In 1873 a court in Buenos Aires, deciding an infanticide case, was asked to consider whether the tortures that Dante had described in his Inferno had been any greater than María Iguerra’s torture of having to exchange the life of her child for her honor. Married, María had had a child by another man. After much indecision about what to do with her illegitimate son, she had drowned him in a well, hoping thereby to eliminate her shame and reestablish an honorable position for herself as a wife and possible future mother.1 María’s internal conflict and ultimate decision reveal the centralitv of the construct of honor and shame and the ideal of maternity for late nineteenth-century Argentina. Infanticide cases such as María’s allow us to explore the personal context of honor and maternity; that is, the values and behavior encouraged in women, as well as the broader context of women’s lives as they intersected with the disciplining forces of society.2

Honor and maternity often became the central points of argument in these cases precisely because infanticide was defined as a crime of dishonor and the quintessential crime against motherhood. According to Argentine law, infanticide was the killing, through either negligence or violence, of a child by its mother “in order to hide her dishonor.”3 The penalty was imprisonment for three to six years, a considerably lighter sentence than those for other forms of homicide. This leniency reflected in part Argentina’s stage of development and the influence of foreign legal codes and cultural models. Clemency and concern for legitimate maternity were seen as marks of more “modern” attitudes.4 Legal codes that incorporated these attitudes fit well with Argentina’s goal of establishing itself as one of the world’s “civilized” nations.5 The penal code of 1887, which replaced fixed penalties with a range of penalties for crimes, gave judges the flexibility in infanticide cases to take honor, shame, and maternal sentiment more into account in their deliberations. References to civilization and modernity appear frequently not only in this code hut also in the criminal investigations themselves, where judges, lawyers, witnesses, and the accused were enjoined to think and act in “modern,” “rational,” and “scientific” ways in conjunction with Argentina’s efforts to break from its “barbaric” past.

The thoroughness of these investigations reflects in part that desire to use reason and science to determine a woman’s motives and the extenuating circumstances of her crime. The cases studied number between 50 and 100 pages each and include the repeated interrogations of the accused and witnesses, lengthy medical and autopsy reports, arguments of the prosecutor and the defense lawyer—who was usually a public defender—and the judge’s rationale for the sentence imposed. Investigations normally lasted 6 to 12 months, during which women’s employers and landlords, fellow workers and renters, family members, the arresting police officer, neighbors, repairmen, midwives, and doctors were called to testify.

While at this stage of research only tentative hypotheses about longterm trends can be made, the rich discussions of social themes, mentalities, sentiments, and prejudices remain important for understanding Argentine society in the late nineteenth century. The discussions of honor and maternity in these documents reflect not just the prescriptions of laws and courts but also the dialogue between the various protagonists. That dialogue crossed class lines and professional boundaries. This is not as strange as it might appear, for the very biases that often distorted these cases were frequently a product of the broader value system of society, and thus reflected in practice what can be found in other sources as theory, ideal, or even ideology.

Although the cases contain much detail and many layers of meaning, their number is small, because infanticide frequently went unreported. The period 1871–1905 includes 25 reported cases, spread fairly evenly over the time span. The average is 1.6 cases per year, which corresponds closely to the number of reported cases in other studies. References to higher levels of infanticide in the press, the courts, and institutional records provide a strong basis for speculation that the incidence was higher than reported. Although the archives for the period may contain as many as three hundred more cases in files yet to be opened, those cases will most likely follow the same bias in collection as the cases examined here, which already reflect a number of clear and revealing patterns.6 In turn, while these eases presumably involved only a small subset of those who committed infanticide, it is important to look at how their discussions apply to general themes that affected a much broader group of women.

The protagonists found here reflect Buenos Aires’ unique mix of Old and New World populations and ideas and its rapid growth in the late nineteenth century. A sizable influx of European immigrants, especially Italians and Spaniards, and Argentines from the interior swelled the population.7 Among the women accused in these cases were seven newly arrived European immigrants and three so-called indigenous women from the interior.

Interestingly, 22 of the 25 reported cases involved servants, the majority of whom were unmarried and between 15 and 25 years old.8 As in other studies of infanticide and abandonment, females predominated among the victims. Fifteen of the infants were girls and eight were boys; in two cases the sex was unknown. The cause of death was most often asphyxiation by submersion or strangulation. Twelve of the 20 women convicted of infanticide received sentences in the 3-to 6-year range, with 9 women receiving the suggested average sentence of 4½ years in prison. Three women received sentences of less than 3 years; 5, sentences of more than 6 years; and 5 were acquitted. Most frequently it was women’s employers, landlords, and fellow servants, and occasionally even their own relatives—that is, the people closest to the suspects—who reported the crime to the police.

In court, these women almost never described their remorse in terms of regret for having killed, but rather in terms of their dishonor, the expectation of certain “civil” or “social death” if it became publicly known that they had had an illegitimate child. Defense lawyers argued that this publie loss of honor made the criminal investigation itself more than sufficient punishment, and that the sentence should be left to God.9 Honor, it seems, far from losing importance in Argentina’s more “progressive” and “modern” late nineteenth century, actually became more crucial.10 Significantly, as seen in infanticide cases, one form of this honor deemed so important to society and the nation was female honor. Furthermore, this was female honor of the lower classes rather than of the elite.

