Peroxide Mug-Shot

Marina Warner writes about women who kill children

‘Snatched,’ said the Sun’s headline about the baby stolen three hours after her birth. This is the old word for what the feared raiders of the nursery, the child stealers, the cradle-snatchers, get up to. The Egyptians devised a special god of the lying-in room, the grotesque Bes, to protect women and babies. Bes was squat and ugly and poked out his tongue and his penis to repel intruders: he was a true scarecrow, and he saw off women who were childless, his myth implies, and filled with envy of the fortune that a new life brings. Lilith is the exemplary cradle-snatcher in Judaic legends; she was spurned by Adam when she refused to lie down underneath him to make love and was supplanted by the fertile Eve. Barren and spiteful, Lilith preyed on children; amulets, posies, charms and lullabies warded off her malign spells. The coral branch often worn by the child Jesus in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child is a survival of this pre-Christian Middle Eastern apotropaic magic. The mother in the judgment of Solomon, who steals another’s baby and claims it as her own, presented a threat whose recurrence in history has been neglected.

But legends do not distinguish this threat clearly from other crimes involving children: killing babies was the chief charge against witches, as detailed in the inquisitors’ how-to books, such as the Malleus Maleficarum, or in phantasmagoric representations of Sabbaths, by Goya among others. Accusations of child abuse draw on this fantastic repertory of acts and images. Infants were the witchhunters’ chief concern, but fairy tales widen the range of victims: in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the witch lures much older children to her cottage in order to cook them and eat them.

Beneath these particular figures of fear and danger lies the generic spectre of Death, who stalked children in times of high infant mortality. The trial of Louise Woodward and her initial conviction for the first-degree murder of Matthew Eappen reverberates with the atavistic confusion of all forms of child death, whether occurring by design, accident or injury, especially when a woman is involved. A large body of beliefs and fears about denatured women has been concealed from view behind a far more insistent object of terror, the male predator. From stalker to serial killer, child molester to cannibal, the figure of perverted male drive has influenced ideas about female sex crimes and child murder. In more familiar, and more recent, stories and beliefs, the bogeymen who raid cradles are almost always male, with sinister swagbags in which they stow their quarry. Local folklore in England associates these figures with moors. Conan Doyle, who drew on all kinds of sources, was alive to this when he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles. In Devon, Dewer the huntsman is said to ride with his pack of whist hounds. A man out walking one evening greeted him and asked him what sport he had had that day. Dewer replied heartily and tossed him a bag. When the man got home and opened it, expecting a nice piece of game, he found the body of his own child. There’s a trace of this type of legend in Jane Eyre’s first encounter with Mr Rochester, but here the predator’s quarry is a young woman and the episode has erotic overtones: the sound of his horse’s hooves reminds her of the Gytrash, a ‘north-of-England spirit’ from ‘one of Bessie’s tales’. This creature ‘haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers, as this horse was now coming upon me’.

That fatalities could be attributed to malignant fairies might even have helped to console the bereaved: the agent of suffering was out of reach, unlike Louise Woodward, and nobody was to blame. If the function of such superstitions had been consistently benevolent, all would be very simple; but belief in witchcraft or fairy possession could also lead to terrible reprisals, as it did in Salem. Hubert Butler’s magnificent, sombre essay, ‘The Eggman and the Fairies’, puts paid to any false hopes that a different idea of personal responsibility could lighten the present climate of suspicion and panic or the urge to finger culprits.

The fairies – or devils – that came for children were also perceived as seductive adults who charmed away young children (no longer infants) with gifts and blandishments. In the earliest Dutch autobiography by a woman (1695), Isabel de Moerloose recalls her parents warning that if she stayed out playing longer than she was allowed to, a man in a long black coat would come and put a ball in her mouth to choke her. The sexual anxiety behind this bogeyman is clear, but Moerloose comments that she and her friends thought that grown-ups made up such stories to frighten them into obedience. They experimented with putting a ball in their mouths and found that they could breathe through their noses.

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[*] Faber, 144 pp., £14.99, 16 February 1998, 0 571 19266 1.