Neonaticide: murder of a child one day old or younger. Infanticide: murder of a child less than one year old by their parent. Filicide: murder of child older than one year old by their parent.
While women commit just 13% of all US violent crime, they are responsible for half of all child murders.
Many filicidal mothers have frequent depression, psychosis and suicidal thoughts and manifest one of five common motives:
a) Mother kills child out of love or for child’s best interest, possibly saving their children from future “harm” or “evil.” AKA Altruistic Filicide.
b) Mother kills child without any cognition or memory of her motive. May be responding to voices in her head. AKA Acutely Psychotic Filicide.
c) Child dies as the result of abuse or neglect.
d) Mothers kills child because child is unwanted.
e) Spousal Revenge Filicide
(See Friedman and Resnick)
I think there is little doubt AMB was mentally unbalanced and not just because she hacked through her daughter’s windpipe. What are the psychic wounds any person would sustain by being orphaned, seeing people die of horrible diseases and starvation, witnessing war, leaving one’s home country and having their husband die? Therefore, I am not a fan of making AMB a raving lunatic living amidst the tranquil Plymouth community. I believe all Pilgrims underwent relentless psychological trauma. Maybe Alice represents the furthest edge of the community’s psyche – one eventually broken by living the Pilgrim dream?
In other words, Alice’s only rational response to such tragic and erosive conditions was to be traumatized and that might have contributed to a not entirely-unexpected psychic break. Hoffer and Hull, who wrote extensively on English infanticide, claim that economic pressures, lean harvests and community uncertainty were correlated with increased filicide in sixteenth century England. There are more than a dozen reported cases of infanticide/filicide in early colonial Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts where living conditions, perhaps, generated similar, secondary motives. Friedman and Resnick studied contemporary murdering mothers and found Alice’s life written in them: “The mothers were often poor, socially isolated, full-time caregivers, who were victims of domestic violence or had other relationship problems. Disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and primary responsibility for the children were common.”
Other experiences and attributes regularly found in filicidal mothers:
- Endless child care and enduring baby’s crying/primary caregiver status
- Underlying mental illness
- Intellectual disabilities
- Belief child was abnormal
- Experience auditory hallucinations
Any one (or multiple) of these could have been AMB’s experience. Because she did not kill an infant, I think it more likely she was committing altruistic or psychotic filicide but we cannot rule out that she was a rage-fueled child abuser either. We do not have records that Abigail and Damaris were abused but that does not mean it did not happen.
I have discussed this case with my good friend, Patricia L. High, former Assistant District Attorney for Oklahoma County who has seen more than her fair share of terrorizing mothers. Automatically, Pattye believes AMB is a pissed off mother intent on ridding herself of that ungrateful Abigail who has, once again, done something unforgiveable like wet the bed. Pattye’s experience is that mothers critically, even fatally, injure their children much more from places of rage and intent than from psychosis and voices in their heads.
I try to believe that because I don’t want to be an AMB apologist. Martha died and did so savagely. There are no heirs of Martha to tell her side of the story. Certainly, there was nothing this four year-old child could have done to justify her slaughter.
But applying modern definitions and experiences of child abuse will not slip seamlessly in seventeenth century Plymouth. Take Pattye’s bed wetting theory. Would Alice hack her child to death for wetting a straw- filled bed in a community where clothes went weeks, even months, soiled and smelly? By the evidence records we have, Martha was sleeping when she was killed – she had not spilled a pot from the stove, not hurt her little sister, not smart mouthed her mother. She slept and Alice looked up, went for the knife and then climbed the ladder.
I think this scenario demonstrates intent. For whatever unfathomable reason, AMB knew she needed to kill Martha. That does not mean she was “in her right mind” at the moment or had any explanation for why she did it, only profound regret afterward (which the evidence record does indicate). While she may have known what she was doing at the moment that does not mean that in the next moment, when she returned to a rational state, she wished she had never killed her child.
In England, prior to the 18th century, mothers were pardoned in court because they were known to be insane or intellectually challenged. “Madness, not a medical term but a legal one, did not ‘excuse’ a homicide, but averted the death penalty” (Hoffer, 146). Therefore, insanity was not so much a successful defense strategy but rather a way to save a mother from execution during sentencing.
This does not seem to be the case in the American colonies. Take, for example, the case of Dorothy Talbye who was hanged in 1639 Boston for the murder of her three year-old child. It sounds remarkably similar to AMB’s case. Except everyone knew Talbye was mentally ill because she had previously attempted to kill her children as well as her husband. Talbye had been exiled form the church and publicly whipped – each to no avail. As Governor Winthrop recalled her, “she was so possessed with Satan that he persuaded her by his delusions, which she listened to as revelations from God.” Note how the existence of her mental illness is not questioned and yet, it could not justify her actions (Hoffer, 41). Furthermore, even if the jurors believed Talbye was in the grips of Satan, there was no saving her – only saving the community’s exposure to one snatched by the Devil (Hoffer, 41).
If anyone had noticed Alice being mentally unstable, it would not have helped her much either. All of this, legally, is a moot point. Judges found all forms of filicide “threats to the entire community” (Hoffer, 40) and punished it severely. The M’Naughten standard which would be the foundation piece of our modern insanity defense was centuries away from American courtroom practice.
The AMB case’s greatest questions will be those that begin with “Why?” And I do not expect we will ever have complete answers. We can only remain aware of the context that shaped Alice’s beliefs and experiences. It is always unimaginable when a woman murders those to which she gave birth. We presume every child is cherished and that every woman is hardwired to love childrearing above all other acts. Neither one is true. Filicide severs these quaint notions from us.