Home » Blog » Bedclothes, Mothers and Infant Suffocation

Bedclothes, Mothers and Infant Suffocation

Bedclothes were believed to be one of the major causes of infant suffocation in the Victorian working-class home, the other being overlaying, while a small number were attributed to feeding bottles and pillows.  Between 1840 and 1900, 78 inquests held in Ipswich on infants (under one year of age) concluded they had been suffocated accidentally.  Exactly how many of these suffocations were due to bedclothes or overlaying cannot be truly ascertained, as the medical witnesses at the inquests were themselves frequently unsure as to the precise cause of the suffocation (and as will be seen below, even the actual cause of death).  This is illustrated at an 1871 inquest in Ipswich on Eliza and Seymour Durrant’s son, who had been discovered dead in his parents’ bed one Saturday morning in December.  Medical witness Mr Rumpf stated that ‘in his opinion the cause of the child’s death was asphyxia, which might have been produced either by the pressure of the bed clothes against its mouth or the pressure of the mouth against its mother’s breast, probably the latter’.[1]  While in 1890, Mr F.R. Anness, surgeon, stated at the inquest upon an infant named Hurrey, ‘he had no doubt that the child was suffocated, but how he could not say’.[2]

A small number of infant suffocations, 14 in total, took place as the infant slept in their bassinet or bed during the day, supposedly out of harm’s way.  For example, when infant Harriet Ungless was put to bed during the day, she rolled into the dip in the mattress created by the broken rope supporting the mattress and suffocated.[3]  This notwithstanding the bed appears to have been more of a dangerous space at night, when other inhabitants were also sleeping in the bed with 77 per cent of infant suffocations occurring between the hours of midnight and 6am.

In Ipswich, infant suffocation, including overlaying, did peak slightly during the cold winter months, as mothers ‘over-clad’ their infants in bedclothes or clothing in an attempt to keep them warm in the cold and draughty working-class bedroom.[4]  A number of Ipswich’s infants supposedly suffocated after being covered in too many bed clothes in an attempt by the mother to keep them warm.  On a Wednesday night, in December 1866, Jane Gant:

went to bed about half-past 12 [along with her infant daughter], her husband having gone to bed a quarter of an hour earlier [was already asleep].  She put the child to the breast and afterwards laid it upon the pillow by her side (not next to her husband), and went to sleep with her arm around it, having first covered its head with the bed clothes, to keep it warm.

The following morning, Jane Gant, upon waking, found her daughter was struggling to breathe.  She ran downstairs, and finding a fire burning, tried to warm the child, but the child died shortly after.  The surgeon at the inquest, Mr Staddon, having inspected the body (though only externally, as post-mortems examinations on infants and children were relatively uncommon throughout the period studied), concluded that ‘the child was suffocated by the [bed] clothes and probably the pillow’, and the jury agreed.[5]

Other mothers were believed to have overlaid their infants as they pressed them close for warmth on cold winter nights.  In November 1860, in Ipswich, Mary Miller’s mother ‘wrapped [her] child in a flannel petticoat to keep it warm; it is supposed she must have pressed it too closely to her, for the child was found dead the next morning’.  At the inquest, ‘Mr Meadows, who examined the child, was of opinion that death arose from suffocation, caused in the way alluded to’.[6]

Mothers were most often held responsible for overlaying, despite other occupants being present in the bed, partly because of their role as care-giver, but also because babies slept next to them.  In the Hervey family’s Ipswich home , ‘About 5 o’clock on[e] Friday morning the child cried, when it had the breast, and again went to sleep on its mother’s arm’.  When the parents awoke later on that morning, the infant was found to be dead.  ‘Mr Edwards, surgeon, who, upon examining the deceased, stated the body presented the appearance such as would have been produced by the child having been overlaid’.[7]

Even in overcrowded beds, the typical positioning of the infant with the mother meant that she was believed by the coroner’s court to have overlain the child.  At the 1845 inquest of Eliza Bayley, it was noted that, ‘the deceased, her mother, a blind sister, and another [female] person […] all slept in the same bed.  At eleven o’clock, the deceased took the breast, in the morning she was found dead’.  Giving his evidence to the court, ‘Mr Mills, surgeon, said the child died from suffocation, arising from the pressure of the mother’s breast; his belief was that the deceased fell asleep in her mother’s arms, and that, from there being three adult women in the same bed, the child was overlaid’.[8]

In contrast to the contemporary arguments, namely that mothers were usually drunk at the time of overlaying their infants, there appears to be little such evidence in the Ipswich inquests.  Despite infant suffocations peaking at weekends in Ipswich, only two mothers were believed to have overlain their infants whilst under the influence of drink at the time of the fatal incident between 1840 and 1900.  Admittedly, it must be stressed, it was certainly difficult for the coroner’s court to prove whether the mother was drunk at the time of the accident, as it would require others to testify to her intoxicated state.[9]

