THE arrest of an open-faced 28-year-old nurse, Lucy Letby, on suspicion of the murder of eight babies and attempted murder of as many more simultaneously impels and repels, writes Terry Prone.
We are fascinated and appalled by the scenario, partly because women do not murder as frequently (or as randomly) as do men.
When academic Ann Jones embarked, 40 years ago, on her eponymous study of women who kill, it was largely stimulated by her realisation that “unlike men, who are apt to stab a total stranger in a drunken brawl or run amok with a high-powered rifle, we women usually kill our intimates: we kill our children, our husbands, our lovers.”
The most intimate of those “intimates” is a baby to whom the mother has given birth.
Killing children has, arguably more often than not, been motivated on the part of women by simple desperation: By the hope of avoiding the shame of birthing a baby out of wedlock.
That happened among the first Europeans to land in America. Women killed newborns and hid the bodies, sometimes successfully, sometimes ending on the gallows as a result.
When the slave trade began, African women, too, killed their newborns. Records of the time show that, most of the time, African slaves, when they killed their babies, did so to prevent them entering the slave life and to cheat the master of owning another slave.
Child-killing nearer home was a reality that brought countless women to prison in the past.
Six years ago, the Irish Manuscripts Commission published a massive collection of records documenting child killing by women in the late nineteenth century.
Edited by Elaine Farrell of Queens University, the book demonstrates that between 1883 and 1900, 115 cases of child murder or illegal concealment of infant death came before the courts.
Nearly seven dead babies a year, in other words, in a post-Famine Ireland considerably depleted of women in the childbearing years by emigration.
And that figure is likely to be a fraction of the babies who actually died, but who were not the subject of a police investigation leading to someone — most likely the mother — being charged with murder.
Women have always killed newborns out of context-driven desperation and in some cases mental illness. That’s easy enough to understand.
What’s less easy to understand is why nurses, who have chosen a career ministering to the sick, would turn to killing them instead of caring for them.
Not that nurse-killings concentrate exclusively on babies. Nurses of both genders have been implicated — in Britain and the US — in the killing of old people, particularly in nursing homes where the nurse is in charge.
The motives vary. Sometimes, it’s financial gain. The old patient has some money and the nurse has their eye on that money.
Or the nurse has already nicked money to feed a gambling or other costly habit and believes the chances of being found out and punished diminish if the patient from whom the cash was stolen is silenced by death.
The only nurse convicted of murder in Ireland was Mamie Caden, who, paradoxically, was found guilty of a crime she probably didn’t commit and left unchallenged on a series of crimes she probably did commit.
Two women died as a result of abortions performed ineptly on them by the nurse when in her 60s. Although she had nothing but contempt for either of them, no evidence was ever adduced to suggest she meant them to die.
Their deaths were a consequence of her ineptitude, not of her malice. On the other hand, oral history from Dublin in WWII strongly supports the belief that Caden solved the problems of many women who came to her nursing home with crisis pregnancies by killing off their offspring while telling them she was effecting proper adoptions.
In the last few decades, however, it’s been established that dozens of nurses, worldwide, have deliberately killed patients and that the majority of those patients were babies.
Enough of those murders have happened to have created a self-contained genre.
If a book in the true crime section of an American bookstore has the word “Angel” in the title, you can be absolutely sure that the murderer is a nurse, pretty sure that the nurse is a woman, and it’s not much of a gamble to assume the dead are babies.
Frequently underpinning those deaths, particularly when they happen in hospitals, is Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy.
Essentially an attention-seeking mental disorder, Munchausen’s by proxy tends to be associated with parents — usually mothers — who poison or injure their baby or toddler, then rush the grievously ill child to hospital where all the stops are pulled out and the child rescued, while the mother is seen as a distraught and caring parent.
The first time. Maybe even the second time. But repeated inexplicable admissions of an otherwise healthy baby or toddler now tend to lead to suspicions that the illness is being provoked or fabricated.
Munchausen’s by proxy isn’t confined to relatives. Other carers can develop it, including healthcare workers.
Many cases have now been recorded where an exemplary healthcare worker was present when a patient — baby or old person — collapsed and had to be resuscitated in hectic circumstances.
The healthcare worker distinguishes themselves by heroic performance and everybody is grateful to him or her, particularly, in the case of a baby, the parents and the team.
The interrogation of computerised care records, however, has shown that in a tiny minority of cases, a nurse (or healthcare assistant) will be over-represented at such events.
In other words, some bureaucrat will notice that Healthcare Worker A has been present at way more dangerous incidents than would happen in the normal course of abnormal events.
Another pattern of these deaths is that the care worker is more devastated by the infant death than might have been expected.
This plays well to the bereaved family, who see the worker as having had a special relationship with their baby and as being distraught because not even her no-holds-barred efforts could save the child.
This may not be wrong. It may be that the worker planned to pull the child out of its collapse before death but was unable to do so and is, accordingly, desperately grieved by its demise.
At the Countess of Chester hospital, 17 baby deaths and 15 infant collapses are now under investigation. For the bereaved parents of those babies, the trial will be another agony and possibly present the worst kind of closure.
Women have always killed newborns out of context-driven desperation and in some cases mental illness
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