The Burden of Proving Honor

For an accused woman, then, the first objective was to establish that she was an honorable person by demonstrating that she had shame. Shame about being an illegitimate mother was viewed as a good sentiment, even when it led to murder. Witnesses, lawyers, and judges complimented accused women for showing an understanding of their shame. Juana Larramendia, a 24-year-old French Basque cook, for example, was characterized by her lawyer in 1871 as having killed her child knowing that otherwise “dishonor would enclose [her] forever, prohibiting her from enjoying the honored and tranquil life of the family.” She was unmarried and alone, and had killed her child by “pressing on its neck and then hiding it in her bed.” The “family life” referred to could have been either that of her employer or one of her own that she might have wanted to establish in the future as a wife and mother. Thus, her rejection of motherhood in the present was sanctioned to allow for a more honorable and successful maternity in the future under the right conditions. The explanation that Juana had “killed her baby for shame—an honorable sentiment” did not elicit disbelief and scorn in court. It did draw a challenge from the prosecutor, however, about the authenticity of her sense of honor. Charging that Juana had acted on a “false sentiment of honor,” he called for a substantially more severe sentence than normal, which was upheld by the judge.11

Indeed, more was involved than asserting shame. Juana and other women accused of infanticide, in order to establish that they had honor and recognized their dishonor, had to show that they had concealed their pregnancy, the birth, and the child. Their families, employers, and neighbors would report that they had strongly suspected that the women were pregnant but could not be sure because the women had denied it, had worn loose outer clothing and corsets, and had explained that they were “fat by nature” or “had grown fat due to irregular periods.”12 Even as the women lay ill and bloody immediately after giving birth, they continued to blame faulty menstruation. They maintained that they had “hemorrhaged” due to an “onslaught of menstrual blood,” or alternatively that the hemorrhage had resulted from becoming overly “enraged.”13 Concealment, of course, was not only a legal “requisite” for demonstrating that the necessary sense of dishonor existed; it was also necessary to avoid losing one’s job and reputation.

The place women most often chose for a secret birth and concealment of the child was the water closet. Many accidental births took place there, which gave women a good defense and a reason to assert that they had accidentally lost their child while using the toilet. Women also often used the water closet because it was one of the few places where they could legitimately be alone without creating too much suspicion. The water closet most commonly stood at the hack of a house or off a patio, and it seems to have been widely in use throughout the middle and upper classes of Buenos Aires. Material was flushed down refuse pipes with the aid of wooden sticks or poles, which police introduced later as evidence in infanticide cases. Women’s preference for the water closet provided moralists with the opportunity to make uncharitable associations. Commenting on the frequency with which newborns were discovered in toilets, a nineteenth-century European jurist postulated an “intimate link between the corruption of a woman who kills her child and the place where the child is thrown.” The woman’s soul, he remonstrated, is “black and dirty like the latrine, a putrid heap that taints, makes one nauseous, and horrifies.”14 Such attitudes were heavy reenforcers of women’s shame and dishonor.

At the same time that women had to fulfill demands of honor by concealing the child’s existence—which obviously was not in the child’s best interest—society expected them to show motherly love and concern for their child. This was understandable at a time when society’s insistence on the importance of motherhood and children was increasing. While the accused women could admit that their sense of honor had overcome their “natural maternal instincts,” they still had to display some maternal feeling, either before the birth or after, to qualify as women worthy of clemency. A woman’s failure to fulfill her role as a mother when driven by a deep sense of honor could be tolerated, but her rejection of the sentiment associated with motherhood could not. The cook Juana Larramendia, for example, was excluded from the clemency of the infanticide law when the court decided that she had “violated the strongest human sentiments in the name of passion and bad motives.” She had reportedly calculated the “cost of breast-feeding” against the life of her child. The prosecutor’s argument that her unfeeling calculation, rather than honor and maternal sentiment, had been the motivation for her crime convinced the judge that for Juana a mitigated sentence was inappropriate, and he sentenced her to 15 years in prison.15 Juana’s was the harshest sentence found in this group of cases. To want to kill one’s child and to have motherly feelings toward it were difficult emotions to present as compatible, but that was the necessity for a successful defense.

Juana would have found herself in a more tenable position could she have established that she had demonstrated maternal sentiment in one or more of the three most acceptable ways: by gathering baby clothes, by preparing for the birth, or by cutting the umbilical cord. The gathering of baby clothes indicated a woman’s proper intentions toward her expected child. Agustina Coronel’s lawyer used this standard in 1898 to try to prove that his client had demonstrated maternal sentiment. A 22-year-old Argentine cook, Agustina, by her own account, had gone to the water closet to move her bowels. There she had accidentally given birth to a boy, who fell into the toilet. Unable to retrieve him and weakened, she returned to bed without telling anyone. Even though these circumstances were highly suspicious, her lawyer made the best of his client’s actions, focusing on the fact that she had prepared clothes for the child as a mother should. This suggested that she had intended to keep him and helped to earn her the average sentence.16

Pregnant women were also expected to make arrangements for someone to help with the birth. If they did not seek help and gave birth alone, they could be accused of refusing to take an interest in their future child and, by implication, of not wanting it to survive. The form of assistance most frequently asked about in these cases was that of the midwife, who could provide all the services necessary to uphold society’s moral standards. When Teresa Bishop de Bannecke, a 29-year-old Argentine servant, pregnant illegitimately, attempted to enlist the aid of a midwife in 1899, she was complimented for doing what “corresponds to a good mother.”17

The comment was favorable perhaps because Teresa apparently intended to let her child survive and because, with the midwife’s help, she could shed her dishonor and return to society, leaving neither her own nor others’ honor tainted. Her case came to court only when her plans fell through. Her lover, who was her employer’s brother and also a distant relative of hers, had given her 10 pesos to pay the midwife, but the midwife’s fee was 100 pesos. (It is unlikely the lover could have made such a mistake, because midwives’ fees seem to have been widely known among men.) The midwife refused Teresa’s next offer of trying to find 50 pesos, because it would not cover the cost of the extra bed she would have to buy to accommodate Teresa. Returning to her lover, Teresa asked for the rest of the money, but he refused. As a result, she had her daughter alone, the child died, and she received a sentence of 4½ years.18

After birth, the primary concern was whether the new mother had “performed the most elemental act of motherly love,” that of cutting and tying off her child’s umbilical cord. Tearing off the cord or leaving it untied was a common cause of newborns’ bleeding to death. In 1903 Cesarina Almada, a 21-year-old Argentine servant, did not tie off her son’s umbilical cord before she abandoned him in a trunk to hide her dishonor from her employers. The medical report stated that since the child bore no signs of violence, it must have died from lack of care. Taking advantage of this, Cesarina’s lawyer portrayed her not as having lacked maternal sentiment but as having been “ignorant of the precautions that should accompany birth,” and thus guilty at most of infanticide through imprudence. As her sentence of 6½ years shows, however, the case against her won out.19

