History Ph.D. Dissertations


Rape and Infanticide in Maryland, 1634-1689: Gender and Class in the Courtroom Contestation of Patriarchy on the Edge of the English Atlantic

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Andrew Schocket

Second Advisor

Ruth Herndon (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Thomas Chibucos (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Leigh Ann Wheeler (Committee Member)


Seventeenth-century elite male Marylanders feared women and non-elites usurping elite power. Elite behavior suggesting this fear is visible in nineteen legal proceedings stemming from incidents identified as involving either alleged coerced sex or the supposed killing of a newborn by its single mother in Maryland from 1634-1689. Rape and infanticide cases were chosen for examination because they represent the universe of violent felony gendered crimes of which sex was an integral part. This study employs a microhistorical approach to each incident based on court documents, wills, church records, and transportation records.

Seventeenth-century Marylanders espoused various understandings of both crimes. Rape victim testimony emphasized non-consent, force, and penile penetration. When combined with judicial action, this is essentially the definition of rape employed herein. Coerced sex in this dissertation indicates forced sex that failed to result in a rape trial. Justices and juries understood the trials as an opportunity to strengthen the gendered power structure. Generally, the Provincial court dismissed these cases, downgraded the charge, or pardoned the accused. Infanticide in this study is defined as a single woman giving birth in secret to a child later found dead. Infanticide verdicts depended on the presence and class of the patriarch of the woman. Women without patriarchal figures appearing for them were condemned.

The findings of this dissertation regarding colonial Maryland have broad implications for considering the following themes in early America. In early Maryland fear of social upheaval motivated a host of legal decisions that while based on English common law took different forms to meet new world concerns. To secure elite male hegemony, Maryland elites were willing to accommodate subordinates with varying degrees of authority and control. Throughout early America colonists questioned the limits and characteristics of patriarchal privileges, the responsibilities elites held, and the responses to subordinates desirous of increased agency. Therefore, the findings of this dissertation suggests that through a process of resistance and accommodation elite men and subordinates worked out the nuances of gender and class privileges. These privileges operated separately, but jointly defined how much power an individual commanded.