Dead Babies in Boxes: Dealing with the Consequences of Interrupted Reproduction

One morning in June 2019, two city workers in Lyon, France, pulled a plastic bag out of the river that runs through the city center and found it contained the body of a “late term fetus or a newborn baby thought to be less than a day old.” Such occurrences have a long history in France. About 240 years earlier, in 1781, a fisherman working on the river bank in the city center pulled out “the absolutely naked body” of a female infant with afterbirth still attached.1 Then and now, disposers and discoverers came face to face with the emotional, logistical, and legal challenge of handling the remains of interrupted reproduction, often in ambiguous and opaque circumstances in which differentiation between termination, miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death was unclear. Even the terminology used at the time in medical texts and conversations was ambiguous – a woman who “injured herself” could have experienced a miscarriage or an abortion. Efforts to interrupt reproduction before quickening (then thought to occur around 18–20 weeks) were legal and understood as “restoring” women’s menstrual cycle.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the bodies of dead preterm or newborn babies were found around the city of Lyon, almost always wrapped in fabric, often put in small pine boxes, and routinely left in or around churches. In 1631, for example, someone wrapped the foot-long cadaver of a baby girl in a coverlet, put it in a pine box that closed with two locks, marked a cross on top, and carried it to a parish church where it was left under the baptismal font. The next morning it was found by the church’s priests.2

The discoveries, documented in records from 1631 to the late 1780s, demonstrate that these practices were not secrets, although they were often the subjects of silence; participants chose carefully if or with whom they would share these stories. Women’s efforts to manage their fertility often involved allies, active and implicit, whose assistance could include disposing of the remains as well as interrupting reproduction. Networks of intimate partners, neighbors, midwives, and gravediggers knew how to get the remains buried or who to ask about how to do so.

Piece of aged paper with brown ink cursive.
A witness recalls Francois Noel asking Marie Dutremblois “what she would do with the dead baby which was in a box.” (Archives Départementales du Rhône BP 3552, 27 November 1743 )

Why did the fetuses or newborns die? If officials were alerted, they called surgeons, who performed autopsies on the spot. The surgeons observed injuries such as bruising, compressions, and drops of blood in the nose that indicated someone had pinched the baby’s nose to stop its breathing. A surgeon who examined the remains of a fetus in 1743 concluded that a botched abortion had endangered the life of the mother and a midwife had dismembered it to save her. Sometimes they concluded that the babies had been strangled.3 On occasion, treatments “to restore menstrual cycles” induced preterm miscarriages with newborns too small to be viable, or aid was not delivered to newborns, ensuring that they quickly expired.

Early-term interruptions produced clots of blood that women could dispose of in communal latrines found in the tenement buildings where workers lived. But later-term interruptions produced identifiable fetal remains. If women were suspected of intentionally interrupting reproduction, latrines were often searched. Women who delivered alone often did so in the public latrine, due likely to the simple matter of the volume of liquid labor produced, regardless of intent. When Estimiette Chretien, for example, claimed in 1715 that she had not known she was pregnant when she delivered a baby who fell down the latrine, a doctor followed the drains to the river where he “searched through fecal matter half a foot deep” but found only the afterbirth.4

A hooked obstetrics instrument
An eighteenth-century crochet hook from Lyon of the kind that midwives used to dismember fetuses in utero. (Coline Bidault & Léa Silvers Chabrier/Hospices Civils de Lyon | Wikimedia Commons)

Yet women who could call on intimate partners or other safeguarders could find help in these situations. After Marie Dutremblois “injured herself” and delivered a seven-month fetus in 1743, she was ill in bed for two weeks. The dead baby was put in a small box. Her boyfriend,François Noel, visited frequently, as did neighbors and friends. One day he asked her in front of other visitors, as they later recalled, what she “was going to do with the dead baby which was in a box.”5 That is, how did she plan to dispose of the remains?

Such events must often have involved discussion about what to do and the actions or involvement of people other than the woman. Someone had to carry the remains to leave them or bury them, and this person was not necessarily the woman who had just experienced interrupted reproduction. After Louise Gimet gave birth on her own in a rented room she shared with a landlady in 1724, for example, she wrapped the baby’s body in a bodice and hid it between the wall and the bed. When her landlady returned to find the floor covered in blood and amniotic fluid, she asked Louise if she had “injured herself,” which Louise denied. A neighbor joined the landlady to search the room, and they found the corpse. Louise insisted the baby was born dead. Although seemingly skeptical of her explanation, no doubt because she had hidden the body instead of reporting the stillbirth to an official, they asked another neighbor, “How do we get the baby buried?” In the middle of the night, that neighbor carried the body, wrapped in linen and in a pine box, toward their churchyard. She met a midwife on the way who took the box and said she would pay the gravedigger to bury it.6

On occasion, people took small boxes or cadavers wrapped in covers and left them in or near churches, clearly intending that they would be found quickly and given a churchyard burial. Sometimes, whoever carried the body buried it informally at night in the gardens of monasteries or convents. The pine boxes functioned as makeshift coffins, and the choice to associate the remains with a sacred space suggests that working people wanted to integrate these tiny remains into the neighborhood Christian community, even in these circumstances and unbaptized. Regardless of theology that emphasized how death without baptism would mean damnation, these burials indicate that ordinary people did not want to see fetal bodies as damned. To bury them meant they were not at fault.