The necessity of concealing pregnancy, birth, and child and simultaneously demonstrating maternal sentiment made women’s honor in infanticide cases a double-edged sword. Although proof of concealment could earn women the lesser accusation of infanticide rather than homicide, it also obliged them to admit that they probably had not intended to keep their child. An equally incriminating dilemma was that while worrying about secrecy, women had to engage in public acts in order to have proof of their maternal feelings. Procuring clothing or making arrangements for birth while attempting to hide the pregnancy would not only have been difficult but also logically seen as undermining the effort at secrecy. Securing clothing and aid, furthermore, would have been expensive and time-consuming, especially for servants. Teresa Bishop de Bannecke worked in a relative’s home and thus had a more flexible schedule. Nevertheless, she could not carry out her intention to give birth at a midwife’s because she lacked the money.20 It almost seems as if the legal requisites led to the entrapment of women. Honor, shame, and maternity, however, were serious issues in daily life, extending beyond the necessities of the law, defense, and prosecution and revealing society’s ambivalence about the important questions of illegitimacy, morality, and motherhood.

Just as personal honor spilled over into a much more public arena, affecting women’s families, employers, associates, and even indirectly the nation, so too did maternity come to be seen as much more than a familial pleasure or a biological strategy to maintain the population: the qualities of motherhood were considered to have a “purifying” effect on society as a whole. First, there was little question for most people that women’s “highest mission” was motherhood. Jurists, criminologists, public health experts, lawyers, and the religious press described motherhood as the only natural position and passion for women. They often called women who denied it “denaturalized.” Emphasizing the unnaturalness of infanticide, people labeled it a “monstrous” crime, “unbelievable in a mother.”21 Furthermore, the importance of maternal love to society was also a given, the “most lasting, intense, and disinterested of all the human affections.”22 Women accused of infanticide deserved society’s sympathy, it was even argued, because they had been deprived of their ability to express their natural maternal sentiment. Far from being antimaternal, contended lawyers, these women had deep maternal instincts that in normal circumstances would never have allowed them to kill their own children. Even the seemingly absurd assertion that infanticide was “not hatred but love” was accepted and used to protect women from harsher penalties.23 Such assertions were needed to reconcile the coexistence in the same woman of her sense of motherhood and her killing of her own child. Infanticide, then, concerned society as much for the reasons and passions involved in the denial of maternal sentiment as for the act of killing.

Instinctual Knowledge

In addition to demonstrating shame, concealment, and maternal love, women were expected to be familiar with reproduction. As with the previous requirements, failure to show this knowledge could incriminate women. One of the first lessons the young women in these cases learned was that a broad range of knowledge about their bodies was considered “instinctual” for women, or perhaps common female lore. Undoubtedly, women also had been thought to have such knowledge in previous eras, but in the late nineteenth century their responsibility for it seems to have increased. Interestingly, “indigenous” women’s lack of “civilization” was seen as a factor in what for other women were considered “natural” maternal instincts.24 In these cases, knowledge meant recognizing the difference between interrupted menstruation and pregnancy; bowel cramps and imminent birth; life and death in an infant; a fetus and a child carried to term; proper care of newborns and negligence.

Awareness of pregnancy was much less a given than might be supposed, because it could be confused with illness or menstrual problems. This confusion was not necessarily a ruse to obtain clemency, but was often real and rather common. Medical documentation for this “disease” is rare, but it does exist. In nineteenth-century Italy, for example, women accused of hiding pregnancy referred to a regularly diagnosed illness called madrazza, whose symptoms were interrupted menstruation and swelling of the stomach. As cures, women used herbal or yeast decoctions. They were well again, they felt, when they had experienced an emission of the blood that had been accumulating in their body due to the long period without menstruation; the blood clot was flushed down the toilet. What they had often experienced, it appears, was an abortion, spontaneous or induced by the medicines used to treat their “disease.”25

Information from these cases, compared with those of Argentine women who claimed to have thought they were ill rather than pregnant, indicates that the Argentine women’s symptoms closely resembled those of madrazza. A frequent remedy in the Argentine cases was a purgative of lemon, commonly suspected of being an abortive agent. Women often denied that they were pregnant, some undoubtedly out of ignorance of their condition. Society did not forgive them their lack of awareness, however, and pregnant women who drank purgatives could be held responsible as though they had committed a criminal act.

Even when a woman knew she was pregnant, it was still possible, according to medical treatises, that she could he surprised by the birth. The most common confusion here was between gas pains and bowel movements. Salomé Castro, a 20-year-old Argentine maid, was a first-time mother when she “lost” her child this way in 1872. Her lawyer pointed out that even loving mothers intending to save their newborns could lose them in this manner. Babies usually did not survive in these situations, but Salomé’s baby was saved, baptized, and sent to the foundling home. When Salomé learned that her child had survived, she reportedly expressed maternal love for it and repentance for having left it in the toilet; her lawyer argued that she therefore should receive a reduced sentence. The prosecutor, however, took a different view, maintaining that Salomé should have known about her body’s maternal “duties” by instinct. Any statement to the contrary, he said, was false, and she should he sentenced to five years.

The outcome of Salomé’s case is unknown, because she developed a headache that rendered her “nearly blind and deaf” and unable to sit up, and thus too ill to continue. She might well have eventually received the five-year sentence, because a police doctor called in on the case added a further subtlety to the argument of instinct. Even if Salomé had been ignorant of her physical state until the moment of birth, he maintained, the “material that follows birth makes a mother certain of what has happened.” This argument must have been generally accepted because, interestingly, Salomé’s own lawyer agreed. The biological act of giving birth, then, immediately should have enlightened any woman who was in doubt about her state because, as a woman, she automatically was supposed to have certain knowledge.26

