Charles and Adelaide Reece lived at number 66, New Street, Gloucester. Charles was a foreman at a timber yard, while Adelaide worked as a midwife and nurse. The couple had no children. Adelaide was an experienced midwife who had delivered the children of many of her neighbours.
On 28 May 1883, Adelaide attended Mrs Hancock, who also lived in New Street, when she went into labour. Mrs Hancock had lost a baby in child-birth before, and the midwife was given strict instructions to send for a doctor if there were any problems. The labour was a difficult one and the mother lost consciousness before the baby was delivered. When Mrs Hancock woke up, she asked whether the child was a girl or a boy, and Adelaide replied that it was a boy, but it was dead, and she believed it had been born prematurely.
On the morning after attending Mrs Hancock, Adelaide told several neighbours that she she had called a doctor to help with the delivery, but the baby had been born very prematurely and had died. She said that the doctor had told her to put the body, which was far from full-grown, “down the closet”.
About a week later, one of the neighbours with whom Adelaide Reece had discussed Mrs Hancock’s labour spoke to the doctor who was said to have attended, and he emphatically denied having been summoned to New Street on the night in question. This neighbour confronted the midwife, who became very agitated and insisted that she had done nothing wrong.
The neighbour decided to inform the police about Adelaide’s inconsistent story. When Mr and Mrs Hancock were interviewed, they stated that the body of the infant had remained in the house overnight, then Mrs Reece had taken it away. On her return, she said that she had taken the body to the cemetery, and had paid 2 shillings and 6 pence for its burial. This expense had subsequently been added to her fee for acting as midwife and nurse.
When the police went to number 66, New Street to talk to Adelaide Reece, they found that she was missing. The next day they realised that she had been hiding at a neighbour’s house, but when they went round there, she fled out of the back door and was half way over a fence at the bottom of the garden when Police Constable Howse caught up with her.
PC Howse asked her what had happened to the Hancock infant, and she said that she had buried him in her back garden. She took the constable to her house and pointed out the spot where she had buried him. Howse started to dig and about two feet down, he found the body of a male infant, covered with charcoal and quicklime. There was a noticeably unpleasant smell in the garden, so when Mrs Reece had been taken to the police station, PC Howse returned to New Street and dug over the whole plot. Another seven bodies of infants were found, all in various stages of decomposition.
At an inquest into the death of the Hancock child, it was revealed that a post mortem examination had found that he had been alive and at full term when he was born. There were no marks of violence on the body, but he had died of loss of blood, which could have been caused by violence or mistreatment during the birth. Adelaide Reece was arrested on suspicion of murder. Her husband was arrested too, but the charge against him was later dropped, due to lack of evidence.
Adelaide Reece stood trial for murder at the Gloucester Assizes in August 1883. It had been decided that she would only be charged with the murder of the Hancock child. She pleaded not guilty to the charge. The case created a great sensation with many members of the public trying to get into the viewing gallery at Shire Hall, but no women were allowed in as spectators. The trial was a long and complicated one, with many witnesses called to give evidence. Several of the witnesses, including Mr Hancock, the father of the dead child, stated that Adelaide Reece was a kind and humane woman.
The doctor who had carried out the post mortem on the child, Mr AP Carter, repeated the evidence he had given at the inquest that the infant had died of a haemorrhage, adding that he believed the loss of blood was due to neglect at birth and that the body had been treated in such a way that haemorrhage was almost inevitable. However, when he was cross-examined, he agreed that the treatment of the body might have been accidental, especially in a case where the mother was in a dangerous state and the midwife had lost presence of mind and allowed the child to bleed to death from neglect.
The judge now interposed and said it was time for the prosecution counsel to decide whether it was possible to continue with the charge of murder, or even of manslaughter. The only evidence of death, he said, was through haemorrhage, and there appeared to be no motive for Mrs Reece to have deliberately killed the child or allowed it to die. The prosecution counsel then agreed to drop the murder charge, and a much less serious charge of concealing the birth of a child was substituted.
It was the law according to the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 that the birth of any child, whether it was still-born or died shortly after being born, must be reported to the appropriate authorities. Any person who secretly disposed of the body of a child born in such circumstances, thereby concealing its birth, was guilty of a misdemeanour which could be punished with a maximum sentence of two years in prison. The defence counsel suggested that as there was only a low fence between a field and the garden of number 66, New Street, someone else might have been responsible for burying the bodies of the Hancock child and the others, but inevitably, Adelaide Reece was found guilty of concealing a birth.
Before sentencing her, the judge addressed the prisoner:
“The motives that induced you to conceal the birth of that child and to bury it as you did in your garden are uncertain. That there was some motive, and some very improper motive, no-one can doubt. It is impossible to shut one’s eyes, moreover, to the fact that the bodies of seven other children were found in that garden. Not a word of explanation has been offered by you at any time on that subject. Suggestions have been made, very properly enough, by the counsel in defending you, as to how those bodies may have come there, but as far as you yourself are concerned, from your lips no account has been given as to the way in which those bodies got there. I do not hesitate to say that the case is full of suspicion of a far graver offence than the one of which you have been found guilty by the jury. Several witnesses have spoken as to your character. I can only say that I take very little notice of and attach very little weight to that. It is abundantly clear that you are a very bad woman, and I shall mark my sense of the crime of which you have been convicted by sentencing you to be kept in prison with hard labour for eighteen calendar months.”
Adelaide Reece gave no explanation as to why those small bodies were found in her garden, but it seems very likely that she had buried the Hancock infant herself, then pocketed the money which she had been given to pay for his burial at the cemetery. No doubt she had done this seven times previously, without detection. Her mistake in this case was that she lied about fetching a doctor to help with Mrs Hancock’s labour, and was found out.
Despite the opinion of the judge that Adelaide was a very bad woman, her neighbours in New Street do not appear to have agreed with him. She went back to live with Charles at number 66, New Street after she came out of prison, and she even continued to get work as a midwife. In 1894, she had to give evidence at an inquest on a new-born infant she had delivered. She had arranged for the disposal of the body, and there was some question as to whether she had reported the birth and death correctly, but she was cleared of any suspicion of wrong-doing. Adelaide died on 5 March 1902, aged 61, at her home, in New Street.
Illustrated Police News, 16 June 1883.
The Citizen, 4 June, 22 June, 8 Aug, 9 Aug 1883, 8 March 1902.
Census returns for New Street, Gloucester: 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901.
© Jill Evans 2016