The Problem of Proof: Denunciations, Confessions, and Medical Evidence in Reproductive Crimes, 1900-1940[*]
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On 31 March 1921 the Nouvelliste de Bretagne, a daily Catholic newspaper that served Rennes and much of Brittany, announced to its readers that a newborn's body had been discovered in the Vilaine river by a lockkeeper. The autopsy determined that the female infant was born alive and had drowned. "We find ourselves in the presence of an infanticide," the newspaper reported. "[A] criminal hand – doubtless the mother – threw this infant into the Vilaine while it was still alive." The article went on to introduce warmly M Morel, the police captain in charge of the investigation, and then asked for the public's assistance:
Two days later the Nouvelliste ran a second article lauding Morel's progress and making much of the fact that the police now knew from which point the baby had been dropped into the river and on which day the death occurred. Yet in spite of the Nouvelliste's efforts on his behalf, Morel and his colleagues never discovered who killed the newborn. On 22 April a captain of the 13th Brigade Mobile in Rennes to whom the case had been forwarded reported no new progress, and the case was filed away with others like it, under the initial X, for an unknown perpetrator.
Captain Morel and his colleagues in local police forces, the gendarmerie, and the Brigades Mobiles of the Police Judiciaire faced a daunting task in tracking down suspects in reproductive crimes, including infanticide, abortion, concealment of birth (suppression d'enfant), and after a new law in 1920, the use or distribution of birth control. These crimes were difficult to detect because they were tied up with the most intimate aspects of a woman's life, involved physical evidence that could disappear as quickly as a woman's body healed or as a fetus or cadaver decomposed, and frequently generated more public sympathy for the suspected criminal than for the nameless, faceless victim. How, then, did police go about detecting these crimes and gathering sufficient proof to secure convictions? What sources of information did they use, and what types of evidence could they gather? Three of the most important strategies police used to detect, investigate, and ultimately provide proof of reproductive crimes were locating crimes and suspects through denunciations and tips, building a case with material and forensic evidence, and convincing suspects to confess before trial. An examination of more than one hundred cases of abortion, infanticide, concealment of birth, and birth control that police investigated between 1900 and 1940 in two French departments, Ille-et-Vilaine in Brittany and the Rhône in the southeast, shows that a wide variety of factors influenced the diligence with which reproductive crimes were policed and tried.
In the early twentieth century reproductive crimes were an important part of public discourse about France's loss of power and position in relation to its neighbors. Europe's largest power during the Napoleonic era, France seemed to be sliding towards economic and military insignificance. During the forty years under study, natalist activists, most notably the members of the powerful Alliance Nationale Contre la Dépopulation, convinced many lawmakers and social commentators that France's shrinking population relative to that of other countries posed a serious threat to the nation. Depopulation – the name given to this fear that the decline in France's birth rate would lead to the loss of the nation's moral and material predominance in Europe – became one of the most important political and social issues of the French Third Republic. Yet, despite dire warnings about the dangers posed by depopulation, ordinary French people continued to use various means to limit the size of their families.
Abortion, contraception, and to a lesser extent, infanticide were all seen as causes of depopulation. In response to this threat, the National Assembly passed several laws designed to curb the number of these reproductive crimes in France. The most famous of these laws passed on 31 July 1920. This sweeping law expanded the ways in which a person could be charged with abortion. It also banned all contraceptives and all discussions of contraceptive methods and abortion. Yet passing a law is not the same as enforcing it, and there is little evidence to suggest that most police officials followed the lead of the legislature by giving greater priority to reproductive crimes than to other crimes or by spending more time searching for instances of abortion or infanticide. Officially, a memo from the Ministry of the Interior dated 17 August 1920 instructed mayors and police agents to "put all their zeal into taking note of all the crimes targeted by the new law." It was not until 1939, however, that as part of a crackdown on abortion, the Ministry of the Interior required police to submit monthly reports detailing the number of investigations of reproductive crimes in progress and the results of these investigations. Thus, for nearly two decades police were left more or less to their own devices to determine how best to enforce the 1920 law, and for the most part they decided to take a passive approach. Instead of actively seeking violations of laws pertaining to reproductive crimes as natalists would have desired, most police officers waited for abortion, infanticide, and concealment of birth cases to be brought to them. The 1920 law thus seems to have had few consequences for the behavior of the populace or the activities of police. The number of annual abortion prosecutions remained miniscule when compared to the hundreds of thousands of abortions that were estimated to be performed in France each year, and although the ban on contraception led to several prosecutions of known birth control advocates around France, it had almost no impact on the two departments in this study.