Tying off the umbilical cord, one of the three principal ways to demonstrate maternal sentiment, was also part of the range of women’s assumed instinctual knowledge. This meant that a woman alone could be held responsible if she had not used such knowledge, and could be accused of shirking her responsibility as a mother. In this frequently successful argument, the woman was guilty at least of negligence and perhaps even of murder. Tying off the cord was a part of postpartum child care that, it was argued, “everyone knew was indispensable,” hut more important, that a “mother knew by instinct.” Cesarina Almada, who neglected to tie off her child’s umbilical cord before she left him in the trunk, was considered responsible for what was viewed as “the duties that nature [had imposed] on her character as a mother,” even though she had given birth alone and may well not have been in a physical and psychological condition to perform this operation. Cesarina’s neglect of her maternal duties formed almost the sole basis for the prosecutor’s successful case against her. Interestingly, the evidence that she had not just momentarily abandoned her child in the trunk but left it there until the body’s decomposition gave it away some 22 days later was apparently not as incriminating as her failure to tie off the umbilical cord. Rejecting what nature and instinct had taught her earned her the harsher 6½-year sentence.27

Not only did maternal instinct require women to have certain information, it also subjected them to “madnesses” specific to their maternal functions. Physicians posited the existence of “natural” periods of madness in a woman’s reproductive life. During pregnancy, doctors reported, some women tended “to steal,” behave in an “annoying” way, and generally be “evil.” After giving birth, and also before the monthly appearance of menstruation, especially between the fifth and the tenth day, women were subject to “puerperal madness,” characterized by “delirium, irritability, insomnia, and extreme anxiety.” Most important for the cases under examination here, infanticidal tendencies were thought to characterize the madness that could accompany labor. Doctors noted that this last “madness” originated from the physical pain of labor, but also from social causes, such as a clandestine birth, abandonment, poverty, and isolation.28

As might be imagined, society often suspected madness in infanticide cases, especially when “ferocious” acts of violence were committed against newborns. In 1899, doctors investigated Teresa De Michelli, a 25-year-old Italian maid, for the presence of madness. Teresa typified the experience of European women in these cases: she had arrived in Argentina already pregnant, spoke no Spanish, and did not seem to have been integrated into a supportive family and neighborhood of her own nationals. Teresa’s act of suffocating her newborn daughter, beheading it, and stuffing the body into a drain hole in the patio was classified as “of the most ferocious type,” and she was sentenced to 4½ years.

In 1903, after a strong hemorrhage that “disturbed her spirit,” Felipa Arce, a 27-year-old Argentine cook, crushed her child and beheaded it. Out of respect for her employers and without the time necessary to give birth at a hospital, she explained, the first thing that had occurred to her was to get rid of the baby. To this effect, she had “squeezed it hard with [her] hands and immediately slit its throat with a kitchen knife.” Felipa, like Teresa, received the average sentence.29 Madness was proposed to explain these atrocities because they seemed so contradictory to the maternal sentiment. Some “aberration,” legal experts believed, had to occur to cause the “canceling out” of motherly feelings.30

Illegitimacy and Responsibility

Alarmed by the denunciations of infanticide, one judge in 1898 recommended reestablishing the anonymous delivery system of the turntable at the foundling home, to encourage women to deposit their illegitimate children there rather than kill them,31 Besides the women’s obligations already described, society added the responsibility for illegitimacy. Illegitimacy and abandonment were perceived to be on the rise, resulting in increased infanticide.

Some judges and lawyers actually addressed their arguments to one of the root problems of illegitimacy: women’s seduction by men. Women, they held, were vulnerable to seduction and promises of marriage, a vulnerability often attributed to their “natural weakness.” The 1891 case of Martina Baños, a 20-year-old Spanish servant who was sentenced to 4½ years, illustrates this discussion of men’s responsibility. Martina had hoped that the father of her expected child would marry her, but when he did not, she decided to raise the child by herself. When Martina’s cousins, with whom she lived, found the baby’s body in the escusado, or toilet, they assumed she had killed it, though Martina claimed it had been born dead. During the trial, Martina’s lawyer characterized her seducer as the guilty party because he had gained her confidence, abused her, and then, when she became pregnant, abandoned her.32 Other women were seduced by a member of their employer’s family. The man who seduced Teresa Bishop de Bannecke was her employer’s brother and her own relative. Her “fall,” explained her lawyer, occurred because of her lover’s “superior” position and his demands that his “sensuality be nourished.”33

Although lawyers suggested that seduction and abandonment were important factors in infanticide and that if men accepted their responsibility fewer infanticides might occur, these arguments did not appear to persuade judges. Society recognized the problem of males shirking their paternal duties, but neither society nor the courts were prepared to challenge gender roles. What actually seems to have happened is that women were held accountable to an even greater extent. In the late nineteenth century, women were urged to take more responsibility for their illegitimate children. Public health experts and the foundling home’s staff encouraged women to provide postpartum care for their newborns, register them properly at the home, and, preferably, nurse them.34

The arguments used against accused women echoed this belief. Yet these pronouncements appeared at the same time that honor and shame seemed to be gaining importance. Thus women’s dominant concern was still to guard the secrecy of an illegitimate birth, an effort made more difficult by the emphasis on maternity as a “social obligation.” State and society were reasonably concerned about illegitimacy, but perhaps mainly at the level at which they could exercise this concern safely; that is, with women as individuals. Thus, even while women’s antecedents, social conditions, and male seduction were recognized by some to be as important in a case as honor, maternal sentiment, and knowledge of reproduction, the discussion focused on women’s responsibility. The idea that society and culture could affect maternity as much as personal morals and biological factors was disturbing to many.

It can be argued, moreover, that those who tried infanticide cases intentionally attempted to “disembody” the accused women so as to avoid discussing the complications of social and cultural effects on maternity. As the narrative of a case moves methodically through the state of a woman’s womb and genitals, the rhythm of her menstrual periods, and the way she defecates, it seems to reduce her to her most elemental bodily processes, draining her of any emotion or broader human context than her reproductive function. Almost nothing of such a context emerges from the testimonies beyond a woman’s work life and her unhappy history as orphaned, indigenous, immigrant, or seduced and abandoned. Outcasts from the world of legitimate maternity, these women could expect neither employer-guardians of many years nor fellow servants to come to their defense. Almost no witnesses identified themselves as friends of the accused, and almost never did a family member appear.

