New Research

On the Scent of Blood: The Senses as Historical Evidence

By Dr Felicity Turner

In May, 1858 the Justice of the Peace in Haywood County, North Carolina indicted a local white women, Caroline Morrow, for infanticide. The local Coroner, who instructed the Justice to indict, heard from a range of witnesses—all white, in this instance—before reaching a decision in Caroline Morrow’s case. These witnesses included local farmers; Caroline’s sister, Sarah; a number of local women; a midwife; and two physicians. The Coroner’s decision, in turn, was informed by the conclusions reached by the jury of inquest, consisting of twelve local men. In addition, the Coroner—who was not one of the physicians—summonsed a jury of thirteen women, known as a jury of matrons.

With such a wide range of people present at the inquest, the full panoply of senses came into play in Caroline Morrow’s case. The jury of matrons, for example,  conducted a close, physical examination of Morrow to asses if she had been pregnant and recently given birth. Such an inspection involved touching a woman’s belly, squeezing her breasts, and examining her vaginal discharge. As Morrow was white, women—not men—conducted that invasive examination. That was not the case in suspected instances of infanticide involving enslaved and free black women accused of the crime. In addition to the jury of matrons, two female witnesses, who had inspected the room in which the birth had allegedly occurred, corroborated the evidence. Mariah Erwin and Margaret Robinson both claimed there were signs of blood on the floor in Morrow’s residence, blood they had both touched and observed. Finally, the bedroom reeked of a particular scent or smell, one particular to women who had recently given birth.

The jury of inquest also consulted the two physicians, Dr. Love and Dr. Foreman, both of whom were called in to conduct a postmortem on the infant’s corpse. The jury also elected to consult Dr. Love about Morrow’s likely pregnancy, asking the physician if he considered Morrow had been pregnant recently or not. Unlike the jury of matrons, Love’s observations were not based on a close physical examination of Morrow’s body, but rather, based on what he had seen as Morrow circulated throughout the town. Morrow had looked ‘like a woman in a pregnant state,’ Dr. Love told the jury of inquest, adding that her claim she had been ill with a cold was an unlikely explanation for what he described as her ‘enlarged state.’ More than that, however, he could not be certain.

Cases such as those of Caroline Morrow are particularly intriguing for the twenty-first century historian, providing an illuminating insight into how nineteenth-century Americans understood pregnancy, childbirth, human mortality, and evidence. To the contemporary reader, the testimony given by these witnesses may seem messy, mired in impressions of human soiling. But for those present at the inquest that day, the description of Caroline Morrow’s body and the room in which she gave birth would have made perfect sense. Antebellum Americans trusted the immediate experience of their senses. Using the evidence provided by such senses as proof in an inquest—and beyond that, a criminal trial—conformed with how people understood both the physical world and the law. While none of the witnesses present at the investigation of Caroline Morrow’s crime used the evidence provided by the ears, sound—or its lack thereof—often proved significant in infanticide cases. The groans (and screams) of childbirth, for example, often betrayed a woman attempting to hide her pregnancy and subsequent labor. The absence of noise, from a new born child, for instance, similarly aroused suspicion, suggesting a mother had killed her child. Conversely, however, silence also eliminated doubt, proving that the infant arrived stillborn and never drew breath.

Tugging further at the threads of the case, the seeming preference for evidence provided by community members—rather than that provided by physicians—may seem puzzling, particularly given the medical issues involved in the case. At the very least, the jury did not privilege the testimony of the medical doctors over that of locals. The Coroner considered all evidence of equal merit, with no single voice privileged over that of another. Indeed, it was women—not experienced, male physicians—who confirmed Morrow’s pregnancy, illuminating the significance of female voices, and women’s expertise, in local legal processes.

A case such as that of Caroline Morrow, therefore, opens up many avenues for exploration offering insights into the law, medical history, and the role of gender in nineteenth-US history. Yet, as tantalizing and rich as the record may be, it is also fraught with limitations. I think of blood as salty and tangy, with a faint taste of iron. But what did blood taste like, or smell like, to a nineteenth-century American? Although the pages may not be stained with blood—at least, literally—descriptions of the bodily fluid suggest it looked the same as it does today. Yet even if the witnesses used the same words as I do now, did those words mean the same thing? Like categories such as gender and race, taste, along with sound and smell, is neither universal nor ahistorical, but rather socially constructed with an inherently unstable meaning constituted by time and place.

The narrative of Caroline Morrow, and the many others in the archives that are like hers, provides an intriguing example of what historian Joan Scott famously characterized as the limitations of “the evidence of experience.” Reading records such as those of Caroline Morrow, I am reminded always of the problems inherent with studying the past. Although the descriptions provided that day were vivid and rich, they remain tied to that place and time. While I can know that the people of the nineteenth century south understood birth as an event experienced through a range of senses, I cannot—ultimately—experience what that moment was like. The scent of blood, therefore, leads me forward, encouraging me to tunnel further into the archive. The smell, however, remains forever elusive.

Felicity Turner is an Assistant Professor of History at Georgia Southern University.