Indeed, if the discovery of remains was reported to officials, they routinely ordered burial in the nearest churchyard. Even though surgeons processed the remains as legal evidence by placing red wax seals on the tiny bodies, court officials simply closed the reports with orders that the bodies be buried.

Nevertheless, remains usually were disposed of in ways that were intended to avoid any official involvement, as in the case of Louise’s neighbors. In another case, the body of a tiny six-inch-long fetus was found hidden in a pile of bricks in 1683. Others likely deposited remains in the two fast-flowing rivers that ran through the center of Lyon, where the currents quickly carried them away, as suggested by occasional recoveries from the waters. When two men pulled a sack out of the river in the city center in 1743, discovering the dismembered parts of a baby’s body, they simply buried it under a nearby bridge with a quickly fashioned cross.7

These deaths, disposals, and burials were surely occasions for intense and mixed emotions – relief as well as anxiety, sadness, or shock for the woman, the father if he was still on the scene, and others who either participated in the disposals or discovered the bodies. A surgeon who visited Louise Gimet described her as “overwhelmed and sick.” A teenager recalled that he was “frightened” when he dug up a tiny body. Surgeons sometimes noted that the bodies were putrefied, and discoverers occasionally recalled they first thought they had found a cat or a “creature.”8

The circumstances that brought a woman or her partner and allies to deal with fetal or neonatal remains, whether born alive or dead, seem in some ways timeless, even though the specific resources, networks, legal status, medical practice, and much else have changed. The circumstances of the fetal and infant remains discovered around Lyon were not unusual. Evidence of similar patterns exists elsewhere in France and in early modern England. These dead babies may remind us of a prom mom who gave birth alone in a bathroom at a high school dance and left the remains in nearby trash receptacles, or of a woman who left the remains of twins in a case in the ditch at the side of a country road, or of the difference legal abortion has made to women’s options and experiences in such situations. Yet if women’s vulnerability and women’s agency have persisted, these past patterns and current permutations remind us of the pressing need to guarantee appropriate support and services for a fundamental aspect of women’s lives.

Notes

  1. Of course the long history of abortions and infanticide and the challenges of disposal goes back much further still. For the 2019 event mentioned here, see Lyon: un sac-poubelle avec un bébé mort jeté dans les eaux du Rhône. For the 1781 episode, see Départementales du Rhône (hereafter ADR), 7 April 1781. All the episodes described here are drawn from the Lyon archives, either from the official reports that were created when the discovery of an infant cadaver was reported to local officials (including descriptions of the circumstances and the reports of surgeons called to do autopsies) or from incidental discussions of dead babies in boxes in testimonies given when women filed paternity suits if their intimate partners refused to marry them. For more on all of these issues, see Julie Hardwick, Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660–1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020). Return to text.
  2. ADR 11G311, 5 January 1631. Return to text.
  3. ADR 11G311 1 November 1636; ADR 11G313 2 September 1743; ADR 11G313 13 February 1626, 1 November 1636, and 10 December 1676. Return to text.
  4. ADR BP2974, 2 July 1715. Return to text.
  5. ADR, BP3552 26 November 1743. Return to text.
  6. ADR BP3009, 18 July 1724; and ADR BP3544, 11 January 1725. Return to text.
  7. ADR 11G312, 11 May 1683; and ADR 11G313, 2 September 1743. Return to text.
  8. ADR 11G311, 25 January 1631; and ADR 11G313, 24 April 1744. For similar patterns around the findings of infant cadavers in southern France in terms of the use of boxes and lack of interest in prosecution, see Agnès Barroul, “Du geste à la parole: Infanticide et abandon d’enfants à Marseilles à la fin due XVIIIè siècle,” in Marseillaises: Les femmes et la ville, des origines à nos jours, eds. Yvonne Knibiehler et al. (Paris: Côtés-Femmes, 1993). For British women seeking to dig graves for infant cadavers in churchyards and other infant disposals, see Garthine Walker, “Just Stories: Telling Tales of Infant Death in Early Modern England,” in Culture and Change: Attending to Early Modern Women, eds.Margaret Mikesell and Adele Seeff (University of Delaware Press, 2003); and Garthine Walker, “Child-Killing and Emotion in Early Modern England and Wales,” in Death, Emotion and Childhood in Premodern Europe, eds. Katie Barclay, Kimberley Reynolds, and Ciara Rawnsley (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Return to text.

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