This lack of a familial and social context for women accused of infanticide differs from other crimes. In samples of adultery, abortion, suicide, homicide, robbery, and bigamy cases, women appear more fully, with friends, extra-work activities, and emotional contacts. In infanticide, only the defense lawyers attempted to paint in the sentiments and lifestyles of women to help their cases; but in the end they were also constrained. They had to deny their clients a fuller context in order to stress the women’s sense of dishonor, in accordance with the prerequisites of the infanticide law. They thereby demonstrated once again that women’s honor was apparently a double-edged sword.

Underlining these women’s marginal status was the lack of supportive networks for them to turn to. An employer’s household was often a woman’s only family, but it was usually not a family from which she could derive protection and compassion, either from her employer-guardian or from other women. The head of the household, usually male, determined important facets of these women’s lives. Though the wives of male household heads also actively patrolled the women of the house, they are most often seen turning to their husbands to actuate the power that employers held over their servants. The male heads of household, as employers and landlords, were generally in their thirties and forties and occupied responsible and visible positions as public accountants, merchants, notaries, civil engineers, and professionals. They could ill afford, one might argue, the public scandal that an illegitimate birth in their house would cause. Responsibility for their families’ honor and for their reputation in business and the community fell equally on the shoulders of their wives, female relatives, female servants, and renters. In their drive to oversee and control the women around them—required and reinforced by a code of honor—men made use of these same women, along with neighbors and midwives, as informers.

Men used women to confirm their suspicion that a woman was pregnant. With women’s help, men apparently made it their business to keep track of women’s menstruation, stomach swellings, and trips to the water closet, since the men provided this information as witnesses. Servants and renters readily suspected infanticide when questioned. Furthermore, they pointed out bloodstains on the floor and bloody clothing, located weapons such as knives and the sticks used to push infants further into the recesses of the toilet, and recalled the accused’s use of the water closet.

Once employers and landlords suspected that a crime might have occurred, they quickly began a search for the baby. In cases in which the child was found, employers, landlords, and co-workers testified with certainty that the marks on its face and neck had been made by the mother in an attempt to extinguish the life of her child. Ironically, while they reportedly were familiar with many of the details of the alleged crime, these witnesses, in an effort to protect themselves from a charge of complicity, usually swore that they had heard nothing while the crime was taking place. This was an extraordinary assertion, because servants gave birth while preparing a meal or washing dishes, with people in the next room. Moreover, many of these houses contained only a few small rooms, and sometimes the servant had no room of her own.

Thus, while elements of female networks and gossip remained essentially female, men used them and thereby affected the wav women related to each other, undermining ties between them. This partial masculinization of a traditional female world of reproduction usually worked against women in these cases, in an effort to protect male honor.

The Role of the Midwife

The midwife, who figured as one of the main elements in female networks, also was utilized to further male-dominated social discipline. In providing their assistance to women, midwives ran a full-service operation, taking in pregnant women who paid for their room and board, delivering babies, caring for any postpartum illnesses that might develop, and taking unwanted infants to the foundling home. They charged for each of these services, but an illegitimate mother who could pay was better assured of escaping shame.

In a case of provoked, or induced, abortion from 1900, for example, the lady of the house arranged for a midwife to take care of her servant’s problem. After the head of household got his servant pregnant, it was his wife who advertised in a local Italian-language newspaper asking for a certain Italian midwife, whom she had previously known but whose address she did not know, to come to her house. The midwife performed the abortion and saved the family honor. Unfortunately for the employer’s wife, the servant, out of spite at losing her job because of the affair, denounced her; and the wife, the midwife, and eventually the servant all ended up in jail for a time, only later to be absolved.35 It can be imagined that many employers took care of unwanted pregnancies by arranging abortions for their servants, either in Buenos Aires or out in the provinces.

The infanticide cases thereby tell us that midwives functioned partly as agents of social control. The law required them to serve as public health officials; some in this guise became virtual “gyneco-police.” The state licensed midwives, giving them the right to practice, but required them to report all patients they treated to the Public Assistance Office. This included all births, abortions, and the condition and destiny of all children born to women under their care. This was not just a way to improve the practice of midwifery; it was also a way to ensure that midwives conformed to the laws against “maternal crimes” and to enlist their help in the policing of all the pregnant women in the city, neighborhood by neighborhood.36

Midwives thus appeared often in infanticide cases to confirm that a woman had given birth; that the birth had been natural and not provoked; and that the child had been born alive, to term, and viable. This occurred in the case of Teresa Bishop de Bannecke, who had attempted to enter a midwife’s care as a pensionista. The discussion between Teresa and the midwife over the fee took only a few minutes. But just on the basis of this visit, the midwife later testified that Teresa’s baby had most likely been born alive, thereby incriminating Teresa, who had maintained that her child had been horn dead.37

Significantly, although midwives are prominent in this sample of cases, no pregnant woman summoned a midwife, nor did any midwife actually assist at a birth. Rather, midwives were called in later, and more in their role as quasi police. This role, along with pregnant women’s need for secrecy and their lack of time and money, are likely reasons. In most cases, midwives arrived too late to witness the birth. Such was the case when an employer called in a midwife, a French Basque woman aged 37, to assist his servant, Juana Larramendia, even though Juana maintained that she was not pregnant and insisted that a midwife not be called. Juana had her child before the midwife arrived. When questioned later, however, the midwife asserted that the birth had not been natural and that the marks on the baby’s neck looked as if they had been made by Juana with the idea of strangling her child.38 It may be that experienced midwives could make such careful distinctions; but when medical experts and jurists emphasized the difficulties involved in judging marks on a newborn as signs of intentional violence, this midwife’s self-assurance seems improbable.

