This paper examines a prevailing cultural interpretation of high infant mortality rates among the 19th-century English working class. It argues that most deaths attributed to “overlaying” or “smothering” were probably not the results of infanticide but rather due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Recent research on SIDS is discussed in support of this hypothesis, followed by a description of the demographic and nutritional conditions of 19th-century British working-class populations. Finally, the class-cultural biases of the “infanticide” hypothesis are suggested.
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This paper began as a footnote in an introductory anthropology lecture on infanticide. It grew as a result of conversations with Jane Schneider, Ellen Rosenberg, Karen Sacks, Robert S. Hansen, and Ed Hansen. I am indebted to them all for their interest, criticisms, and bibliographic suggestions.
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de Hansen, E.G.R. “Overlaying” in 19th-century England: Infant mortality or infanticide?. Hum Ecol 7, 333–352 (1979). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00888101