Tiredness, as first suggested by Jane Lewis,[10] not drunkenness, appears to have been a more common cause of overlaying in Ipswich.  In 1850, the Ipswich Journal reported on the inquest of the illegitimate infant, Sarah Lambley:

The mother of the infant, a single woman, aged 23, is in the habit of carrying water-cresses about the town, and occupies a garret in the Rope-walk, sleeping in the same bed with the child, and her sister […] On the previous day, the mother returned home very tired and went to bed; on the following morning at seven, she found the child dead upon her arm […] Mr Adams, surgeon, [stated i]n his opinion, death had been caused by asphyxia, produced from pressure from the mother.  He added that the fatigue and cold caused to the mother from walking about the street with water-cresses, were enough to occasion the mother to fall into a profound sleep, during which the infant, who was feeble and delicate, from involuntary slight pressure, would be suffocated.  There being no suspicious circumstance attending the case, the Jury returned a verdict “That the deceased was found dead in bed, from asphyxia produced from accidental pressure by the mother.”[11]

In 1896, the Ipswich Journal ran an article entitled: ‘TROUBLE UPON TROUBLE – SAD DISCLOSURES AT IPSWICH’, detailing the death and inquest of the Ipswich infant, Ellen Byford.  At the inquest, the coroner had stated that ‘In this case it was possible the child might have been suffocated by the bedclothes’, but tiredness was also considered to be a factor.  The medical witness, Mr S.O. Eades, surgeon, stated:

The mother had been broken in her rest for some nights with her other deceased child, which died of consumption; and his conclusion was that she had probably turned over during a heavy sleep and got her back against the child’s face.  It being only six weeks old, had not strength to recover its breath, and was suffocated by being overlaid […] The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental suffocation.”[12]

Recent scholarship has thrown doubt on the reliability of verdicts of infant suffocation, both accidental and intentional.  It has argued that many of these ‘suffocations’ were not suffocations at all, but were misconstrued symptoms of respiratory disorders such as bronco-pneumonia or, given the seasonality of these deaths, hypothermia.[13]  Problems in identifying the actual cause of death in the nineteenth century were compounded by a lack of medical expertise and medical facilities.[14]  As William Brend remarked in 1915:

The only post-mortem signs of death from overlaying are those ordinarily accompanying asphyxia, such as engorgement of the lungs and blueness of the face, which are indistinguishable from the appearance often met with in death from rickety convulsions and other causes vaguely certified under the term “debility”.  Even in bronco-pneumonia the patches of consolidation in the lungs, if not well marked, may be overlooked by a general practitioner; and the parents may have failed to notice that the infant has been ill for a day or two, or may have regarded the symptoms as trivial and due to a cold.[15]

Detailed medical testimony in the inquests and newspaper reports of the inquests that had resulted in a verdict of accidental suffocation/overlaying frequently refer to the infant being unwell at the time of death, suggesting that these deaths could possibly have been due to other causes:

‘The deceased had been ailing’

The infant ‘had a bad cold and great difficulty of breathing’

‘The child was not a healthy one’

‘The deceased child appears never to have been like other children, and always appeared to be in a state of semi-stupor and sleep’. 

‘The deceased had had a cold from its birth’

‘The infant was ‘sickly looking’

‘The child has been rather weak since its birth, suffering from thrush’.[16]

Even in the case of a post-mortem examination being held, confusion remained as to the cause of death, with surgeons relying on circumstantial evidence to reach their often tenuous conclusion.  At the inquest upon the infant of Ernest Cuthbert, ‘the surgeon stated that he had made a post-mortem examination of the body, and found that the child died from congestion of the lungs and brain, caused by suffocation, which he thought either took place from overlying on the part of the mother, or convulsions.  He thought the former most likely, as if the child had died of convulsions it would have struggled and awoke the mother’. Verdict – ‘Death from suffocation’.[17]

In some instances, the absence of symptoms in what is now identified as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome  (SIDS); commonly known as ‘cot death’, was perhaps wrongly attributed to accidental suffocation in bedclothes, accidental overlaying or, in some instances, infanticide.[18]  Victorian medical men, unable to account for these sudden and unexplained deaths, found the working-class mother an easy scapegoat.  As Davin explains, the middle-class ideal of separate spaces, that children should sleep separately from their parents, ideally in their own nursery, meant that ‘if an infant died in its parents bed, it must have been “overlaid” because it was in the wrong place’.[19]