Still, some cases surfaced. Suspected cases of infanticide came to police attention in one of two ways. First and most frequently, authorities were alerted when a cadaver, placenta, or large amount of blood was discovered, as was the case in the infanticide Captain Morel investigated. The discovery of an infant's body was not an unusual event at the beginning of the twentieth century. Parisian and provincial newspapers announced such grisly finds almost daily during the first decade of the twentieth century, and even after the First World War infants' cadavers turned up with disturbing regularity. In major cities and large towns, newborns' cadavers were pulled out of rivers, canals, drains, sewers, trashcans, and toilets. In the countryside they turned up along roadways and in fields, gardens, and manure heaps.
The second common means by which suspected infanticides came to police notice was through information given to officials by concerned citizens. Neighbors often remained silent when they noticed that a woman seemed pregnant, but they would inform police if that woman suddenly lost a great deal of bulk but did not appear with a new baby. A woman's laundry could also give her away because she would not have menstrual bleeding while pregnant but would lose blood in childbirth. Domestic servant Justine V.'s secret was revealed in this way in 1933. As she collected the household sheets to be laundered, her employer noticed that Justine's sheets were freshly washed. Curious, she looked more closely and noticed that beneath the sheets the mattress was soaked in blood. After persistent questioning by her employer and the gardener, Justine admitted that she had given birth in secret, strangled her newborn, and buried the baby's body in the garden. The gendarmerie was then notified.
Abortion, too, primarily came to police attention in one of two different ways. First, and less frequently, women whose abortions had led to severe medical problems might come to the attention of police when they asked neighbors, family members, or employers for help or when they went to hospitals or clinics for medical treatment. In theory the doctors who treated these women were bound by doctor-patient confidentiality not to inform on their patients, but through one means or another, police were sometimes informed.
The second and most usual way for police to find out about suspected abortions was through denunciation. Remarkably, fully fifty-three percent of all abortion cases in this study came to police attention through a single type of denunciation: anonymous letters. Most other cases were the result of non-anonymous tips or suspicions raised by "public rumor." Unlike most tips police received about infanticide, which were generally made openly and out of an apparent sense of justice, the majority of tips police received about abortions came in unsigned letters, and many were quite nasty.
Why did people choose to write anonymous letters accusing their neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances of abortion? Some, like the following letter, were written by people primarily concerned with the welfare of others, including the women who had abortions:
Would you be so obliging to come if you could, inspect [the case of] an unfortunate young girl, who died on the 18th at twelve thirty. . . . This young girl it seems that she was two months pregnant and this old lady where the girl died, everyone says that she wanted to make the baby come out make her have a miscarriage, that old bitch [it] sounds like she already did prison . . . this girl died at this old bitch's house, as soon as the girl died she locked her inside and she left and the poor girl is lying on the floor
Well I can't tell you more you ask for information in the house especially ask a tall widow . . . she will tell you . . . it is wretched to leave a young person like that without knowing what she died of . . . she is sprawled on the ground like a Dog.
Other authors of anonymous letters denouncing women for having abortions had ulterior motives unrelated to the alleged reproductive crime. During the final months of the First World War, for example, an anonymous author accused a woman named Berthe of terminating a pregnancy of five months. The author wrote that he or she hoped the mayor, to whom the letter was addressed, would see fit to correct Berthe's "bad behavior." But the "bad behavior" of which the author disapproved was not the alleged abortion, but Berthe's immorality and financial dealings. The anonymous author emphasized the fact that Berthe continued to receive a separation allowance to which she was not morally entitled, even though her child's father was in the army, because she was living with a Belgian lover.
