“She had smothered her baby on purpose”: Enslaved Women and Maternal Resistance

This article is a part of our series, entitled “Age of Slavery,” which explores the existence, persistence, and abolition of slavery in the revolutionary era.

By Signe Peterson Fourmy

In Missouri in the spring of 1845, Vicey, an enslaved woman in her late twenties, gave birth to her fifth child, a son she named Stephen. In August of that same year, she killed him. Initially, Vicey claimed that Stephen died accidentally when she “fell into a deep sleep” with him in her arms. In preparation for burial, Stephen’s body “was placed away in the usual manner” and his death, attributed to his mother’s negligence, was not further investigated. Approximately six days after Stephen’s death, Vicey initiated a conversation with her enslaver, Catherine McMurtrey. Overwhelmed by guilt, Vicey confessed that “she had smothered her baby on purpose” by holding his “mouth and nose.” Prior to this confession, there is little to suggest that Stephen’s death was anything other than the accident that Vicey claimed it to be. As Catherine McMurtrey’s deposition testimony later revealed, however, Vicey asserted that her actions were not only deliberate, but they were also premeditated. When McMurtrey asked Vicey how long she had contemplated killing her son, she responded, “about three weeks.”[1]

Enslaved women understood that their childbearing and rearing lay at the foundation of slavery.[2] Consequently, preventing pregnancy or terminating a pregnancy represented more than an exercise of bodily autonomy, which was an act of resistance in and of itself; it represented a refusal to perform the labor deemed necessary for enslaved women. Vicey, like an unknowable number of enslaved women, consciously decided that she would not mother a child—to her, and others like her—her child’s death meant his freedom from slavery.

Although the specific impulses that led some enslaved women to kill their own children remain unknown, several women left no such doubts for their actions. Like Vicey, Margaret Garner saw infanticide as an act of emancipation. In 1856, Garner and her family ran away from the Kentucky plantations where they were enslaved. Their enslavers and Federal marshals tracked them to Ohio. Faced with capture and re-enslavement, Garner attacked her children, determined that they should not return to slavery and be “murdered by piece meal,” she decided that she “would much rather kill them at once and end their suffering.”[3] In what was likely a spontaneous response to an immediate threat, Garner succeeded in killing her three-year-old daughter, Mary, but failed to kill her three other children.

Infanticide was an extreme means of maternal resistance. Preventing pregnancy and inducing abortion were other, likely more common but equally difficult to quantify, means of reproductive resistance.[4] For enslaved women controlling their reproduction with preventatives and abortifacients represented the ultimate challenge to an enslaver’s authority as well as a reclamation of reproductive and bodily autonomy.

Constitutional decree ended the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808, effectively prohibiting the importation of enslaved people from outside the United States. In the early nineteenth century, a number of additional factors contributed to the acceleration of the domestic slave trade resulting in the forced relocation of over a million enslaved people from the Upper South to the Deep South and Southwest. Soil degradation in the Upper South from decades of tobacco cultivation, the invention of the cotton gin, the acquisition of millions of acres of land and subsequent forced removal of indigenous peoples to make land cheaply available to white settlers, and the invention of petit gulf cotton all played a role in the expansion of slavery and the plantation system.[5] Consequently, enslaved women’s reproductive labor  became even more important to the continuation of the system of slavery.

In 1819, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his overseer Joel Yancey, concerned about the increased number of deaths among the children he enslaved. Jefferson reminded Yancey that raising these children was a primary undertaking, instructing him “that a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.” Jefferson requested that Yancey inform all the overseers “that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us.” This emphasis on enslaved women’s reproductive capacity recognized the value of their re/productive labor.[6]

Elizabeth Keckley’s post-emancipation memoir provides valuable insight into why some enslaved women interfered with their own reproduction. Keckley, who gave birth to one child while enslaved, recalled that “for four years a white man…had base designs upon me. … Suffice it to say, that he persecuted me for four years, and I—I—became a mother. The child of which he was the father was the only child that I ever brought into the world.”[7] She continued, that whatever suffering her son experienced because he was born enslaved was not her fault because “she did not wish to give him life.”[8] Following her son’s birth, Keckley initially refused to marry the man who later became her husband because she “could not bear the thought of bringing children into slavery.”[9] To her, the idea of “adding one single recruit to the millions bound to hopeless servitude” was intolerable.[10] Keckley kept her vow, even after marrying, she bore no more children.

Interviews with formerly enslaved women conducted by Fisk University and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1920s and 1930s document a variety of methods enslaved women employed to intentionally limit and control their reproduction. These interviews indicate that not only was the means of birth control readily available, but also that these women possessed the knowledge necessary to affect the desired results. Mary Gaffney recalled that when her enslaver forced her to “marry” a man she despised, although she was forced to “let that Negro have his way,” she “cheated Maser” because she “kept cotton roots and chewed them all the time” in order to prevent conception.[11] After emancipation, Gaffney stayed with her husband, and they had five children together. Lu Lee, who worked as a midwife, recalled that enslaved women who got pregnant “unfixed themselves by taking calomel and turpentine.”[12] Similarly, Anna Lee recalled that enslaved women “got to chewing cotton roots to keep from giving births to babies…”[13] Thus, enslaved women thwarted enslavers’ demands to grow their wealth through their wombs. In recounting these acts of resistance, women testify to the ability to control their reproduction and assert that she, not circumstance, determined whether she had a child. This suggests that knowledge of preventives and abortifacients was not unusual among enslaved women and that, at least in some cases, they were used to intentionally thwart planters’ efforts to increase enslaved women’s reproductivity.

