Stigma, injustice, and misery: Shining a light on our dark, unjust past

A study undertaken by Shepparton campus history students ten years ago, reveals a disturbing world of sexual assault, backyard abortions, incest, and infanticide in the lives of Shepparton district women in the late 19th century.

Ten years ago a group of female history students at Shepparton's La Trobe University campus produced a two-month study into the lives of Shepparton district women in the late 19th century. The study, based on court records and newspaper reports, revealed a disturbing world of sexual assault, backyard abortions, incest, and infanticide.

For one student, the stories proved so compelling she continued digging into the past for more details about these women's cases. John Lewis talked to teacher and Shepparton-based Masters student Sara Cartwright about her decade of research into the lives of working class country women and girls who struggled to access justice under the double yoke of sexual assault and a male-dominated legal system.

Annie Gifford was a 15-year-old servant girl when she gave birth in a Toolamba paddock alone and in the darkness of a December night in 1881.

Annie was found in the early morning at a nearby water tank by Thomas Fleming on his way to work at the Toolamba sawmills. Thomas drew a bucket of water for Annie and helped her carry it back to the house of her employers Mr and Mrs McSweeney.

Not long after, William McSweeney found the body of a dead baby girl on his way to work at the sawmills. Disturbingly, the baby had suffered cuts and bruises and it was found with a stick in its throat.

This sad tale was recounted in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser in February 1882 after Annie was placed in the dock at Sandhurst Assizes in Bendigo charged with infanticide.

Annie denied killing her baby, saying it had been moved from where she left it. Her defence argued that roaming pigs could have disturbed the body. She was eventually acquitted because it could not be proved who or what had placed the stick in the infant's mouth.

That is the last we hear of 15-year-old Annie Gifford. History does not record who her parents were or if she received any support from them or her employer. Neither does the court make any mention of the male responsible for her pregnancy.

In his summing up remarks His Honor Mr Justice Higginbotham hoped the lesson young Annie had learned "would be sufficient to make her a good citizen".

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The story of Annie Gifford is just one of many uncovered by teacher and Shepparton's La Trobe University Masters of Research student Sara Cartwright during 10 years of research into infanticide in regional Victoria during the late 19th century.

Ms Cartwright said the societal burdens on young and unwed mothers in the late 1800s was so great that many contemplated late term or backyard abortions, sometimes resulting in the death of the mother.

“Others committed infanticide, rather than having to face the stigma and shame of raising a child out of wedlock,” she said.

“While infanticide is not particularly common now, it does still happen, and without the right research we are unable to know how to help these women and how to prevent it happening,” she said.

Ms Cartwright said she began her research with two other La Trobe students a decade ago under the title "Sex, Crime and Scandal".

Initially, her research centred on the grim 1889 case of the incestuous relationship between William McCarron and his daughter Jane from Kaarimba. William and Jane were charged with the murder of multiple babies. Police statements described finding bags with the bones of four infants buried beneath rose bushes and a deceased newborn infant in a bag on the back of a horse cart.

Jane was sentenced to 12 months, while her father William received five years.

Other cases uncovered by Ms Cartwright either through public records or newspaper reports included:

Elizabeth Hyde, Shepparton (1880):

Elizabeth, born 1862, was charged with concealment of birth and sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment after her deceased infant was found floating in a bag in the Goulburn River in Shepparton. She later went on to marry George Lucas and had three daughters who lived long and healthy lives.

Emily Williams (Johnstone), Numurkah (1887):

Emily from Shepparton was newly arrived in Numurkah and was a servant working at a boarding house known as "Wilkinson’s Dining Rooms". Nobody suspected she was pregnant, however when she became confined she was helped to dispose of the infant by the business owner, Mrs Gherardin. It is currently unknown what her sentence was.

Josephine Roustan, Ballarat (1881):

Josephine succumbed to pressure from her father who insisted she must not feed her illegitimate child. Eventually she drowned the child while attempting to drown herself, but was unable to hold herself under the water for long enough. She was acquitted of the crime when her defence said she suffered “puerperal mania" or insanity caused by childbirth. Josephine's mother attempted suicide in the same body of water soon after, but was discovered by a neighbour.

Ms Cartwright said three years after this case, a newspaper reported that while Josephine's first illegitimate child had died, her second illegitimate child had also died under suspicious circumstances.

“The media made sure to mention the children were both illegitimate, which supports the argument that women with illegitimate children were treated poorly by the media,” Ms Cartwright said.

Grace Ann Buckingham, Ballarat (1881):

Grace was jailed for two months for the murder of her illegitimate child after she gave birth and buried her baby in the garden. She was reported to the police by a neighbour who had noticed that she was looking "a lot thinner" only a few days after she had last seen her, and reported her as having been confined. When she was examined by a doctor she was found to have breast milk, and was accused of having a child which could not be found.

Elizabeth (Emily) Chin Newey, Ballarat (1881):

Elizabeth was a domestic servant for a Chinese family in the Chinese Camp at Ballarat. Her parents also lived in the camp and her father, suspecting her condition, had threatened to kill her if she was "confined". Elizabeth birthed a living child and threw the baby in the Llanberris dam where the baby was discovered by passers-by. Elizabeth was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment for her crime.

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Ms Cartwright, 39, is a mother of three and an English, Humanities and Religion teacher at St Mary of the Angels in Nathalia.

She said after a decade of research, she was still emotionally affected by the stories she had uncovered of 19th century women, and the continuing stigma surrounding illegitimacy and postnatal depression.

“I have three wonderful kids, and I can’t imagine ever having thought about committing a crime such as infanticide,” she said.

“I do feel for the women today who suffer from postnatal depression, or who are forced into a situation that is too much for them.

“And that’s why this research is so important. Awareness is key, and finding out why women still, to this day, have to put up with the judgement of others around being a single mother, and preventing some of that anxiety that they might feel because of it, is really important to me.”

Ms Cartwright said she faced negative judgement in 2003 when she told her grandmother she was pregnant.

“Her immediate reaction was one of distaste, and she asked me, “well, are you married?” If my grandmother, who was born in the early 1900s, could have been brought up with this attitude towards unmarried mothers, then I hesitate to think how her mother would have reacted. These attitudes still exist,” she said.

She hoped her research would not only shed light on the difficulties faced by women in the past, but also help to fight continuing negative attitudes.

“These women were victims just as much as villains.

“They had no support and had to face unwanted pregnancy alone. Abortions weren’t safe, or affordable for working-class women, and the stigma was too much to bear for many.

“If we can find out more about infanticide or concealment of birth, and the reasons behind why these women committed these crimes, it will go a long way to preventing it from happening today. We learn about history so that we don’t make the same mistakes – this is no different,” she said.

Ms Cartwright said she was keen to hear from any living relatives of the women mentioned in her research. She can be contacted at s.cartwright@latrobe.edu.au

Anyone emotionally affected by these stories can contact Lifeline on 13 14 44 or National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counselling Line on 1800 737 732.

This article first appeared in Shepparton News, 8th March 2021