Other anonymous letters received by police, mayors, and prosecutors were motivated solely by jealousy, a desire for vengeance, or spite. Joseph L., a married man, was furious in 1923 that his ex-mistress was about to marry someone else rather than live with him. In a fit of jealousy a week before her wedding, he penned an anonymous letter denouncing her for having had an abortion three years earlier. His plan backfired. Not only did the young woman go ahead with her marriage, but Joseph found himself charged and convicted as an accessory in the resulting trial.
In some cases anonymous denunciation letters proved useful to police and helped them open investigations that led to arrests, charges, and convictions for reproductive crimes, but such letters were not always taken seriously. A woman who was notorious in Lyon during the 1920s for performing abortions in her downtown clinic had been the subject of a number of anonymous letters to the police, but by 1924 no arrests had been made. Finally a local newspaper, Le Cri de Lyon, decided to print its own "tip" about the midwife's clinic:
Just as instances of abortion and infanticide came to official attention in different ways, police also went about investigating these crimes differently. Once cases of infanticide were brought to their attention, police usually arrested a suspect almost immediately or not at all. In most cases of infanticide, the guilty party was obvious; a cadaver or traces of heavy bleeding might be found in a woman's bedroom, or her physical appearance would alter significantly enough for neighbors, family, or employers to notice the change. If the identity of the mother was not immediately apparent, physical evidence came into play. For infanticide the location of the cadaver and any wrappings around it could tie a particular woman to her murdered infant. In 1927, for example, men working on an access road in the commune of St-Jean-d'Ardières in the Rhône discovered a newborn baby's body wrapped in cloths from which the laundry marks had been carefully removed and placed in a cardboard shoebox marked "Judith high-fashion shoes." The cadaver was in an advanced state of putrefaction, making forensic clues difficult to obtain, and the gendarmes' initial investigation into the suspected infanticide did not result in any suspects. No one in the commune could think of any local woman who might have given birth in secret, and police suspicions focused on an unknown outsider. A week later, though, the Brigade Mobile arrested a local woman, Benoite P., and a search of her home revealed both a pair of shoes marked with the "Judith" brand and blood-soaked linens that matched those wrapped around the cadaver. Benoite was a twenty-three-year-old widow who worked for the railway and lived in the community with her three children. Her already stout build had disguised her advancing pregnancy. Faced with the evidence of the linens and shoebox, Benoite confessed that after she gave birth, she simply wrapped the infant in a cloth and shoved it under the covers, where, according to the medical examiner, it died from lack of care. In a similar case, a man had wrapped his newborn's body in a shoebox, weighted it with a stone, and dropped the whole thing into the Canal Saint-Martin in Rennes. Police were able to identify the man and his fiancée by working backwards from the markings on the shoebox. The style of shoe, size, and marked-down price from the annual sales were still legible on the box, so the police were able to learn from the sales staff at the store which young women had purchased those particular shoes.
Suspects were more difficult for police to locate in cases of abortion, and new suspects usually emerged during the course of an investigation. Abortion investigations generally began with a single crime, then expanded as the police focused their investigation on the abortionist rather than the women who had abortions. Unlike infanticide, which was almost always a solitary crime, police were able to pit abortion suspects against one another by intimating that things would be easier for one suspect if she informed on others. Suspects would be kept separate during initial interrogations only to be brought together during an official "confrontation" in which police or the examining magistrate would read selectively from each suspect's testimony in order to provoke more candid replies from all.
Forensic medicine was an extremely important tool for police and prosecutors in proving both abortion and infanticide, but most of the public was unaware how much an examination of a cadaver or a woman's body could reveal. Almost every woman who actively denied charges of abortion or infanticide agreed to undergo a physical examination, and most were unpleasantly surprised by the results. A common defense used by women charged with abortion was to claim they had suffered a natural miscarriage, but this defense could be overturned with medical evidence if the forensic expert found scars or injuries made by a probe or other object that had been inserted into the cervix to cause the abortion. Medical experts could also determine if a woman who had never before given birth to a child had been pregnant, although they had more difficulty drawing conclusions from examinations of women who had already borne one or more children. Forensic experts could draw damning conclusions from their examinations of infants' cadavers, placentas, and fetuses. A common defense used in infanticide cases was claiming the baby was premature or stillborn. Fingernail marks, bruising patterns, and skull fractures could all point to infanticide rather than death by natural causes. Experts could also use standard weight and length tables to determine the length of gestation of a fetus or infant and could test an infant's lungs to determine whether or not the baby had breathed and, therefore, been born alive.