Slave owners knew enslaved women possessed the knowledge and ability to prevent pregnancy and induce abortion. At an 1860 Rutherford County (Tennessee) Medical Society meeting, John T. Morgan asserted that efforts “to effect an abortion or derange menstruation” included ingesting “tansy, rue, roots and seeds of the cotton plant, pennyroyal, cedar gum, and camphor.”[14] The article created quite a stir within the Tennessee medical community. A Nashville medical journal published the ensuing discussion and debate centered on whether instances of infertility resulted from enslaved women’s “want of attention and care,” their harsh working conditions, or, perhaps even more troubling to the planters and doctors, deliberate interference. An unnamed doctor shared the story of a planter who owned “four to six slave women of ‘the proper age to breed’ for twenty-five years” and throughout that time, “only two children had been born on the place at full term.” The planter replaced enslaved women suspected of interfering with their pregnancies, yet “every conception was aborted by the fourth month.” Eventually, the enslaved women confessed and identified “the weed” they used to obtain the desired effect. The same physician recounted that on another plantation an “old negro woman” admitted to having supplied “the remedy” to fellow bondwomen.

Just as enslaved women shared the knowledge to prevent pregnancy and induce abortion, on occasion members of the enslaved community supported girls and women who rejected motherhood by killing their child. For example, in 1855, when a teenaged girl named Lucy went into labor, her mother Maria assisted her. They worked together to conceal Lucy’s pregnancy and childbirth, repeatedly denying both. It was likely Maria who cut the umbilical cord, evidence the court found particularly important, and hid the newborn’s body under a barrel in the yard. The next morning, while Lucy remained sick in bed, Maria washed the bedclothes that likely bore the evidence of childbirth. According to the inquest jury and five out of six justices of the Richmond City (Virginia) Hustings Court, Maria not only helped Lucy kill her newborn, but they also concluded that “from the evidence adduced before us at the trial that Maria the mother of Lucy was more guilty than Lucy.”[15] Ironically, the court unanimously convicted Lucy and, falling one vote short, failed to convict Maria.

In another instance, Charles Colcock Jones suspected a young girl he enslaved, also named Lucy, of having given birth. Jones accused Lucy, her mother, and the enslaved midwife of conspiring together. Initially the trio denied Lucy’s pregnancy. After a local doctor examined Lucy and determined that she had recently given birth, they then claimed the child was stillborn. After the discovery of the newborn’s body, which the inquest described as a baby of “full maturity,” Lucy was tried and convicted for her newborn’s death.

The enslaved community assisted in other ways as well. In her WPA interview, Lou Smith described an incident in which a woman, who had lost three children to sale, was so worried about the potential sale of her fourth child, gave her infant “something out of a bottle” that soon resulted in the child’s death. Smith added that “‘Course didn’t nobody tell on her or he’d [her enslaver] of beat her nearly to death.”[16] Lou Smith’s remembrances suggest that the enslaved community shared in the burden of these simultaneously drastic and deliberate actions.

The prevalence of birth control, use of abortifacients, and acts of infanticide suggests that enslaved women resisted enslavement by exerting control over their reproductive lives and bodies. Although it is difficult to determine the actual extent to which enslaved women employed these methods, enslaved women had many reasons for refusing to birth and raise children. How many women, like Elizabeth Keckley, refused to have children who added to their enslaver’s wealth? Or women, like Vicey and Margaret Garner, who saw death as an emancipatory act? Or untold others, who simply refused to perform the work of mothering? When an enslaved woman prevented pregnancy or ended her child’s life, she rejected slaveholders’ control over her reproduction and the expectation to perform the reproductive labor necessary to maintain the institution of slavery. The refusal to mother a child constituted a refusal to increase her enslaver’s property and wealth. More importantly, as an act of resistance, it demonstrated a thorough rejection of the enslaver’s authority to define motherhood as an enslaved woman’s primary role in the system of slavery and constituted a forceful claim of her own power to control her own reproductive labor.

Signe Peterson Fourmy earned her J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center in 2001 and her Ph.D. in History at the University of Texas at Austin in 2020. Currently, she serves as the Director of Research and Analysis at Villanova University for the digital humanities project, Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery andas a lecturer in the Department of History at UT Austin. Fourmy’s research examines enslaved motherhood, maternal resistance, trauma, and the law.  

Title image: Enslaved African Americans hoe and plow the earth and cut piles of sweet potatoes on a South Carolina plantation, circa 1862-3 (Image courtesy of Library of Congress).

