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Book Review: The Devil’s Children: A History of Childhood and Murder by Loretta Loach

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A book on child murderers – there are two obvious genres in which this might fit: the quick exploitative “true crime” paperback, whipped after some horrible crime has excited public attention, or the deep and impenetrable psychological study, expounding the author’s post-Freudian, post-Jungian, post-any-sense-at-all theory.

Happily, Loretta Loach’s The Devil’s Children is neither of these. Instead, it is a balanced, sensible account survey of the history of the treatment of children who’ve killed in British history. It’s not a comprehensive study, but it seems to be a solidly enough researched one, and the good news is that while some of the early accounts of the judicial system’s treatment of children is harrowing, it is mostly a tale of increasing, and surprisingly early, humane treatment of children who were understood to be something other than pure evil or simply mini-adult killers.

At least that’s until you get to the two most famous modern cases, that of Mary Bell, 11, who killed two young boys in 1968, and Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who killed James Bulger in 1993, a case that provoked a degree of hysteria and a wave of vindictive public and judicial spite that the 19th century could hardly have matched.

In the Thompson and Venables case, Loach reports the officer leading the investigation as saying that the killing of James Bulger was “unique” because of the age of the killers. Yet there had been, in the 25 years since Mary Bell, at least 14 cases of children murdering children.

Loach doesn’t exactly say so, but it is pretty clear that her aim in writing the book is education of the public, to understand that children who kill are neither extraordinarily rare, nor extraordinarily evil. Indeed she demonstrates how children usually do not have a grasp of the true nature of death, particularly its finality, until well into adolescence, so juvenile cannot, she argues, form an intent to murder in the same sense as an adult. (Although it is surprising that in a book published this year she didn’t mention the recent work on how children brought up in abusive, high-stress environments fail to develop impulse control.)

Her first case is horrific to modern eyes from the behaviour of the adults: that of four-year-old Katherine Passeavant who was kept in St Albans jail in 1249 for more than a month, after pushing another child into boiling water by opening a door too quickly – which could surely only have been an accident. Her father, however, wrote to the king, and perhaps surprisingly the local sheriff was ordered to release her.

In the same century an 11-year-old boy, Thomas of Hordleigh in Maidstone Kent, was found to have killed a five-year-old with a hatchet as she tried to stop him stealing her family’s bread: he was sentenced to death, in large part because he tried to hide the body, seen as a sign of “heinous malice”. That sentence seems to have been carried out in 1299, but generally even in this period it seems a King’s pardon was often granted, although it might take a year or so of the child being in jail before it arrived.

By the 14th century there had been an advance – it was legally agreed that while a child under seven might be convicted, he or she should be immediately pardoned “because he knoweth not of good or evil”.

Two centuries on, this boundary was moving to something more reasonable: Sir Edward Coke, the renown Elizabethan jurist, believed that both “madmen” and children under 14 could not be thought of as having full discretion or understanding. Yet in 1629 a boy of nine was hanged for burning two barns “it appearing that he had malice, revenge, craft and cunning”. It was up to the jury to decide the child’s state of development. (Attempts at concealment were often fatal, being judged as showing understanding of the wrongness of the action.)

That was to be the death of William York, a poorhouse boy who had been working as a servant who was aged 10 when on 5 August 1748 he was tried for the death of a five-year-old girl who had been in his charge. He had hidden the body in a dungheap and admitted the crime, under pressure. Nineteen villagers petitioned for mercy, to their credit, and the inevitable capital sentence was postponed for three sessions while legal experts conferred, but in the end the sentence was carried out.

It is often proclaimed that child murderers and their acts are a sign of some modern decadence, yet there’s a case that Loach has uncovered that shows many aspects of human life (and you’d have to strong suspect the abuse to which children have been subjected) haven’t changed. In 1778 three girls aged ten, nine and eight, were tried at the Huntingdon Lent Assizes for the murder of a three year old. A contemporary record reports: “The manner in which they committed this act was by fixing three pins on the end of a stick, which they thrust into the child’s body, which lacerated the private parts and soon turned to a mortification of which she languished for a few days and then died.” The jury found the girls not guilty by reason of being unable to understand the nature of their act.

Yet it was not until 1835 that the decisive case regarding children and capital punishment came: William Wild, 13, sold into virtual slavery as a farm servant, and mocked for doing work for “maidens”, drowned a three-year-old and an 18-month-old that he had been supposed to be fetching from the field where they were playing. Wild’s death sentence was commuted to transportation to Tasmania for life. (Loach follows his fate, which wasn’t a happy one, but it was still a humanitarian advance from the wrenching case of John Bell, aged 14, who had been hung in 1832.)

And so it was that by 1861, in a case with strong echoes of the 20th-century Bulger one, when two eight year olds, Peter Barratt and James Bradley, in Stockport, abducted a boy of two and a half, stripped him naked, beat him with a stick, weighed his body down and then flung him into water to drown, the public response was moderate. The Times explained it would have been “absurd and monstrous” for them to be treated as though they were adult murderers.

Perhaps the late 20th century, had it been able to take the long perspective of Loach’s book, might have been able to be so moderate and humane.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.