Medical evidence in the form of infants' cadavers and fetuses as well as traces of "violence" on a woman's body often represented the best proof available that a reproductive crime had been committed. Yet a constant problem for prosecutors and a constant source of irritation for forensic experts was the public's lack of faith in medical evidence as proof. Even when medical experts drew specific conclusions from available physical evidence, early twentieth-century juries hesitated to convict on such evidence and tended to believe defendants' protestations of innocence rather than forensic proof of guilt.
Paul Brouardel, the great professor of forensic medicine at the University of Paris and author of a series of textbooks for training forensic experts, was keenly aware of this problem. In his 1897 textbook on infanticide, Brouardel warned forensic experts that infanticide cases were "those in which the medical expert's reputation is most often compromised." This was not, he explained, "because any particular difficulties arise from the autopsy of the cadaver or the examination of the mother, but because throughout the country this crime puts public opinion into a peculiar state." Brouardel went on to explain that while police and forensic examiners maintained their focus on the tragedy of the murdered infant, by the time a jury heard the case public sympathy had shifted to the poor young woman whose guilt seemed secondary to her suffering. "Three months later," Brouardel warned, "at the Assizes, the jurors, the judges, the public no longer see the cadaver. They have before them a poor girl, seduced, with a good reputation, abandoned by an individual from whom justice demands no accountability; everyone pities her." He urged medical examiners to be unerringly neutral in their testimony and to "guard against any expression that might betray one's personal assessment."
Brouardel's warnings could have been of use to Dr. Camille Meunier, the forensic expert in Lyon called in to examine a woman charged with infanticide in 1927. Meunier did not come across as objective in his remarks, in which he called the defendant "a heartless woman," described her as having "brutish instincts," "no regret," and "no tears to attenuate her guilt." Despite these "observations" – or, if we believe Brouardel, because of them – the jury chose to believe the defendant and voted to acquit.
Because it was so difficult to obtain proof that would convince jurors to convict sympathetic female defendants, the best hope police had of winning a conviction for infanticide or abortion was to convince suspects to confess. Confessions were essential for a successful prosecution in cases involving reproductive crimes because jurors were likely to give the benefit of the doubt to a woman who persistently denied her guilt in a crime so tightly bound to her honor. Eliciting a confession, even a partial one, served two purposes: it showed that at least some of the prosecution's case was probably true, and if the woman had previously denied the charges, it tarnished her sympathetic demeanor by showing her to be less than truthful.
One way police tried to persuade defendants to confess was by presenting an apparently watertight case built on material and medical evidence to the defendant during an interrogation. Although juries might find material evidence lacking, defendants frequently bowed under the apparent weight of physical evidence against them and made full confessions. Police routinely searched the homes of infanticide suspects for soiled sheets, evidence of preparation for a birth, or the placenta. They raided suspected abortionists' homes and offices in search of incriminating letters, caches of unexplained money, banned apparatus, or suspicious medicines. Because obtaining confessions was so important to successful prosecutions, police and examining magistrates spent hours interrogating and re-interrogating suspects in order to wear them down and make them admit their guilt.
Sometimes confessions were easy to come by. In many cases police merely had to arrive at a woman's doorstep for her to confess. The importance of the habit of confessing one's sins in a Catholic nation cannot be overstated. Particularly in the case of very young women who had abortions or committed infanticide, the fear of discovery by their parents or friends drove them to break the law. Once confronted with an unknown and therefore seemingly neutral person in the form of the police officer, the urge to confess could be overwhelming, with the police officer taking the place of a priest. In other cases women would deny their involvement in abortions or infanticides for some time but would ultimately confess when faced with the findings of the medical examiner, the discovery of seemingly damning material evidence, or in abortion cases, new and contradictory statements from a co-defendant.