Midwives were also assumed to know who was pregnant in the neighborhood. When a workman repairing a latrine pipe found a baby’s cadaver, he and the landlord immediately called in the local midwife, an Italian woman aged 29, married, and resident in Argentina 13 years. The two men believed that this midwife would know who had put the child in the pipe. She was cooperative, but, having lived in the neighborhood only one month, she had no knowledge of the deed. She could confirm that none of the renters in her house, who were usually pregnant women and sometimes illegitimate ones waiting to give birth, had been “sick.” At this point, suspicion fell on one tenant: Juana Baret, a Spanish woman aged 41, resident in Argentina eight months. Although the midwife had no knowledge of Juana’s condition and had not witnessed any of the events, she accompanied Juana and her employer to the police to testify.39

Infanticide cases paint a clear picture of midwives’ close contact with men and the authorities. At times, midwives figured much more prominently in the male network of police, public health inspectors, and lower-class women’s employers and landlords than in any female one. Men often knew the location oí midwives’ houses and made the decision to send for them or send women to them. Men also had information about abortive agents, which they sometimes learned from midwives.40 Men’s interests seem to have been upheld more than women’s when midwives entered a case. Midwives confirmed employers’ suspicions about their servants. The midwife who rejected Teresa Bishop de Bannecke allegedly cooperated with Teresa’s lover and employer to discredit her testimony. Since both men were Teresa’s distant relatives, they may have been anxious to see their poorer relation put in prison rather than sully their reputation.

The degree to which men could utilize the midwife’s cooperation leads to the question of how effective, in any consistent way, the midwife and similar figures could have been in women’s networks. Male employers and landlords, it appears from these cases, fully recognized the value of contacting and controlling at least certain key people in women’s networks, the better to police the women living in their households.

It can be speculated that despite the relentless control, in many servants lived in more protective and supportive situations. Situations in which women struck up relationships with other employees of the household and neighbors, or even across the boundaries of class and social hierarchy with the wives and daughters of patrons or the neighborhood midwife, provided both general assistance and specific help when it was necessary to take care of an illegitimate child. It will take broader research to gauge whether this was generally the case or whether, as might be expected, such ties were circumscribed for servants. Infanticide, however, reveals the negative pole of the range of choices for a servant when, alone and without networks of support, she turned to the destruction of the source of her dishonor as her only recourse.

Saving Honor versus Saving Life

Infanticide cases reveal an unusual intersection of issues among the three main protagonists: child, mother, and the state and society. Significantly, the victim-child was perhaps the least important of the three. Saving the mother’s honor rather than the child’s life was of primary importance. And more crucial than the loss of a child—the very object of maternal sentiment—were women’s attitudes toward maternity. Moreover, as evidence from Europe indicates, it was not unusual in the nineteenth century to view the killing of an illegitimate child as representing only limited social damage in comparison to killing an older child or adult.41 The Argentine lawyer who maintained that women who let their newborns die were actually showing more concern for their children’s welfare than they would if they had consigned them to the terrible life of illegitimacy and the foundling home thereby suggested that this assessment of illegitimacy also had received a hearing in Argentina.42

Even “ferocious” killings did not elicit outrage so much as prove that a true aberration of maternal sentiment must have occurred. Public and charitable institutions did begin with the premise that infant life needed to be saved; but underlying that premise was the more important one of preserving the appearance of honor and maternity. Moves to reduce the infant mortality caused by abandonment and infanticide had more to do with disciplining women than with saving infant life.

Nineteenth-century observers were tempted to represent women as the beneficiaries of new, more compassionate attitudes toward infanticide and to emphasize women’s honor. Argentine lawyers portrayed the distinction between homicide and infanticide, and the mitigated sentence for infanticide, as a more modern and scientific approach to perpetrator and victim, one that took honor into account. The focus on honor, however, reveals that the so-called new attitudes had a traditional underpinning. In important ways, honor was arguably as central to the aspirations and reputations of men and the state as to those of lower-class women; in some cases perhaps even more so. Moreover, honor was of primary use to a male-dominated society concerned with the stigma attached to high rates of infant mortality and illegitimacy.

State and social control of the dispensing or withholding of women’s honor represented a step toward linking women’s sexuality and reproductive capacity to the building of family and state. This was to be accomplished, it seems, without changing traditional gender roles in any significant way. Thus, although judges were allowed to he lenient, it was not because they subscribed to a redefinition of gender relations or because society was more compassionate, but because the emphasis on maternity, honor, and the control of both increased in the nineteenth century.

As for women themselves, though they feared the loss of honor for its effect on their lives and jobs, they were more concerned with becoming complete mothers. Women in these cases seemed acutely aware that mere biological motherhood was not enough. Motherhood was “incomplete” without honor, marriage, and social placement. Infanticide did not seem to threaten the possibility of becoming a good mother sometime in the future, but an illegitimate child did. Thus, paradoxically, the illegitimate status of both mother and child prohibited women from exercising the nurturing functions that society itself recognized as necessary for motherhood.43

To state and society, accustomed to valuing women largely in terms of reproduction, the biological act of giving birth was of great importance. In a curious way, the equally important nurturing aspects of motherhood were left more frequently to institutions. Eliminating the outright, immediate killing of newborns and placing them in foundling homes to be nurtured by the state and charitable organizations was seen as the better approach to illegitimacy. It had the added advantage of preserving gender relations and protecting men’s reluctance to acknowledge their paternity. It may have been a more calculated approach in terms of the child, but it in no way diminished the importance accorded to honor and to the basic maternal nature of women by a male-dominated social order. Though the punishments meted out for infanticide were reduced and the effort to understand women may have increased, in exchange women found themselves subject to an increasingly complex web of disciplining strategies and mechanisms.

It was obviously not men but women who received the difficult task of combining an instinctual, maternal self with a rational, controlling one. Traditional, natural woman in her new rational mold was portrayed in a telling analogy in a defense lawyer’s speech. “A mother who kills her own child,” he declared, “is a machine worn out by pain, or a disturbed instrument that lacks direction.”44

This link between women and the forces of change and industrialization reflected the nineteenth century’s attempt to resolve the conflicts between natural instincts and scientific rationality. Machines were a product of rational science and essential to the century’s view of modernism; wasted and gone awry, though, they were useless. Women who committed infanticide had also “gone awry”—with honor that needed a victim, and with natural sentiment turned against the object of their highest mission in life. As biological machines and directionless tools, they fell somewhere between the rational world of calculation and the passionate one of maternal instinct. Without honor or maternity, however, they were of little value in either world.

