Born in a cesspit

This strange little tale appeared in the London Medical and Surgical Journal in June 1832: attempt at infanticide

A curious case of this description became the subject of investigation at the Bow-street Police Office, a few days ago.

Interestingly, this crime was not being investigated by what we would regard as the ‘official’ police. London’s Metropolitan Police had been set up just three years earlier in 1829 by the home secretary Sir Robert Peel, but an older force, known as the Bow Street Runners, was still working in parallel with the Met. Founded in 1750 by the novelist and judge Henry Fielding, the Runners were attached to Bow Street Magistrates’ Court.  They continued to operate for a decade after the Met was created, but were eventually abolished by legislation in 1839.

A new-born infant was discovered in a water closet, at a baker’s, near Covent Garden. It had fallen thirteen feet deep, and its body had sunk into the contents of the cesspool to the axilla.

The axilla is the armpit. Thirteen feet (4 metres) is a long way to fall, and armpit-deep is an awful lot of human excreta.

It was removed with great care from this perilous situation, and is now doing well.

A thirteen-foot-deep cesspit is one hell of a place from which to extract anything, let alone a baby. I was frustrated that the article gives no more detail on how they managed to do so, but luckily an account of the incident in the Times explains all:

They proceeded to pull the water-closet to pieces, and having done so, they procured a little boy, who consented to go down with a cord tied round his waist.

I hope – but do not expect – that the boy was richly rewarded for undertaking this most unattractive assignment.

On examination, it was discovered by a medical man, Mr. Snitch, of Catherine-street, that a servant in the house in which this transaction occurred, had been recently delivered; and when informed that an infant was heard crying in the privy, she replied it was a cat.

Charles Snitch – a name straight out of Dickens! – was a surgeon attached to the Bow Street police office, often called upon to treat the victims of crime and sometimes to give evidence in criminal cases.

The escape of the infant from such imminent danger, and from death by haemorrhage, as the umbilical cord had not been tied, is an important fact in legal medicine. It is true that in those cases in which the infant falls upon the floor or ground immediately after birth, death seldom occurs either by concussion of the brain, or by haemorrhage; but in this instance it fell a depth of thirteen feet, and into an atmosphere unfit for the maintenance of life.

A very good point: depending on how often the cesspit was emptied, it could contain a lot of rather toxic gases.

It has not been determined how long it remained exposed to this danger. It was likewise a most extraordinary circumstance that the entire body had not been buried in the contents of the privy, which occupied several feet in depth.

An amazing survival. The mother of the child was Sarah Drew, a servant who worked for a resident on the first floor, above the bakery. She was charged with attempted murder and stood trial at the Old Bailey six weeks later. This is the official court record:

sarah drew aquitted

SARAH DREW was indicted for feloniously attempting to suffocate a certain female child, with intent to kill and murder her .

The child in question, was found alive in the cesspool of a privy – the explanation given by the prisoner was, that she had been suddenly delivered when there; the particulars of the case it is presumed are best omitted.


Her rather unconvincing explanation proved sufficient to acquit her. As for the child:

A nurse was procured, and the infant, who appeared to be perfectly healthy, was conveyed, under proper care, to Covent Garden workhouse.

In more than one sense, she did not have the best start in life. But at least she was alive.

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