 6.314(29).

 

“THE LAST SPEECH and CONFESSION OF Margaret Crooks, who was Executed at the Grass-Market of Edinburgh, the twenty fourth of December 1718. for the Murthering her own Child.” ESTC T193456, NLS, Ry.III.c.36(042).

 

“THE LAST SPEECH and CONFESSION Of Margaret Fleck, who was executed at the Howgate-Head of Glasgow on the 5th of June 1723. for the Murdering of her own Child.” ESTC N471543, NLS, 1.8(29).

 

“THE LAST SPEECH and Dying-Words, Of Helen Hutton, who was Execute at Haddingtoun upon the 25th Day of February 1726. for the murdering of Mr. Johnston and his Spouse, late Post-master there.” ESTC T193503, NLS, Ry.III.c36(102).

 

 “THE LAST SPEECH AND DYING WORDS Of Janet Hutchie, who was Execute in the Grass-market of Edinburgh, upon the 30th of August 1721, for the Murder of her own Child.” ESTC T193510, NLS, Ry.III.c.36(075).

 

“THE LAST SPEECH AND Dying Words OF JOHN TREPLECOCK, Who was execute in the Grassmarket of Edinburgh, on Friday the 1st of February 1723.”, NLS, Ry.III.c.36(093).

“The last Speech and dying Words of Margaret Millar, Coal-bearer at Colden-cleugh who was execute 10. February 1726 at the Gibbet of Dalkeith, for Murdering her own Child.” ESTC T231873, NLS, RB.I.106(119).

 

“The last SPEECH and dying Words of Margaret Smith, in the Paroch of Combernauld, Who was Execute at Dumbarton on Friday the last Day of May, 1717, for Murdering her own Childe.” ESTC T193531, NLS, Ry.III.c.36(34j).

 

“THE LAST SPEECH CONFESSION and Dying WORDS of ANNE MACKIE who was Execute in the GRASS-MARKET of Edinburgh, on Wednesday the 11th of Sept. 1776 : For the horrid Murder of her own Child.”, Mitchell Library, C98677/311734, Vol.IV.446.

 

“THE LAST SPEECH Confession, and dying Words, of ANN MORISON, who was execute in the Grass-Market of Edinburgh, on the 7th of March, 1759. for the horrid Crime of murdering her own Child.” ESTC N471255, NLS, APS.4.201.06

 

“THE LAST SPEECH CONFESSION and Dying Words of James Plunkett, Who was Executed at the front of the Tolbooth of Glasgow, on Wednesday the […]th of January 1792, For the horrid crimes of street robbery and theft.”, ML, 311734 V1.56.

 

“The last SPEECH, Confession and dying Words of JEAN CAMERON, who was executed at Perth, the 19th of October, 1764. For the horrid Murder of her own Child” ESTC N477660, NLS, RB.I.238(3).

 

“The Last SPEECH CONFESSION, and Dying WORDS of MARGARET ADAM, Who was Executed at the Grass-Market of Edinburgh, upon the 2d Day of March 1774, for the Murder and Robbery of JANET McINTYRE, Shop-keeper in Glasgow.” ESTC N477628, NLS, RB.I.238(14).

 

 “THE LAST SPEECH CONFESSION and Dying WORDS OF MARGARET ADAM, who was Execute in the Grass-Market of Edinburgh, on Wednesday the 2d of March 1774. for the Bloody Murder of Janet McIntyre, Shop-keeper in Glasgow, and her Body given to Doctor Monro for dissection.”, Mitchell Library, SR347 311733, no number [between V1.23 and V1.25].

 

“THE LAST SPEECH, CONFESSION and WARNING, Of Margaret Dickson, who was Execute in the Grass-Mercat of Edinburgh, for the unnatural Murder of her Own Child, on Wednesday the 2d of September 1724.” ESTC T193695, NLS, Ry.III.c.36(94).

 

“The last SPEECH, Confession and dying words of SARAH CAMERON, who was execute at Stirling on Friday the 29th of October 1784, and her body given to the doctors to be dissected, for the murder of her own child.” ESTC N477652, NLS, RB.I.238(18).

 

“Th[e l]ast Speech Confession & dying words of MARGARET NEIL, who was execute at Stirling on Friday the 19th of Novr. 1784, for the crimes of theft and house-breaking.” ESTC 477688, NLS RB.I.238(59).

 

“THE LAST SPEECH OF Elisabeth (alias Elspeth) Blacky, who for Murthering her own Child. was Executed at Jedburgh, May 27, 1718.” ESTC T193698, NLS, Ry.III.c.36(41).

 

“The last Words and Declaration of Jannet Shank, Who was Eecute in the Grass mercat of Edinburgh, upon the 7 day of February, 1711 for the Crime of Child-Murder.” ESTC N471291, NLS, 6.318(28).

 

“THE SECOND SPEECH Of MARGARET ADAM. OR. A Full and Particular ACCOUNT of the manner of her Execution, Behaviour on the Scaffold, and Dying Words to her Friends, and those good Christians who attended her in her last Moments. With an account of JAMES BROUN’s Reprieve.”, Mitchell Library, SR347 311733, Vol.1.32.

 

 

 

 

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Universiteit of Hogeschool
Master in de Geschiedenis
Publicatiejaar
2018
Promotor(en)
Prof. dr. Johan Verberckmoes
Kernwoorden