Skip to Content

Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

R. v. Lamb [1841] NSWSupC 102

murder - women defendants in crime - infanticide

Supreme Court of New South Wales

Dowling C.J., 11 October 1841

Australian, 12 October 1841

            Mary Lamb was indicted for the wilful murder of a female infant on the 25th February last.

            The Attorney General conducted the prosecution, and Mr. Purefoy appeared to defend the prisoner.

            The details of the case are such as would not bear publication except in a medical work. Mr. Purefoy quoted at some length from works on Medical jurisprudence, to shew that the death alledged to have been caused by the prisoner might have been purely accidental, and further addressed the jury at considerable length in her favour.

            The Chief Justice summed up very minutely, and the jury after some deliberation returned a verdict of not guilty of murder, but guilty of endeavouring to conceal birth.

            Mr. Purefoy submitted that this was a virtual acquittal, and quoted authorities in support of his objection to the record; the ground of the objection was, that nothing was done after the death of the child to conceal it. The same objection had been made by the learned Counsel in Circuit, before Mr. Justice Stephen, and he apprehended it was absolute and decisive.

            The Chief Justice said he would take time to consider the point, and remanded the prisoner.

Dowling C.J., 21 October 1841

Source: Sydney Herald, 22 October 1841[1]

Mary Lamb. - You were indicted for the wilful murder of your female illegitimate child by strangulation. Beyond all doubt you destroyed the life of your infant by violence; but whether wilfully and of purpose, is a question between you and your conscience. The favourable view which the jury took of your case led them. (doubtless from conscientious motives). to pronounce you not guilty of murder. Had their verdict been adverse to you, it would have been my painful task to award that sentence which the law denounces against child murder, and it would have been my duty to forbear interposing any obstacle between sentence and execution: for however the mind revolts against the possibility that a mother could wilfully destroy her own offspring, yet as there is too much reason to fear, that there are heartless and unnatural women, so utterly lost to the dictates of nature, as to hide the living evidence of profligacy by murder, the justice of the country would have required the expiation of your guilt by the forfeiture of life. If you did not contemplate the death of the innocent being of which you were the mother, it is difficult to conceive why you denied to your master when taxed with it, the apparent prospect of maternity, -why you made no preparation for the dress and care of the infant - why you kept concealed from your fellow-servants the situation in which you were - and why you selected a retired loft for the struggles of parturition. These circumstances were no doubt duly weighed by the jury, but whilst they were relieved from the pain of finding you guilty of murder, they were satisfied that you had endeavoured as far as in you lay, to conceal the birth of your child - an offence, which, though liable to severe punishment, yet one considerably short of death; and they found you guilty accordingly of the minor offence. After the verdict was recorded, your learned counsel took an objection, that in point of law, the facts proved did not warrant the verdict inasmuch as, whatever your ultimate intentions might have been yet, you had not in the language of the Act of Parliament, "endeavoured to conceal the birth, by secret burying or otherwise disposing of the dead body." Fortunately for you I am constrained to yield to the validity of the objection, and consequently on this occasion you will go hence free from any other punishment, than the exposure and degradation to which this prosecution has subjected you, and which if you are not utterly abandoned to all sense of shame, will I trust, be sufficient to awaken in your breast, a proper sense of the misery which awaits every lapse from the paths of virtue. If you are indeed the victim of deliberate and heartless seduction, your situation is pitiable, and I trust that the author of your sorrows will, notwithstanding what has passed, make, if he can lawfully, the only amends which can save you from irretrievable ruin. The prisoner was then removed from the dock and liberated.


[1]               See also Australian, 23 October 1841.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University