Accused Of Infanticide In 1895

26 June 2012, 19:54

Johanna O’Shea was accused of infanticide when her newborn son was found dead in a pool of water in the water closet at the Athlone Workhouse on 1st April 1895.

First, a bit of background.
Johanna O’Shea was born c1870 in Tullig, Co. Kerry. When her family discovered that she was ‘deaf and dumb’ they were not impressed. However, she was educated to a level where she was able to express herself in fluent English.

Now in 2012 it is unacceptable that the term ‘Deaf and dumb’ be used, but back in 1895, it was an acceptable term, and used a lot in official documents.

She was, unfortunately, disowned by her family for whatever reason, but one possiblity is the combination of her deafness, looks and innocence, and a lack of proper supervision. There might have been a sense of shame of having someone ‘afflicted’ like that in the family. This sense of shame was all too common.

Apparently Johanna was strikingly beautiful and hence extremely vulnerable, especially with no family protection. In her own words, in the police statement later on, she ‘let men catch her’. The last man to catch her in this fashion did so ‘three or four times’ and the man said ‘no harm or tricks done’, according to Johanna, in her statement to the police.

Being homeless and destitute, she ended up becoming an inmate at the Athlone Workhouse in Co Westmeath. One can only wonder about a woman like Johanna, and how she ended up in Athlone after being disowned by her family in Tullig, Co. Kerry.

Johanna had no idea of what happened during the night and early hours of 1 April 1895. She suffered cramps and needed to go to the water closet. To her surprise she saw ‘a mass or lump’ pop out of her and into the water. (her words in the statement) Not knowing any better, she closed the water closet, not knowing what exactly happened, and went back to bed.

It was when another inmate went to use the water closet that the newborn male child was discovered drowned. Johanna was promptly accused of infanticide, imprisoned for 42 days in Tullamore prison despite her protestations of innocence, while awaiting trial.

When she gave her statement to the police she wrote her statement, and the police typed it up, and called the workhouse Master, Mr William Donnolly, to interpret for the police officer as he read out his record of statement for Johanna to sign her name at the bottom.

After the facts were aired in court, Johanna O’Shea was acquitted by a jury on 2 July 1895, at the Mullingar Summer Assizes.

She was returned to the guardianship of the workhouse Master.

There is no record of her in the 1901 nor in the 1911 census returns. We do not know what happened to her.

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