State-building widened the discussion of maternity and of what the male-dominated state and society expected of women. If maternity was to be used as a “purifying” and building agent, then society had to understand it better, control it, and put it into a rational context. Irrationality in anything so basic to society as motherhood could not be tolerated; but the problem was that irrationality lay within maternity itself. Thus, women became the focus for controlling the irrational as it appeared in their natural sentiments, their sense of honor, and their bodies’ reproductive function. Infanticide’s significance was that it revealed all too dramatically the inherent irrationalities in women’s “highest mission” and “sweetest instincts,” and confirmed that the tortures of the Inferno for certain women were indeed a vivid reality.

The author wishes to thank the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, for its support during the final writing of this article, and the directors and staff of the Archivo General de la Nación, Buenos Aires, as well as the reviewers and editors of the HAHR for their helpful comments and suggestions.

The archival basis for this article is two series of criminal court cases in the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN), Buenos Aires. They are indexed by the accused’s last name. Series 1 (1755–1919) been hilly indexed, whereas series 2 (1870–1912) has been completed only through letter E. Except as noted, the charge in each case was infanticide.


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 1: I, 2, 1873, María Iguerra and Pedro Danglá.


Recent studies that examine the role and the disciplining of women in nineteenth-century Argentina include Mark D. Szuchman, Order, Family, and Comnninity in Buenos Aires, 18101860 (Stanford; Stanford Univ. Press, 1988), on disciplining of the family; Asunción Lavrin, “Women, Labor, and the Left: Argentina and Chile, 1890–1925,” Journal of Women’s History 1:2 (Fall 1989h and her study in progress, “Women, Feminism, and Social Change in the Southern Cone, 1890–1940, ”on the gender issues involved in politics and the importance of motherhood; Richard W. Slatta, Gauchos and the Vanishing Frontier (Lincoln; Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983), chap. 4, on women and the family in rural Argentina; Lyman L. Johnson, ed., The Problem of Order in Changing Societies: Essays on Crime and Policing in Argentina and Uruguay, 1750–1940 (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1990), on social control; Donna J. Guy, Sex and Danger in Buenos Aires: Prostitution, Family, and Nation in Argentina (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1991), on prostitution and the disciplining of women; Kristin Ruggiero, “Wives on ‘Deposit’: Internment and the Preservation of Husbands’ Honor in Nineteenth-Century Argentina” (ms. in preparation); and Ricardo Cicerchia, “Vida familiar y prácticas conyugales: clases populares en una ciudad colonial, Buenos Aires, 1800–1810,” Boletín del Instituto de Historia Argentina y Americana “Dr. E. Ravignani,” ser. 3, n. 2 (ist semester 1990), on family and women’s honor.


The law stated that the act had to occur at the moment of birth or within three days, and that it would be punished by three to six years in prison. Outside of these circumstances, anyone who committed infanticide was to receive the penalty of homicide. Código penal de la República Argentina (Buenos Aires: Sud America, 1887), sec. 1, title 1, chap. 2, arts. 100 and 101, pp. 35–36. For an analysis of the codes that served as a reference point for the Argentine jurists, see the gloss in the 1887 penal code; Eusebio Gómez, Pasión y delito (Buenos Aires: Facultad de Juan Roldán, 1917); and Lino Ferriani, La infanticida nel Códice Penale e nella vita sociale: considerazioni (Milan: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1986), 77–94. For a discussion of Argentina’s laws in the first half of the nineteenth century, see Szuchman, Order, Family, and Community, chap. 2.


Studies of infanticide in Europe have focused on these changing attitudes. For example, see Peter C. Hofier and N. E. H. Hull, Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England, 1558–1803 (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1981); Lionel Rose, The Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Britain. 1800–1939 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986); William L. Langer, “Infanticide: A Historical Survey,” History of Childhood Quarterly 1:3 (Winter 1974), 353–65; Stephen Wilson. “Infanticide, Child Abandonment, and Female Honour in Nineteenth-Century Corsica,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 30:4 (Oct. 1988), 762–83. Several recent studies on infanticide in Italy are extremely valuable in comparison with the Argentine case, both for the similarities in Latin, Catholic cultures and for the notable presence of Italians in Argentina. Among them are María Pia Casarini, “Maternità e infanticidio a Bologna: fonti e linee di ricerca, ” Quaderni Storici 49, year 17, no. 1 (Apr. 1982), 275–85, and “Il boon matrimonio: tre casi di infanticidio nell’800,” Memoria: Rivista di Storia delle Donne 7 (Sept. 1983), 27–36; and Margherita Pelaja, “Istinto di vita e amore materno: un infanticidio del 1882,” Memoria: Rivista di Storia delle Donne 1 (Mar. 1981), 46–52, and “Scandali. Onore e trame di rivalità in una comunità di fine 800, ” in “Subalterni in tempo di modemizzazione. Nove studi sulla soeietà romana nell’Ottocento,” Annali 7 (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1985), 291–318.


The dichotomy between “civilization” and “barbarism” was developed by Domingo F. Sarmiento in Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants; or, Civilization and Barbarism (1868; reprint, New York: Hafner Press, 1974).


A 26th case is listed in the index, but the author has been unable to find it. The figure of 300 comes from projecting the 1.6 cases per year found for letters A through E, which have been indexed and opened for consultation, onto those remaining 21 that have not. For an earlier period in Latin America, similarly low figures have been reported for the district of Santa Fe in Antioquia province, Colombia, where between 1765 and 1807 ten cases were reported. Jorge Mario Betaneur Gómez and Gloria Patricia Nieto Nieto, “El infanticidio en la provincia de Antioquia entre los años de 1765 y 1807,” Revista de la Universidad de Antioquia 222 (Oct.–Dec. 1990), 80–88.


Vicente Vázquez-Presedo, Estadísticas históricas argentinas [comparadas]: primera parte, 1875–1914 (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Macchi, 1971), 17.


Other studies of infanticide reveal a wider range of occupations and social classes. See, for example, Casarini, “Maternità e infanticidio”; Rossella Selmini, Profdi di uno studio storico sull’infanticidio: esame di ,31 processi per infanticidio giudicati dalla Corte d’Assise di Bologna dalla 1880 al 1913 (Milan: Dott. A. Giuffrè Editore, 1987); and Wilson, “Infanticide, Child Abandonment, and Female Honour,” 766. On servants in Buenos Aires see Judith L. Sweeney, “Las sirvientas de Buenos Aires: el caso de San Teimo, 1855—1895” (unpublished paper); and Ruggiero, “Wives on ‘Deposit’.”


