Collections > UNC Chapel Hill Undergraduate Honors Theses Collection > "Unnatural Mother": Race, Gender, and Infanticide in the Nineteenth Century

My research focuses on North Carolina’s nineteenth century infanticide cases and uses them to shed light on bigger issues regarding race, gender, slavery, patriarchy, and law. By focusing on these different aspects, my work builds on previous studies of infanticide. One of the earliest works on this subject was Peter Hoffer and N.E. Hull’s study of infanticide in New England in the years between 1558 and 1803. They quantitatively analyzed data in order to understand the dynamics that caused women to murder their own children. In searching for those influences, Hoffer and Hull wanted to understand why courts began to acquit more women in the eighteenth century as compared to the sixteenth and seventeenth century. They used the law to explain those dire questions and did not give much weight to the women’s circumstances that could have influenced their decision to kill their children. However, Hoffer and Hull did find that women were generally acquitted in the eighteenth century. I show that this pattern continued in the nineteenth century and was not a crime that was unique to New England; instead infanticide instances and rare convictions were also seen in many northern and southern states.