Irish Journal of Medical Science

, Volume 176, Issue 3, pp 149–152 | Cite as

Murder, mercury, mental illness: infanticide in nineteenth-century Ireland

  • B. D. KellyEmail author
Literary and Historical



Infanticide has been described in almost every human society.


To present a case of infanticide from nineteenth-century Ireland and explore related diagnostic, therapeutic and judicial issues.


This paper uses original archival material from the Central Mental Hospital, Dublin to present a case of infanticide and inform an exploration of related issues.


In 1892, ‘Dora’, a thirty-four year old servant from Dublin, was found guilty of the murder of her eight-month old child and sentenced to indefinite detention at the Central Mental Hospital, Ireland’s only inpatient forensic psychiatry facility. The subsequent experiences of Dora (“a case of melancholia”) illustrate many of the diagnostic, therapeutic and judicial issues surrounding infanticide in nineteenth-century Ireland.


There were strong links between social circumstances and infanticide in nineteenth-century Ireland, compounded by myriad diagnostic and therapeutic challenges associated with forensic psychiatric committal and lengthy detention in poorly-therapeutic facilities .


Infanticide Mental disorders Forensic psychiatry History, 19th century Mercury 



The author is grateful for the assistance of Professor Harry Kennedy (National Forensic Psychiatry Service, Dublin) and for the comments of the anonymous peer-reviewer.


  1. 1.
    Pearsall J, Trumble B (1996) The Oxford english reference dictionary, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Jackson M (2002) Infanticide: historical perspectives on child murder and concealment, 1550–2000. Ashgate, HampshireGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Schwartz LL, Isser NK (2000) Endangered children: neonaaticide, infanticide and filicide (Pacific Institute Series on Forensic Psychology). CRC Press Inc, FloridaGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Resnick P (1970) Murder of the newborn: a psychiatric review of neonaticide. Am J Psychiatry 126:1414–1420PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Finkelhor D (1997) The homicides of children and youth: a developmental perspective. In: Kantor GK, Jasinski JL (eds) Out of the darkness: contemporary perspectives on family violence, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, pp 17–34Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Hesketh T, Zhu WX (1997) The one child family policy: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Br Med J 314:1685–1687Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Wu Z, Viisainen K, Wang Y, Hemminki E (2003) Perinatal mortality in rural China: a retrospective cohort study. Br Med J 327:1319CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Hesketh T, Lu L, Xing ZW (2005) The effect of China’s one-child family policy after 25 years. N Engl J Med 353:1171–1176PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Mulryan N, Gibbons P, O’Connor A (2002) Infanticide and child murder – admission to the Central Mental Hospital 1850–2000. Ir J Psychol Med 19:8–12Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Guilbride A (2004) Infanticide: the crime of motherhood. In: Kennedy P (eds) Motherhood in Ireland. Mercier Press, Cork, pp 170–180Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Friedman SH, Horowitz SM, Resnick PJ (2005) Child murder by mothers: a critical analysis of the current state of knowledge and a research agenda. Am J Psychiatry 162:1578–1587PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Smith C (1990) The Central Mental Hospital, Dundrum, Dublin. In: Bluglass R, Bowden P (eds) Principles and practice of forensic psychiatry. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh, pp 1351–1353Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Williamson AP (1992) Psychiatry, moral management and the origins of social policy for mentally ill people in Ireland. Ir J Med Sci 161:556–558PubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    McCarthy A (2004) hearths, bodies and minds: gender ideology and women’s committal to Enniscorthy Lunatic Asylum, 1916–1925. In: Hayes A, Urguhart D (eds) Irish women’s history. Academic, Dublin, pp 115–136Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Prior P (2004) Prisoner or lunatic? The official debate on the criminal lunatic in nineteenth-century Ireland. Hist Psychiatry 15:177–192PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Reuber M (1996) The architecture of psychological management: the Irish asylums (1801–1922). Psychol Med 26:1179–1189PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Reuber M (1999) Moral management and the ‘unseen eye’: public lunatic asylums in Ireland, 1800–1845. In: Malcolm E, Jones G (eds) Medicine, disease and the State in Ireland, 1650–1940. Cork University Press, Cork pp 208–233Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Brown EM (2000) Why Wagner-Jauregg won the Nobel Prize for discovering malaria therapy for general paralysis of the insane. Hist Psychiatry 11:371–382CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Merrit HH, Adams R, Solomon HC (1946) Neurosyphilis. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Guthrie D (1945) A history of medicine. Nelson, London pp 383–384Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Prestwich PE (2003) Family strategies and medical power: ‘voluntary’ committal in a Parisian asylum, 1876–1914. In: Porter R, Wright D (eds) The confinement of the Insane: international perspectives, 1800–1965. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 79–99Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Fleetwood JF (1983) The history of medicine in Ireland, 2nd edn. Skellig Press, DublinGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Hallaran WS (1818) Practical observations on the causes and cures of insanity, 2nd edn. Edwards and Savage, CorkGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Gibbons P, Mulryan N, O’Connor A (1997) Guilty but insane: the insanity defence in Ireland, 1850–1995. Br J Psychiatry 170:467–472PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Walsh O (2004) Gender and insanity in nineteenth-century Ireland. Clio Medica 73:69–93PubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Adult PsychiatryUniversity College Dublin, Mater Misericordiae University HospitalDublin 7Ireland

Personalised recommendations