Children, childhood and murder: a history of an exceptional crime

Loach, Loretta (2004) Children, childhood and murder: a history of an exceptional crime. (PhD thesis), Kingston University,


This thesis is concerned with the way in which child murderers have been viewed in the past. Not the killing of children by adults, but the more unusual occurrence of children killing other children. Focusing on the earliest recorded cases in medieval society, up to and including Mary Bell, it will be argued that English societies of the past were as much preoccupied as the contemporary world with the vexing issue of where childhood ended and adulthood began. The genesis of a child's status in law evolved, in part, through connection with these crimes. The religious source of a child's moral discernment was formative in early legal discussions on the age of criminal responsibility. The state of a child's soul was relevant to the judgements that could be made of him, not only in a narrow legal sense, but also in wider cultural ways. In the eighteenth century, the opinion individuals and communities held about child killers were inseparable from the sensibilities of that period and the conflicting imperatives of mercy and retribution. The perceived content of a child's moral knowledge changed in line with shifting debates about childhood. The ideas of Rationalism and Romanticism were placed under considerable tension when viewed through the example of the child killer. In the first half of the nineteenth century, discussion on criminals, especially murdering children, became in effect, a commentary on different political visions of humankind. In later scientific narratives of morality, the example of child killers furnished medical categories of mental disease. The issue of moral responsibility in law was increasingly challenged by the developing psychology of human behaviour. Freud's innovative understandings of childhood raised the problem of how to attribute guilt to developing capacities. Later clinicians used his legacy in their attempts to make sense of the disturbed child, and late twentieth century examples of child murder reveal the fragility of these understandings. The contention is that children who commit these crimes become the repository of projected adult anxieties about childhood. Furthermore, such crimes, by virtue of their exceptional nature, lead to political and moral judgements whose origins can be seen in the fundamental moral ideas of the past.

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