In a recent Women’s Studies Colloquium, Marina Leslie discussed the revival of Anne Green, a servant girl convicted of infanticide and the factors that led to her exoneration.
PROVO, Utah (Oct. 20, 2016)—In December of 1650 Anne Green, an English servant girl, was condemned to hang for the infanticide of her unborn child. A day after the hanging, Anne Green revived on the anatomy table of Dr. William Petty of Oxford just as the physician was preparing her body for dissection. Her remarkable recovery was made even more incredible by the court’s decision to forego the sentence and let Green live. Green, as it would turn out was not the only person to survive hanging, but she garnered a lot more attention than her compatriots because of the circumstances under which she was exonerated.
Anne Green was prosecuted under the Infanticide Act which made it illegal for an unmarried woman to conceal the birth of a child and put her under immediate suspicion of murder if the child died during birth or soon after. “Public attitudes towards unmarried mothers for much of the 17th century [were] neither generous nor forgiving, and the Infanticide Act of 1624 under which she was convicted illustrated an increase in the concern of the public that infanticide was a rising epidemic,” explained Marina Leslie, a professor of English at Northeastern University, at a recent BYU Women’s Studies colloquium.
Unmarried mothers were presumed guilty unless they could provide a witness that the child died at birth or of natural causes to prove their innocence. Leslie expounded that the act was a measure to discourage immorality, especially among servants. Leslie continued, “Single women in service were regarded as dangerously mobile, untethered from family supervision, and to some degree financially independent and as such already suspect in exceeding and evading the social and legal codes regulating female decorum.”
It is intriguing, then, to consider the exoneration of Green when her social class and status as an unwed mother was viewed with high levels of suspicion. “Green’s survival of her hanging was not unprecedented, whereas her subsequent exoneration for the infanticide was,” said Leslie. “The law was clear that her sentence was to hang until dead and it should not be assumed that the law had any predisposition to show tenderness to a woman who survived her hanging.”
Seven years after the hanging of Anne Green, Robert Plot wrote an account of another woman accused of infanticide, hanged and revived. Leslie explained that the difference in this case is that when the young woman survived she was not allowed to be exonerated; she was taken outside and hung her again from the nearest tree until they were sure she was dead.
In the case of Green, her innocence came as a result of the efforts of Dr. William Petty, who found a midwife willing to testify that Green’s baby had been stillborn. In Petty’s account, Green was presented as an overworked servant girl who went into labor only four months after the conception of her child. The infant was not developed enough to survive and so the death was not Green’s fault; if anything it was the fault of her master for overworking her.
In proving the innocence of Green, Petty had another motive. “Petty saw in Anne Green’s resurrection an opportunity to bring attention and admiration both within and beyond Oxford to the extracurricular and largely marginalized activities of the Oxford Experimentalist Club.” explained Leslie, “ And, at the same time, to ease tension between the largely royalist faculty and the influx of parliamentary sanctioned scholars who were, in many cases, sent to replace them.”
Leslie continued by saying that Anne Green became immortalized in the pamphlet Newes from the Dead, which included twenty five poems, some comparing Green to mythological figures like Orpheus and Eurydice. This was in part to counter the rebellious Levellers who had adopted her as a sort of symbol. Levellers were a group of sectarian protesters during the English Civil War of 1642-1651 who were in favor of extending suffrage rights and religious tolerance to almost all members of the adult male population. Part of the publications in Newes from the Dead were to debunk the notion of Anne Green as a prophetess, but also, as Leslie said, to satirize Green’s situation and continue Pliny’s doctrine that one “can never trust a woman, even when she is dead.”
—Hannah Sandorf (BA Art History and Curatorial Studies ‘17)
Hannah covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.
image: Title page woodcut of the execution and resuscitation of Anne Green, 1651