What could cause a mother to kill her child?
Though cases of mothers committing filicide are likely as old as history itself, the kind of punishment these women receive afterward has varied across time and in different societies around the world. Even today, public reaction over stories such as that of Susan Smith and Andrea Yates has ranged from shock and disbelief to calls for their execution. While postpartum psychosis and mood disorder are being increasingly recognized in these cases, treating filicidal mothers as mental patients rather than as murderers is still a relatively recent phenomenon.
Which brings us to the case of Dorothy Talbye...
Life tended to be hard for women living in 17th-century Massachusetts. Along with the widespread belief in witchcraft and demonic possession shared by the deeply religious residents of cities such as Salem and Boston, laws provided little protection for wives dealing with overly brutal or dominating husbands. Women who dared to criticize their husbands or resist their authority in any way risked being placed in stocks or even publicly whipped as "common scolds" or "shrews." Part of the problem was the widespread belief that women were especially vulnerable to being led astray by Satan, something clergymen frequently declared in their regular sermons.
Even many of the religious books published in that era spoke about how women were responsible for "original sin" (thanks, Eve). William Perkin's 1596 book, A Discourse on the Damned Art of Witchcraft, was downright lyrical in condemning women. "“In all ages it is found … that the devil hath more easily and oftener prevailed with women than with men," he wrote. "T”he more women, the more witches.”
Relatively little is know about Dorothy Talbye's early life though she was later described as being "of good esteem for godliness." Along with her husband, she was a regular church goer and lived an unremarkable life. But everything changed in 1636 when her daughter, Difficulty, was born. For reasons that remain lost to history, Dorothy Talbye suddenly began experiencing emotional problems which made her increasingly moody and aggressive. According to the diary of Massachusetts Governor, John Winthrop, Dorothy's bizarre behaviour put her at odds with her husband and her church. She was described as "falling at differences with her husband, through melancholy or spiritual delusions, she sometimes attempted to kill him, and her children, and herself by refusing meat saying it was revealed to her, etc."
Since she failed to improve despite efforts by her church leaders, she was formally "cast out" of the church. If anything though, learning that she had been excommunicated made her even more uncontrollable. After several more incidents involving her husband and children, Dorothy was then charged to appear before the magistrate in 1637 after being accused of assaulting her husband. She was initially sentenced to be bound and chained to a post and later that same year, was sentenced to be whipped over new offenses directed at her husband. The flogging appeared to do the trick and Dorothy began obeying her husband again, at least for a while.
In November 1638, Dorothy Talby killed her three-year-old daughter, Difficulty by breaking her neck. Though she freely admitted committing the horrific crime when first arrested, she refused to say anything at her arraignment hearing. Colonial law being they way it was at the time, the governor eventually grew tired of her refusal to speak and threatened to have her pressed to death unless she confessed. Realizing she had no alternative, Dorothy admitted to the murder and stated that she killed her daughter to "free it from future misery." Throughout her trial, she said nothing more in her defense and mostly refused to cooperate with the court for any reason.
At the time of the trial, there was no such thing as an insanity defense though it would be adopted under Massachusetts law not long afterward. Though people with severe mental illness were typically locked up in asylums to prevent them from harming themselves or anyone else, Governor Winthrop seemed disinclined to show any kind of mercy for Dorothy Talbye. As he later wrote about her in his journal, she committed the murder, not due to insanity, but because "she was so possessed with Satan, that he persuaded her (by his delusions, which she listened to as revelations from God) to break the neck of her own child."
In the eyes of the Governor and the court, the death sentence was the only acceptable option in Dorothy's case. By all accounts, she showed little real emotion on being told she would be hanged for her crime and said nothing to suggest that she was sorry for what she had done. She did ask to be beheaded instead of hanged, arguing that it would be less painful or shameful, but her request was denied. On the day of her execution, Dorothy Talbye had to be dragged to the gallows where she refused to stand. Her pastor and several other clergymen went with her hoping to provide some sort of comfort at the end but she refused any last minute rites. She even refused to wear the black hood that was standard for condemned prisoners. Instead, she took off the hood and used it to make the noose more comfortable for her. The actual hanging was a horrible sight since this was long before the use of the "Marwood drop" in which the gallows simply broke the condemned person's neck. Dorothy Talbye was fully conscious as she slowly strangled to death (she even tried to grab the gallows ladder as she was swinging). She was then declared dead.
So, why was Dorothy Talbye punished so severely? While infanticide is a horrible crime, the courts have always had a fair bit of latitude in sentencing. When Mercy Brown of Wallingford, Massachusetts killed her son in 1691, she also went on trial for her life but was treated much more humanely than Dorothy was. Not only was sentencing delayed because of her "distracted" state, but she eventually received a prison sentence since she was regarded as mentally unfit. In Mercy Brown's case however, she was openly remorseful and she also cooperated fully with the court, something Dorothy Talbye refused to do.
Instead of recognizing that her crime was due to mental illness, the courts saw her execution as an opportunity to "educate" other women about the consequences of acting "improperly", i.e., failing to be submissive and obedient as a good wife should. Dorothy Talbye's fate was sealed by her long history of "unwomanly" behaviour and her refusal to abide by the teachings of her church. Much as in the Salem witch trials which would take place years later, women of that era were expected to know their place.