Naomi Tadmor wrote that “What people expected from their kin gives us insights into social and cultural life no less than what actually came about. This is particularly important because relationships among kin were often marked by negative tension and disappointment.”1 Some of my recent research deals with particularly tense and disappointing family lives as revealed in the records of the Old Bailey Online, a fabulous database of London criminal trial accounts and other reports spanning the period 1674-1913.
I’ve been trawling the records in search of mentions of stepmothers before 1750. This search is complicated by changes in terminology. “Mother-in-law” was regularly used to identify a woman we’d describe as a stepmother today but also could be used to describe the mother of a spouse just as it’s used currently. Confusing? Oh, yeah!
Only three accounts use the phrase “step mother” in the pre-1750 records; 51 use the term mother-in-law and many of these mentions are so fleeting, I can’t determine what relationship the person’s describing. But for those that are identifiable? The stepmothers come off badly almost all the time.
Both accused and convicted criminals bring up stepmothers only to blame them for their own downfall, rightly or wrongly, as in the case of Elizabeth Hewit, convicted in 1734 of robbery. Hewit’s story retold by the Newgate chaplain showed a stepmother as trigger to personal downfall: “Being unkindly treated by a Mother-in-Law, she left her Father, who took little care of her when young”, Hewit embarked on a life of crime.2
Some women tried to fight the stigma of stepmotherhood but being as these are criminal trials, that often ends badly. In 1686, Elizabeth Battison was brought to trial in the death of her stepdaughter, Elizabeth Kell. Battison felt that the stigma of the stepmother might colour how the judge perceived her parenting, so she “deposed that though she was Mother in Law to the Decased [sic] Kell, yet she loved her very well, and always gave her moderate Correction.” A surgeon examined the eleven-year-old’s body, and declared that she died as a result of a blow or kick to the torso, not of natural causes as her stepmother argued. Battison was found guilty.3
In 1726, young Mary Broadbent and some neighbour women were charged by Mary’s father and stepmother with theft. The trial notes show that Mrs. Broadbent described her relationship with Mary as caring and nurturing:
As for the Child, I love her as well as if she had been my own a thousand Times. She has been instructed in the Fear of God; she can say her Catechism in English and French, and can answer all lawful Questions, but she has been drawn aside by wicked Neighbours.
Unfortunately for Mrs. Broadbent and her husband, the prosecutors in the case, the trial soon turned against them. The father and stepmother lost custody of Mary who was taken in by Mr. Broadbent’s horrified sister and brother-in-law who testified against the prosecuting parents, asserting that Mr. Broadbent simply wanted to be rid of Mary in any way possible.4
A few, somewhat positive descriptions of stepmothers survive. In the Ordinary’s Account of September, 1700, when John Wheeler, a condemned thief spoke “to clear the Reputation of his Father and Mother in Law, they being, as he affirmed, not any cause of his Overthrow.”5 William Meers forty years later, described his stepmother’s care as “indifferent”.6 Faint praise, indeed!
These are all within 1042 uses of the word “mother” for the same time period and I’m working my way through these accounts to see if I can find more cases referring to stepmothers. Maybe some of them come off better than the cases I’ve examined already, but I’m not getting my hopes up! It’s pretty clear that, as far as these accounts go, the wicked stepmother of the Cinderella legend (Perrault’s version was published in 1697) was part of a powerful stereotype.7
Are these records representative of all of early modern England’s attitudes and experiences? Hardly. But they’re one more puzzle piece in my research to understand the experience and ideas of stepmotherhood in early modern England. That’s the subject of the book I’m writing.
(This post is adapted from my presentation, “Honour Thy Stepmother: Complicating Family Dynamics in Early Modern England” at the 2011 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women.)
- Naomi Tadmor, “Early modern English kinship in the long run: reflections on continuity and change,” Continuity and Change 25 (2010) 16.
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 20 April 2011), Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, July 1734 (OA17340709).
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 20 April 2011), July 1686, trial of Elizabeth Battison (t16860707-12).
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 20 April 2011), April 1726, trial of Mary Broadbent Mary Cosier Mary Harding Phillis Harding (t17260420-63).
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 26 April 2011), Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, September 1700 (OA17000906).
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 26 April 2011), Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, November 1740 (OA17401124).
- For context on the origins and use of the Cinderella myth, see Alan Dundes, Cinderella: a casebook (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982).