When women persisted in denying their guilt, police and prosecuting magistrates had many tricks up their sleeves. In several cases women were made to understand during the early interrogations that asking for an attorney was akin to admitting guilt, meaning that very few defendants sought legal advice in the initial stages of investigations. This absence of defense counsel allowed police and prosecutors a bit more freedom in their interrogations. In addition, women accused of infanticide were sometimes threatened with the prospect of being made to attend the baby's autopsy if they refused to cooperate or confess. Finally, the most important tool police in France possessed for making female suspects confess to reproductive crimes was the ability to hold suspects without bond. Women could be detained for months while awaiting the next session of the assizes courts, and police and prosecutors used the prospect of temporary release until the trial as incentive for women with other children to "cooperate" – in other words, to confess. In late 1919, for example, one woman accused of performing abortions remained in custody for more than seven months while awaiting her trial before the assizes. Despite her argument that she was not a flight risk because she had three children and a permanent home, her requests for provisional liberty were repeatedly rejected. She was the only one of her three co-defendants who was not granted provisional liberty and the only one of the three who maintained her innocence throughout the investigation and trial.
The police charged with detecting and investigating reproductive crimes had a thankless task. Detecting these crimes and finding irrefutable proof of guilt was challenging because of the hidden nature of these crimes. Even when police, prosecuting magistrates, and forensic experts did everything in their power to show evidence of a person's guilt in reproductive crimes, there was a good chance that the defendant would be acquitted. James Donovan has found that in 57.7% of infanticide cases tried in France between 1902 and 1913 the defendant was acquitted, and jurors were even more forgiving of women who had abortions. The result was an uneven and lackluster approach by French police forces to enforcing laws regarding reproductive behavior. While this passive attitude towards policing pregnancy certainly fell short of the diligence expected by the natalists who wrote the laws police worked to enforce, it largely reflected widely-held pity for single mothers and the general attitudes of the French people towards limiting family size.
The research for this paper was generously supported by the French Fulbright Commission, the French Ministry of Education Bourse Chateaubriand, the Coca-Cola Critical Difference for Women program, and the Department of History and the College of Humanities at The Ohio State University.
My sample includes judicial case files for one hundred felony infanticide trials (some of which were simultaneously prosecuted for concealment of birth), fifty-nine abortion trials (most of which involved several different instances of abortion and numerous defendants), a handful of child abandonment cases, and one case of birth control propaganda. These files include reports and records of interrogations from the gendarmerie, local police, and the Police Judiciaire as well as records of interrogations conducted by the examining magistrate. This study also includes hundreds of files on all types of reproductive crimes investigated across Brittany by the 13th Brigade Mobile of the Police Judiciaire. I was unable to include the several hundred prosecutions for misdemeanor concealment of birth and most of the prosecutions for child abandonment that went before the courts in both departments. Adding these would increase the number of apparent infanticides and attempted infanticides significantly.
We know today that France was merely on the leading edge of a demographic transition that most western European nations would experience, but at the time it seemed to French lawmakers and social commentators that their nation's position in the world was in peril. For a demographic study of the depopulation issue, see Joseph J. Spengler, France Faces Depopulation: Postlude Edition, 1936-1976 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1979). For the problem of depopulation and its influence on French politics and social policy, see Elinor A. Accampo, "Gender, Social Policy, and the Formation of the Third Republic: An Introduction," and Rachel G. Fuchs, "Right to Life: Paul Strauss and the Politics of Motherhood," in Gender and the Politics of Social Reform in France, 1870-1914, eds. Elinor A. Accampo, Rachel G. Fuchs, and Mary Lynn Stewart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 1-27, 82-105; Joshua Cole, The Power of Large Numbers: Population, Politics, and Gender in Nineteenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000); Rachel G. Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992); Cheryl Ann Koos, "Engendering Reaction: The Politics of Pronatalism and the Family in France, 1919-1944" (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 1996); Angus McLaren, "Abortion in France: Women and the Regulation of Family Size 1800-1914," French Historical Studies 10:3 (1978): 461-84; idem, Sexuality and Social Order: The Debate Over the Fertility of Women and Workers in France, 1770-1920 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1983); Karen M. Offen, "Depopulation, Nationalism, and Feminism in Fin-de-Siècle France," American Historical Review 89 (1984): 648-76; and Anne-Marie Sôhn, Chrysalides: femmes dans la vie privée (XIXe-XXe siècles) (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1996).
