Unwanted pregnancies in the 19th Century led to one of two outcomes, 1) the baby was born illegitimately 2) in extreme cases women took things into their own hands. Abortion was illegal in Canada until 1968/69 and since 1988 now law has existed in Canada on the topic – though conceivable that abortion as sought out by women in the 19th Century it would have been difficult and dangerous and if discovered could have led to legal issues likely for both the woman seeking the abortion and the person performing the abortion.
In my research I have come across many instances in church records where illegitimate children are being baptised and their “status” is noted – no more is this more apparent than in Catholic Church records. An examination of just the first month of January 1857 at St. Mary’s Basilica shows that there were four baptisms of children who were born out of wedlock.
In extreme cases infanticide took place and one such case is that of Mary Slaughenwhite, aged 26 of St. Margaret’s Bay who was arrested for the act of infanticide at her residence on Woodill Street in January 1898. Here is her story:
The Evening Mail, 24 January 1898 – Case of Infanticide
Mary Slaughenwhite, aged 26, is under arrest charged with concealment of birth. The accused is a very good looking girl, and came to Halifax from St. Margaret’s Bay. She formerly stopped at the residence of Morris, the absconder. When Morris left the city Mary Slaughenwhite went to her home in St. Margaret’s Bay. It is alleged that a few days ago she was turned from her home and was taken bin by a friend who lives in the vicinity of Merklesfield, where she became a mother. She placed her infant in her trunk and subsequently moved to 12 Woodill Street. The case was reported to Detective Power, who, after making enquiries, sent a cabman to 12 Woodill street, and on Saturday evening had the trunk removed to the police station. Medical Examiner Finn was sent for, and the trunk was broken open in the presence of the doctor and Detective Power. The child’s body was found in the trunk. Dr. Finn stated that the child had been born alive. The mother was sent to the poor asylum and will be arraigned in the police court as soon as her condition permits. Medical Examiner Finn filed his report with Stipendiary Fielding this morning. It is as follows:
“I have enquired into the circumstances attending the death of the female child of Mary Slaughenwhite. at Halifax, the date of the said death being unknown to me. I have examined the body of the said child and performed an autopsy thereon. I have appended a report of said autopsy to this document. From the circumstances attending the case, I deem it advisable to order an investigation before the Stipendiary magistrate of Halifax into the circumstances attending said death. I am of the opinion that the said child came to her death by foul means.”
The report of the autopsy annexed to the report showed that all of the organs of the body had been in a normal state, and that air found in the lungs showed that the child had lived after it had been born. It was stated that evidence has been obtained which will tend to show that the child was alive when it was placed in the trunk, and that it died from suffocation.
A sad story for both the child and for Mary Slaughenwhite. I am sure further research would be able to tell us what happened to Mary – a review of court records, the police reports and any other legal documents that might still be available. These types of stories, though sad, provide a mountain of details into the daily lives of our ancestors and should not be discarded or forgotten.