Murderess, accomplice, or innocent? The ghost story of midwife Mrs Adkins

Next up in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is Francesca Farnell. Francesca is a first year PhD student at the University of Warwick, whose M4C-funded research focuses on female experience and the supernatural in early modern England. You can find her on twitter @frfarnell.

CONTENT WARNING: discussion of child death, including murder and stillbirths.

In 1680 a broadside entitled Great news from Middle-Row in Holbourn, or, A true relation of a dreadful ghost which appeared in the shape of one Mrs. Adkins was published. It recounted events that had taken place a year prior in which, as the title so succinctly suggests, the ghost of Mrs Adkins, a deceased former midwife, returned to once again walk the earth.

pic 1

Great news from Middle-Row in Holbourn, or, A true relation of a dreadful ghost (1680), Early English Books Online.

Her ghost, with an apparent flare for the dramatic, appeared to a maidservant in full glory as ‘with gastly Countenance [she] seemed to belch flames of Fire’. Declaring that she’d no intention to harm the maidservant (flame-throwing eructation notwithstanding), Adkins commanded the maid to dig up the hearth and bury whatever she should find underneath before disappearing with a flash of lightening.[i]

The hearth was excavated and the bones of two children discovered. Having been buried there for many years, the prevailing theory as to the cause of death was that the children had been illegitimate and their lives subsequently cut short to save their mother’s reputations.

Clearly, this tale offers a lot to unpack. For starters, Great news can tell us much about contemporary anxieties concerning infanticide and the corresponding mistrust of midwives. In 1624 the Stuart government passed its Infanticide Act which inverted a crucial pillar on which the legal system was founded: the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. It decreed that an illegitimate child who had died must be presumed murdered, rather than stillborn, which placed the burden of proof solely on the mother. Should she lack sufficient evidence to confirm that her child had died naturally, she would be executed.

A baby has been left outside the town-house of an old bachelor, and a young woman watches from the corner of the street. Engraving, 1794. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

As well as casting mothers in a dubious light, midwives were also regarded with increasing wariness as the figures most likely to aid and abet an alleged murder. This distrust of midwives was fuelled by the gender exclusivity of their practise. The birthing chamber was both a physical space and sphere of influence into which very few men could foray. In early modernity, childbirth and childrearing rituals were female-controlled, but female authority sat rather uneasily in the patriarchal social order – just because something was considered ‘women’s work’ did not shield it from scrutiny. Considering that death (of the child, mother or both) was a dishearteningly common outcome of labour, a midwife’s practise could certainly seem suspect to anyone from the outside looking in – especially as their skills diverged significantly from the medical training of male physicians.

Even putting aside questions of infanticide, midwifery was still regarded with suspicion. For instance, more than a century before the publication of Great news, church visitations made a point of inquiring about midwives use of ‘witchcraft, charms, sorcery, invocations or prayers other than such as be allowable’ to soothe women’s contractions.[ii] Midwives were depicted by contemporary writers as unlearned, negligent and very susceptible to bribes. The apparent disreputable nature of their practise thus naturally translated into a presumed spiritual duplicity also. Add to this mix the culture of suspicion and accusation cultivated by the Infanticide Act and midwives became prime candidates for the role of ghosts seeking to clear a guilty conscience plagued by the death of a child.

However, Adkins’ exact role in Great News remains unclear. It is heavily implied that she was the murderer given that the bodies were buried in her house and it was she, not the mothers of the children, who returned as a ghost – a suggestion which has mostly gone unchallenged by scholars.[iii] Yet, although midwives could be implicated in children’s deaths, generally infanticide remained a crime more strongly associated with mothers. Moreover, in her appearance to the maidservant, Adkins never confessed to the crime itself but simply wished that the children could receive proper burial.

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A woman seated on a obstetrical chair giving birth aided by a midwife who works beneath her skirts. Woodcut. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Perhaps Adkins, in her capacity as midwife, had aided the disposal of the bodies but not been the perpetrator? Given that women suspected of such a crime frequently had their lodgings searched and were invariably sentenced to death if a body was found, Adkins may have offered her own home as an impromptu burial site to divert suspicion from the mother. Or were Adkins and the mother innocent, forced to conceal the children’s natural deaths for fear of being accused of murder? While Adkins may have been able to testify to the mother’s innocence had she witnessed the stillbirth first-hand, if the mothers had been delivered of their babies in private and Adkins arrived later, her testimony would have been void.

In many ways, it does not matter whether Adkins was murderess, accomplice or innocent, as her ‘Conscience of the Guilty soul’ prevented her from peaceful rest regardless. What’s more, these suggestions are not intended to clear her of any wrongdoing. However, they are, for what it’s worth, an invitation to reflect on the ways in which infanticide narratives are constructed in popular sources such as these.

As a result of the Infanticide Act, women were presumed guilty of murdering their own children. In Great news Adkins is similarly presumed guilty by virtue of what was found in her hearth and the ghost’s remorse. Vitally though, feelings of guilt do not make someone guilty. In accepting this version of events, in many ways we risk reproducing the very same prejudiced mechanisms by which women’s guilt was determined. By rejecting it, we’re reminded of the multifaceted motivations, emotional turmoil and legal dangers that women faced when they became mothers to illegitimate children – and especially to stillborn babies in post-1624 England. In making a claim for Adkins’ innocence, or at the very least for a more complex character than what the narrative grants her, we find an opportunity to consider these actors in a flawed but more human light – even when they’re ghosts.

[i] Anonymous, Great news from Middle-Row in Holbourn, or, A true relation of a dreadful ghost which appeared in the shape of one Mrs. Adkins to several persons, but especially to a maid-servant at the Adam and Eve, all in a flame of fire on Tuesday-night last, being the 16th of this instant March, 1679, (1680). Accessible through Early English Books Online.

[ii] See Edward Cardwell, Documentary Annals of the Reformed Church of England Being a Collection of Injunctions, Declarations, Orders, Articles of Inquiry, &c. from the Year 1546 to the Year 1716, Vol. 1 (1844), p. 165.

[iii]  Lisa Smith, writing about the broadside on the blog Wonders & Marvels entitled her post ‘The Ghost of a Murderous Midwife’ and seems to concur with contemporary conclusions that Adkins was the murderer. Laura Gowing is somewhat more cautious but nonetheless agrees that Adkins is guilt. See Lisa Smith, ‘The Ghost of a Murderous Midwife’, Wonders and Marvels (Publ. Sept. 2012); Laura Gowing, Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven, 2003), p. 149.

Find out more:

Josephine Billingham, Infanticide in Tudor and Stuart England (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019)

Hilary Marland (ed.), The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives in Europe (London: Routledge, 2005)

Thomas Rogers Forbes, The Midwife and the Witch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966)

Mark Jackson, Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, 1550-2000 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2018)

Anne-Marie Kilday, A History of Infanticide in Britain, C. 1600 to the Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

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