Another mistaken sign that an infant had been overlaid was the post-mortem bruising that occurred as the cessation of circulation caused the blood to settle on one side of the body, giving the appearance that pressure (i.e. the mother) had been applied to that particular side.  Therefore, with a supposedly obvious sign of overlaying, at least to the medical witness’ eye on external examination of the body, little more was done to determine the cause of death.  The 1878 inquest of eight-week-old Thomas Piggin, recorded that ‘The child had been prematurely born.  Mrs Piggin gave it solid food twice a day and the breast when it was awake’.[20]  However, one morning Mrs Piggin awoke to find her infant dead by her side.  ‘Mr Adams, surgeon, [stated to the inquest that] he called about eight o’clock and saw the infant, which was quite dead.  It had a long bruise extending all up the left side of the arm, head, and side, which no doubt was produced by the child lying close to the mother, and the blood becoming congealed’.  He further added, ‘He considered the death of the child was caused by suffocation, by its nose and mouth being pressed against the mother, and it being weak died at once […] the jury returned a verdict according to the surgeon’s evidence’.[21]

Unfortunately, what actually caused these infants deaths will never be irrefutably established.  Nonetheless my work does, at the very least, cast further doubt on the verdict of suffocation (whether in bedclothes or through overlaying) in the Victorian coroner’s courts.


[1] Ipswich Journal, 30 Dec 1871, p. 5.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 1 Nov 1890, p. 8.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 3 Apr 1858, p. 3.

[4] Lionel Rose, The Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Britain, 1800-1939 (London, 1986), p. 176.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 29 Dec 1866, p. 5.

[6] Ipswich Journal, 17 Nov 1860, p. 5.

[7] Ipswich Journal, 12 May 1849, p. 3.

William Brend, Barrister-at-law and lecturer on forensic medicine, argued in 1915, that the only genuine cases of overlaying occurred when the mother fell asleep while feeding her infant.  Any other attributed cases, he argues, are doubtful. William A. Brend, An Inquiry into the Statistics of Deaths from Violence and Unnatural Causes in the United Kingdom (London, 1915), p. 52.

[8] Ipswich Journal, 7 Jun 1845, p. 3.

[9] Rose, The Massacre of the Innocents, p. 180

[10] Jane Lewis, The Politics of Motherhood. Child and Maternal Welfare in England, 1900-1939 (London, 1980), p. 78.

[11] Ipswich Journal, 23 Nov 1850, p. 2.

[12] Ipswich Journal, 18 Jul 1896, p. 5.

[13] Brend, An Inquiry into the Statistics of Deaths, p. 52; M. Greenwood, W.J Martin and W.T Russell, ‘Deaths by violence, 1837-1937’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 104 (1941), 146-171, p. 154; Elizabeth de G.R. Hansen, ‘“Overlaying” in 19th-century England: infant mortality or infanticide’, Human Ecology, 7 (1979), 333-52, p.336; Lewis, The Politics of Motherhood, p. 76; Rose, The Massacre of the Innocents, pp. 180-181; Ellen Ross, Love and Toil. Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870-1918 (New York, 1993), p. 189.

[14] Edward Higgs, Identifying the English. A History of Personal Identification, 1500-2010 (London, 2011), pp. 118, 164; Brend, An Inquiry into the Statistics of Deaths, pp. 54-56.

[15] Brend, An Inquiry into the Statistics of Deaths, p. 52.

[16] Ipswich Journal, 23 Nov 1850, p. 2; Ipswich Journal, 17 Jan 1857, p. 2; Ipswich Journal, 29 Dec1866, p. 5; Ipswich Journal, 23 May 1868, p. 5; Ipswich Journal, 7 Nov 1871, p. 2; Ipswich Journal, 19 Oct 1878, p. 5.

[17] Ipswich Journal, 3 May 1881, p. 2.

[18] This has been most extensively discussed in Hansen’s article, ‘Overlaying’. And has also been discussed Anna Davin, ‘Imperialism and motherhood’, History Workshop Journal, 5 (1978), 9-65, p. 52; Thomas R. Forbes, ‘Deadly parents: child homicide in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 41 (1986), pp. 175-99, p. 185; Lewis, The Politics of Motherhood, p. 76; Rose, The Massacre of the Innocents, p. 176; Ross, Love and Toil, p. 189; Savitt, Todd, ‘Smothering and overlaying of Virginia slave children: a suggested explanation’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 49 (1975), 400–404.

[19] Davin, ‘Imperialism and motherhood’, p. 52.

[20] Ipswich Journal, 3 Aug 1878, p. 4.

[21] Ipswich Journal, 3 Aug 1878, p. 4.

Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s