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.
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.Continue reading