Further Readings:

Wilma King, “‘Suffer with them Till Death’: Slave Women and Their Children in Nineteenth-Century America” in More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, edited by David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine, 147-168. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Jennifer L. Morgan, “Partus Sequitur Ventrem: Law, Race, and Reproduction in Colonial Slavery,” Small Axe vol. 55 (March 2018): 1-17.

Liese M. Perrin, “Resisting Reproduction: Reconsidering Slave Contraception in the Old South,” Journal of American Studies vol. 35 (2001): 255-274.

Stephanie Shaw, “Mothering Under Slavery in the Antebellum South,” in Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency, edited by Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Grace Chang, and Linda Rennie Forcey, 237-258. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Emily West & Erin Shearer, “Fertility Control, Shared Nurturing, and Dual Exploitation: The Lives of Enslaved Mothers in the Antebellum United States,” Women’s History Review vol. 27, no. 6 (2018): 1006-1020.


[1] Deposition of Catharine McMurtrey, State of Missouri v. Vicey, a Woman of Color (1845), Madison County Circuit Court Records/Justice of Peace/Slave Records, Box 2 F/1-F/27 Circuit Court Case Files, Folder 12: Vicey, a Slave Woman Belonging to Wm. McMurtrey, C27580, Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City, Missouri (hereafter MSA).

[2] For more on enslaved motherhood see Camillia Cowling, Maria Helena Pereira Toledo Machado, Diana Paton, and Emily West, “Mothering Slaves: Comparative Perspectives on Motherhood, Childlessness, and the Care of Children in Atlantic Slave Societies,” Slavery & Abolition 38, no. 2 (2017): 223-231; Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacretics 17, no. 2 special edition: Culture and Countermemory: The American Connection (Summer 1987): 64-81; Emily West, “The Double-Edged Sword of Motherhood Under American Slavery,” Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Uncommon Sense—The Blog, May 7, 2019. Accessed: June 19, 2019. https://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/the-double-edged-sword/; Wilma King, “‘Suffer with them Till Death’: Slave Women and Their Children in Nineteenth-Century America,” in More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, eds. David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 147-168; Stephanie Shaw, “Mothering Under Slavery in the Antebellum South,” in Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency, eds. Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Grace Chang, and Linda Rennie Forcey (New York: Routledge, 1994), 237-258.

[3] Cincinnati Daily Gazette, January 29, 1856; Liberator, May 16, 1856. For the most recent and comprehensive study on Margaret Garner, see Nikki M. Taylor, Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio (Columbus, OH: Ohio University Press, 2016).

[4] For more on the availability and women’s use of birth control and abortifacients in nineteenth-century America, see Emily West and Erin Shearer, “Fertility Control, Shared Nurturing, and Dual Exploitation: The Lives of Enslaved Mothers in the Antebellum United States,” Women’s History Review 27, no. 6 (2018): 1006-1020; Andrea Zlotucha Kozub, “‘To Married Ladies It Is Particularly Suited’: Nineteenth Century Abortion in an Archaeological Context,” Historical Archaeology 52, no. 2 (June 2018): 264-280; Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994); Susan E. Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); and Simone M. Caron, Who Chooses?: American Reproductive History since 1830 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2008)

[5] For more on the domestic slave trade see Stephen Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (New York: Ocford University Press, 2005); Walter Johnson, ed., The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trade in the Americas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004); Alexandra J. Finley, An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America’s Domestic Slave Trade (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

[6] Thomas Jefferson to Joel Yancey, January 17, 1819 in Edwin M. Betts, ed. Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book: With Commentary and Relevant Extracts from Other Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), 43.

[7] Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. (New York: G. W. Carleton, 1868), 39.

[8] Keckley, Behind the Scenes, 39.

[9] Keckley, Behind the Scenes, 46.

[10] Keckley, Behind the Scenes, 46.  

[11] George P. Rawick (ed.) The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Supplement Series 2, Vol. 5, Texas Narratives, Part 4 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press), 1453.

[12] Rawick, ed., The American Slave, Texas Narratives, Vol. 6, 2299.

[13] Rawick, ed., The American Slave, Texas Narratives, Vol. 6, 2284.

[14] All quotations in this paragraph come from John T. Morgan, “An Essay on the Production of Abortion Among Our Negro Population,” Nashville Journal of Medicine and Surgery, XIX (August 1860), 117-123, as quoted in Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 81. See Also: Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman, 85-86.

[15] William Taylor, et al. to Governor Joseph Johnson, Governor’s Office, Joseph Johnson Executive Papers, 1852-1855, 1855 March 10 – June 4, Box 11, Folders 1-4 (1855 March 10 – May 10) Accession 44076, Misc. Reel 6410, LVA. Before this petition was submitted to the governor, one of the justices died. The remaining justices noted that he also believed that Maria was more culpable than Lucy. However, five magistrates signed the petition. So, even the magistrate who voted to acquit Maria, signed the petition asking for leniency on Lucy’s behalf.

[16] Interview with Lou Smith, Works Progress Administration Slave Narratives, Oklahoma, vol. XIII, (Washington D.C.: The Federal Writers Project, 1941), 302.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s