The legislature also took steps throughout the early twentieth century to increase the conviction rates for reproductive crimes. First, in 1901, the legislature removed the death penalty for infanticide in an effort to curb the high percentage of acquittals by juries who deemed the punishment too harsh for the crime. In 1923 abortion was "correctionalized," redefining it as a misdemeanor in order to replace the juries who decided felony cases with three-judge panels less likely to acquit guilty but sympathetic defendants. For more on the reactions of juries to women on trial for reproductive crimes, see James M. Donovan, "Infanticide and the Juries in France, 1825-1913," Journal of Family History 16 (1991): 157-76 and "Abortion, the Law, and the Juries in France, 1825-1913," Criminal Justice History 9 (1991): 157-88. For a good overview of the problems associated with abortion in Third Republic France, see McLaren, "Abortion in France."
Archives de la Préfecture de Police B/A 2235 "Néomalthusianisme," dossier on "Avortements en Général," Ministère de l'Intérieur, Direction de la Sûreté Générale, 3e Bureau (Outrages aux bonnes múurs, Propagande anticonceptionnelle), Circulaire No. 128, 17 Aug. 1920.
It is impossible to prove with the evidence that remains in judicial files, but it seems likely that many of the tips police received directly "from a source whose probity cannot be questioned" were from doctors or priests who could not ethically inform on their patients or parishioners but who felt it was their duty to do so. Since these tips were given directly to police officers, mayors, or other officials they were not in actuality anonymous, but police concealed the informants' identities in official records.
Denunciations have been an important topic of discussion in European history, particularly with reference to periods of warfare or totalitarian rule. See the special issue of The Journal of Modern History on the topic: 68:4 (1996). Yet the strong emphasis scholars have placed on denunciation in undemocratic states can be misleading. The millions of letters sent during Vichy and the Occupation were not without precedent: thousands of people wrote such letters to police, elected officials, and prosecutors during the democratic Third Republic. The difference, of course, lies in what was at stake. In the case of abortion or infanticide there would be a trial, and presumably, punishment for those who earned it through wrongdoing. Under Vichy and the Occupation, people who were denounced for being Jewish, for example, could not count on a trial and had not "earned" their punishment.
The difference in the tone of tips to police from infanticide and abortion cases can be explained in part by different public perceptions of these crimes. Infanticide had a clear victim, and although defendants were often acquitted out of pity for the mother, it was clear that the act of infanticide was a crime. Abortion, on the other hand, was understood by much of the population to be somewhat distasteful but morally neutral. Old Catholic beliefs that infants did not receive souls until quickening and the sheer number of married women who used abortion as a backup method of birth control made abortion seem commonplace.
For clarity, I have not attempted to replicate the spelling of this letter and have preserved only a small number of the grammatical problems it contains. ADR 2 U 765, Rosalie Y., Tentative d'avortement, 4 Oct. 1911, anonymous letter.
Because police generally did make efforts to discover who wrote anonymous letters during the course of their investigations, we have at least some knowledge of the motives of the authors of such letters.
Paul Brouardel, L'Infanticide (Paris: Baillière et Fils, 1897), v. Brouardel (1837-1906) was a member of the Academies of Medicine and Science, professor of Forensic Medicine and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris. He succeeded Ambroise Tardieu as France's leading expert on forensic medicine, and although he died in 1906, the medical examiners throughout the period under study continued to reference his work as the standard in the field.
Donovan, "Infanticide and the Juries in France," 160-2; Donovan, "Abortion, the Law, and the Juries in France," 163-4. Donovan's calculations, based on the annual Compte général crime statistics, show that 67.4% of abortion defendants were acquitted from 1900-13, and 62.4% from 1919-23. Between 1902 and 1913, only 17.7% of reported infanticides even made it to the assizes, where 57.7% of defendants were acquitted.