Author: Nikki Kumar, LLM 2010
Abstract: The plight of young unwed mothers in nineteenth century New Brunswick is not well documented, nor well understood. However, an article in a Fredericton newspaper, the Head Quarters, described the case of Sophia Fennety, a young unwed mother, and her supposed drowning or suffocation of her six-week old infant child on a Fredericton wharf. At trial, the jury found Sophia guilty of manslaughter, but the case was ultimately appealed and decided in The Queen v. Fennety, at the Supreme Court of New Brunswick, where in 1855 Sophia was pardoned. Using The Queen v. Fennety as the backdrop, Sophia’s case is used to illuminate and analyze the social, cultural, and legal context and options available to unwed mothers of illegitimate children in New Brunswick during the mid-nineteenth century.
In particular, this paper suggests three reasons for Sophia’s child abandonment: i) to escape the shame and disgrace of unwed motherhood during that period, ii) her lack of alternative options including access to abortion, adoption, or orphan care, and iii) to the high probability that someone would find her infant in Fredericton upon the wharf and be unable to trace the abandoned child back to her. The paper further posits that Sophia’s treatment by the Trial and Appeal Courts is suggestive of two conditions: i) the Courts’ compassion towards Sophia, and ii) the fact that no specific criminal law existed against the abandonment of children in New Brunswick in 1854. While it is unclear whether the Appeal Court favored one of these conditions over the other, it is clear that its decision to pardon Sophia has kept her story alive for more than 155 years.
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