8th July 1931. ‘Pleading the Belly’.
Today in 1931 saw the Sentencing of Death (Expectant Women) Act rendered obsolete. This Common Law dated back to 1387 which reprieved women of execution, for a capital offence, until delivery of the child, known as ‘Pleading the Belly’.(1)
From now on no woman convicted of a capital offence could legally be hanged after the child’s birth. In fact no woman had suffered the penalty since Mary Ann Cotton, her child being removed beforehand, who was hanged at Durham Castle in 1873.(2)
By 16thc those who ‘pleaded the belly’, were either pardoned or transported, but later abuses of the system caused the law to be amended so that no woman could be granted a second reprieve on the grounds of subsequent pregnancy; if this occurred the gaoler and local Sheriff could be fined for ‘working slackly’.
Many efforts were made to avoid sentencing; Daniel Defoe’s, Moll Flanders (1722) has a character who successfully ‘pleaded her belly’ despite being ‘no more with child than the judge’.
Cases relating to issues of pregnancy and execution were also raised in the work of John Gay’s Beggars’ Opera (1728), where a character Filch secures an income as ‘child-getter’ helping women to pregnancy ‘against their being called down to sentence’.
Efforts made to test Civil Law cases, in Common Law, went back to the Jury of Matrons. Theses Civil Matrons comprised 12 knights and 12 matrons summoned by writ, de ventra inspiciendo-inspection of the belly- to resolve legal actions over pregnancy.
It was used to determine whether a recently widowed woman, pregnant with her supposed late husband’s child, could prevent or delay the husband’s property going to other relatives, if he had died without male heirs.
By the early 19thc Civil Juries had largely died out especially with the coming of the Married Women’s Property Act 1882.
Regarding Criminal Law where a woman was convicted of a capital crime when ‘quick with child’, this was determined by six women, after which she was reprieved until the next hanging.
It is surprising to note then even up to the 20thc The Jury of Women was employed at least once when Ada Annie Williams was convicted of murdering her 4 year old son. Sentenced to death in December 1914 she was reprieved and the sentence commuted.
The 1931 Legislation was repealed on 30th September 1998, Crime and Disorder Act: slowly grind the mills of justice.
(1) As a result of a backbench MP, Miss Picton-Turbevill.
(2) On 24 March 1873.