In researching my current work-in-progress, a murder mystery set in 1929 (based on my award-winning novella, CHALK GHOST), I discovered some peculiar historical facts that provide an interesting context for the ongoing trial of Florida single-mom Casey Anthony.
American students no longer study Civics or American History in high school. I doubt that anyone under 55 has learned much about the Great Depression, so you may not know that 1929 was the year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Chicago’s Al Capone Gang gunned down a rival gang by disguising themselves as cops and herding their victims into a garage) and the year of the Great Stock Market Crash on what became known as Black Tuesday (when brokers jumped from skyscrapers after losing their shirts).
I researched 1929 popular culture extensively for the book, which involves a baby-for-sale ring. I was surprised at how different the problem of child kidnapping and murder was in 1929.
Without knowing history, it may seem reasonable that the media is making a “big deal” out of the murder of little Calley Anthony. Knowing history, it makes no sense at all.
I’m not saying that her murder or any child’s murder is trivial; I’m saying—unfortunately—that it is too frequent to justify “wall-to-wall” media coverage. The murder trial of O. J. Simpson was a “trial of the century” because of Simpson’s fame and prominence. Casey Anthony is nobody.
The media is after advertising revenue from free content. TruTV is broadcasting the trial for no public purpose; the company is a for-profit enterprise. It’s banking on revenue from advertising it hopes to sell on the basis of a bump in ratings during the trial. The media in Florida are all out to boost their ratings and their readership—for profit—especially the Fox outlets in the state.
I think it might shed light on the Casey Anthony spectacle to see how child kidnapping and murder was handled in American law historically. In the past, parents were rarely subject to the death penalty for abusing, neglecting, and killing their children.
It didn’t always happen that missing children ended up dead (they were often kidnapped and held for long periods, even into adulthood and until eventual liberation); it didn’t always happen that their parents (such as JonBenet Ramsey’s) were suspected of or tried for their murders (as is Casey Anthony). If the cops couldn’t figure out who else could have “done it” they didn’t always fall back on the parents; they sometimes had the guts to say a crime was unsolved.
In fact, many kidnappers committed their crimes for the value of a living child—as a hostage for ransom, as a product for sale, as the child they always wanted but for some reason didn’t have.
Children have been murder victims since before the advent of written history. Kidnapping has been a fact of American life since the Colonial Period. Parents have always been suspected of committing crimes against their children. Before World War I, for example, an 8 year old named Catherine Winter disappeared and was never found. Her parents were suspected, even though her father was a prominent dentist who spent his life searching for her kidnappers, whom he believed to be Gypsies.
In some periods, in pre-industrial societies, for instance, children had a great deal of value—so much so that abortions were forbidden or were so abhorrent to most women that they rarely willingly aborted a fetus. Children were valuable because they worked in the family business, on the farm, and could support elderly parents. (Even in China today, where there is an official one-child policy, young Chinese only-children often complain that they are worried that when the time comes they won’t be able to provide financial support to elderly parents, along with themselves and their own immediate families.)
But sometimes children in the past were not even viewed as fully human. As a result, in the past (in the 20th century, for instance) the murderers of children were not often punished severely; suspected murderers were often not tried, especially when there was no direct evidence either that the crime was committed (body never found) or when there was nothing but circumstantial evidence that the suspect was the perpetrator.
My point: Our current “advanced” society doesn’t necessarily value children as much as children have been valued at some past periods. Nor is our current self-righteous and vindictive attitude toward parents of kidnapped and murdered children necessarily evidence of contemporary high esteem for children. After all, the birth rate in industrialized countries is declining rapidly; if we really valued children we would have more of them.
Abortion was essentially prohibited in the United States beginning in about 1820, although some self-induced miscarriages were permitted until the late 1800s. As a result, women who became pregnant “out of wedlock” or as a result of rape, for instance, often retreated to “homes for unwed mother” to give birth and then gave their children up for adoption.
While adoption services were generally humane sources of children for childless couples, occasionally these services were corrupt. Some such services were what was referred to as “a baby farm.” In one case, a former German World War I nurse named Helene Geisen-Volk took in unwanted babies from unmarried single mothers and boarded some babies on a temporary basis and then abused and neglected them so severely that over 50 died in her “care.” Even so, there was found to be insufficient evidence to try her for anything but assisting in one illegal abortion, for which she was given parole, and attempting to substitute a living baby for a baby left in her care who disappeared, for which she was sentenced to less than 3 years in prison. Why? Her baby farm was licensed by New York City; it was a legal business. And yet everyone knew she was responsible for the disappearance of over 50 infants.
In light of Geisen-Volk’s crimes and punishment, Casey Anthony’s “losing” a child whose body was later discovered after an extensive hunt and nationwide publicity seems comparatively trivial—yet she is on trial for her life, and the State of Florida is spending millions on her prosecution and if convicted even more on her punishment.
Infanticide is the term generally used to refer to parental murder of children. The Spartans as a matter of public policy abandoned puny or deformed newborns in the wilderness. Partial-birth abortion is essentially the same sort of practice (even I, a staunch supporter of a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body, can’t justify it; it seems to be partial-birth abortion is one indication of how little our society values children).
“Baby snuffing” factories operated in this country for decades: An article in Foster’s Daily Democrat (June 1, 2008) lists a number of doctors and “adoption rings” that operated in the last half of the 20th century.
Just last year an abortion doctor in Philadelphia was charged as a serial baby murderer and with running an “abortarium” (Kermit Gosnell). He allegedly murdered infants delivered entirely alive.
When Casey Anthony’s alleged crime is compared to these wide-spread and often condoned forms of infanticide, it’s difficult to understand why she should be charged with capital murder—other than that she is beautiful and presents an exotic image on TV news cameras.
I am not a lawyer—merely a former juror (who suspects her name has been stricken from the jury rolls because the judge in the case didn’t like the jury’s decision).
I pity everyone who ends up on the Casey Anthony jury. It isn’t going to be easy—and the trial isn’t even necessary. Don’t you wish the prosecution had charged her with lesser crimes to which she could have pled guilty and taken the punishment that’s due to her?