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 2: C, 113, 1898, Juana Castro.


On women’s honor in the colonial period see the essays by Asunción Lavrin, Susan M. Socolow, and Ann Twinam in Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America, ed. Lavrin (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1989); and Ramón A. Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 15001846 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1991). See also James M. Donovan, “Infanticide and the Juries in France, 1825–1913,”Journal of Family History 16:2 (1991), 157–76.


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 1: L, 2, 1871, Juana Larramendia.


Ibid., ser. 2: A, 55, 1903, Felipa Arce; B, 79, 1899, Teresa Bishop de Bannecke; C, 154, 1904, Catalina Costa.


Ibid., ser. 2: B, 28, 1886, Juana Baret; C, 70, 1902, Inés Coria; A, 52, 1902, María Luisa Antoniana; D, 57, 1899, Teresa De Michelli.


Ferriani, La infanticida nel Códice Penale, 151–52.


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 1: L, 2, 1871, Juana Larramendia. On motherhood as women’s mission see, for example, Emilio R. Coni, Patronato 1/asistencia de lu infancia en la Capital de la República (Buenos Aires: El Censor, 1892). 274, 296; and “La educación maternal,” La Familia (Buenos Aires) 1:4 (1878), 40-41.


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 2: C, 109, 1898, Agustina Coronel.


Ibid., ser. 2: B, 79, 1899, Teresa Bishop de Bannecke.




Ibid., ser. 2: A, 54. 1903. Cesarina Almada. Martina Baños (sen 2: B. 4b. 1891) and Rosario Diaz (sen 2: D, 67. 1901) also failed to tie off their children’s umbilical cords, and the babies died.


Ibid., ser. 2: B, 79, 1899, Teresa Bishop de Bannecke.


Casarini, “Maternità e infanticidio,” 276.


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 1: L, 2, 1871, Juana Larramendia.


This argument was reported in the case of María Iguerra (Ibid., ser. 1: I, 2, 1873), who drowned her son in a well. Regarding the death sentence, the prosecutor explained that “Jeremy Bentham and other jurists say that the death penalty for a mother is the most serious violation of humanity because a mother cannot go on living with the knowledge of her crime. … On the other hand, judges are not willing to excuse the mother, not even when she is delirious, which cancels out sentiment.”


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 2: 13, 78, 1899, Luisa Bernal; and C. 113. 1898, Juana Castro.


Casarini, “Maternita e infanticidio,” 281. See also Pelaja, “Scandali,” 304.


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 2: C, 3, 1872, Salomé Castro.


Ibid., ser. 2: A, 54, 1903, Cesarina Almada.


Ibid., ser. 2: D, 57, 1899, Teresa De Michelli.


Ibid.; and A, 55, 1903, Felipa Arce.


Ibid., ser. 1: L, 2, 1871, Juana Larramendia.


AGN, Sociedad de Beneficencia, leg. 102, 1898, p. 190.


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 2: B, 46, 1891, Martina Baños.


Ibid., ser. 2: B, 79, 1899, Teresa Bishop de Bannecke. Seduction and abandonment as a cause of infanticide is one of Ferriani’s main arguments in La infanticidio nel Codice Penale. For three case studies of seduction and abandonment after a promise of marriage, see Casarini, “Buon matrimonio.” On the promise of marriage in colonial Latin America, see the essays by Lavrin, Socolow, and Twinam in Lavrin, Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America; and Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, 215–26 and chap. 7.


See, for example, Coni, Patronato y asistencia, 158–59, 248–50, 253, 274, 296–97; and AGN, Sociedad de Beneficencia, leg. 103, 1900, pp. 29–37.


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 2: C, 128, 1900, Albina Carcano and María Reta, charged with provoked abortion.


Coni, Patronato y asistencia, 158–59, 258–66.


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 2: B, 79, 1899, Teresa Bishop de Banneeke. By comparison with other midwives fees, in 1883 a midwife asked lor 30 pesos a dav, or 800 pesos a month, for room and board and 2,000 pesos to perform an abortion. Ibid., ser. 2: B, 22, 1883, Susana Breuil de Condere, charged with abortion through violence. In 1904, another midwife asked for 200 pesos to perform an abortion, but in the end accepted only 50 pesos. Ibid., ser. 2: C, 153, 1904, María Lorenza Cabral, Juana Gay de Laserna, and Juana Sacco de Conterno, charged with provoked abortion. Obviously, prices varied widely, but Teresa’s lover’s offer of 10 pesos was much too low.


Ibid., ser. 1: L, 2, 1871, Juana Larramendia.


Ibid., ser. 2: B, 28, 1886, Juana Baret.


It was not unusual for men to procure abortives or enlist the help of midwives for women. See, for example, Ibid., ser. 2: D, 23, 1888, case against Manuel Donato for violation of his daughter Manuela Donato [age 21] and against Adelaida Mendes for violent abortion; B, 19, 1882, María Baby and Federico Hering for provoked abortion; and C, 68, 1891, Juan Lucio Cascallares Paz and Susana Breuil de Comiere for provoked abortion. For Corsica, by comparison, it has been noted that the “initiative in abortions seems to have come from men rather than women.” Wilson, “Infanticide, Child Abandonment, and Female Honour,” 772.


Selmini, Profili di uno studio storico suit’infanticidio, 22–23; Donovan, “Infanticide and the Juries in France,” 163.


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 2: A, 54, 1903, Cesarina Almada.


Casarini develops well this idea of the “incomplete mother” as it relates to women accused of infanticide in nineteenth-century Italy. “Infanticide [was] motivated and justified by the lack of a complete mother, that is, when only the biological part [was] there.” “Buon matrimonio, 34–35. Casarini also develops this theme in “Maternità e infanticidio.”


AGN, Tribunal Criminal, ser. 1: I, 2, 1873, María Iguerra and Pedro Danglá.