Institute of Historical Studies
Institute of Historical Studies

Workshop: "'Guilty of the offence wherewith she stands charged': Prosecuting Enslaved Women for Infanticide in the Antebellum South" by Signe Fourmy, University of Texas at Austin (New Work in Progress Series)

Thu, March 26, 2020 | GAR 4.100

3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

On September 16, 1852, Lucy, a fourteen-year-old girl stood before five justices of the peace
in the City of Richmond’s Hustings Court accused of murdering her newborn son. The court found
her “guilty of the offence wherewith she stands charged” and sentenced Lucy to be hanged. The
justices, Lucy’s attorney, and the prosecutor then requested the governor intercede on Lucy’s behalf
and commute her sentence to sale and transportation. Lucy’s reprieve illustrates the complex dynamics
at play in local decisions to prosecute, convict, and punish enslaved women for infanticide. Lucy was
not the only woman who used violence to end her infant’s life, but she is one of a small number of
enslaved women whose actions remain recorded, yet unexamined, in Virginia’s extant criminal court

This paper is taken from chapter two of my dissertation entitled “You are invited to attend
and defend said negro slave if you think proper”: Prosecuting Enslaved Women for Infanticide. This
chapter moves beyond the inquest jury’s preliminary determinations of guilt (chapter one) to examine
the prosecution and defense of enslaved women accused of infanticide. Exploring legal issues related
to the effective assistance of counsel, admissibility of evidence such as confessions and bodily
searches, and issues of fundamental fairness, I examine how the law operated for/against these
criminal defendants who were simultaneously people and property. Using county court records and in
conversation with historians Paul Finkelman and Laura F. Edwards, this paper explores the
relationship between the nature of the crime, the community’s response, and legal outcome. How did
the defendant’s status, age, perceived mental capacity, and reputation impact local legal decisions? By
examining cases of enslaved women prosecuted for infanticide, I interrogate the connections between
enslaved motherhood, trauma, and criminality in the historical narrative to see what they reveal about
resistance and the interiority of enslaved women’s lives. Although infanticide occurred across racial,
social, and economic boundaries, I argue that when committed by enslaved women, these acts of
maternal resistance bear particular meaning as a rejection of attempts to control their reproduction
and a reflection of the trauma of enslavement.

Signe Peterson Fourmy is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation, “They Chose Death Over Slavery: Enslaved Women and Infanticide in the Antebellum South” examines enslaved women’s acts of infanticide as maternal resistance. Fourmy earned a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Notre Dame and J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center. After law school, she taught middle school social studies for eleven years, earning district- and state-wide recognition for student achievement along with numerous honors and teaching awards. As a graduate student, she has presented original work at national conferences hosted by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR), and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. Her work has been supported by the American Historical Association’s Littleton-Griswold Fellowship for Research in Legal History, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Summer Visiting Research Fellowship, the Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Society’s Robert Eldridge Seiler Fellowship, the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History Year-Long Graduate Student Fellowship, UT Department of History, SHEAR, and the UT Graduate School.

Jacqueline Jones
Professor and Chair of the History Department;
Ellen C. Temple Chair in Women’s History, and
Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History
University of Texas at Austin

Tiana Wilson
Doctoral Student in the History Department,
Graduate Research Assistant, Institute for Historical Studies, and
Coordinator, New Work in Progress Series
University of Texas at Austin

Free and open to the public. Please RSVP to to sign-up to attend and receive the pre-circulated paper. Refreshments provided to all who RSVP. The Institute for Historical Studies is committed to sustainable practices and minimizing waste. To that end, we have eliminated all bottled water and encourage attendees to bring their own reusable canteens to fill at our first-floor bottle-refilling station.

Sponsored by: Institute for Historical Studies in the Department of History

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