Abraham Lincoln is said to have said “All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel Mother.” This sentiment was echoed over and over in touching references to maternal influence in 19th-century journalism and literature. Strong men are seen to dissolve in tears at the thought of their saintly mothers and their prayers and sacrifices. However, on this Mother’s Day weekend, it is a different type of maternal influence—the pre-natal influence–that is my theme. Let me open with an anecdote:
A chapter called “The Death-Bed Promise,” in The Face in the Window mentioned a young woman named Bernice Fisher running away to join the circus. In 1909 the local paper reported on her snake-charming career and a strange story she told about why she had a special affinity for snakes and the reason she had a darker complexion than the rest of the family. The headlines read in part:
COSHOCTON GIRL CLAIMS THAT PRENATAL INFLUENCE DROVE HER TO SNAKE CHARMING
According to the newspaper (and here the story took an ugly, racist turn), she jauntily displayed “a wealth of coal black…hair, pearly teeth and an olive-tinted skin, which would seem to establish her race beyond a doubt…she told the story of her inherent affection for snakes and the explanation why she, a white girl of white parents, could present only the olive-tinted skin of the Creole or colored race.”
According to Bernice’s story, when her mother, Linnie Fisher, was pregnant with her, Linnie was terrified by an immense black snake in a field, coiled and ready to spring. She ran—with the snake slithering right behind her. “Filled with the dread which the human ordinarily holds for a snake, the woman was for the moment too stunned either to cry out or move, but in a second she had turned and was running swiftly through the field, pursued by the creeping reptile.
“When I was born,” the girl continued her story, “my skin was as you see it now, black, and after hearing of the circumstances there are none who will deny but that the shock experienced by my mother was the cause of it…
“Since I was old enough to toddle, snakes have strangely appealed to me, and in some manner I have seemed to hold a strange power over them without making any effort to do so.” Coshocton [OH] Daily Times 22 May 1909: p. 1
The snake-charming Miss Fisher neatly introduces us to the centuries-old notion of Maternal Influence, also known as Maternal Impressions or marking. This was a belief that whatever a pregnant woman gazed upon would affect her baby. Pregnant women were advised to stay away from pet parrots and monkeys or their newborn would emerge with a beak or a simian muzzle. Both appearance and temperament could be determined by this pre-natal influence. The papers were full of stories of children born with birth defects or phobias ascribed to their mother being frightened by such horrors as a snarling dog, a rat crushed in a trap, a lightning storm, or a ghost. They are disturbing reading for it was an insensitive age and those born deformed were referred to by journalists in terms like rat baby, human frog, infant monster, or “It.”
Dr. Henry F. Lewis, M.D., in an 1899 paper called “Maternal Impressions,” argues against the theory, but cites several examples:
Let us consider the strongest case ever cited in proof of the possibility of the etiological influence of maternal impressions upon the fetus. A female monster was born in Frederick County, Md., in 1864, at the seventh month of gestation. It was a double monster of the species diprosopus tetrophthalmus—that is, it had a double face with two noses, two mouths, and four eyes. The ladies present, as well as the doctor officiating, accounted for the case in the following manner: Ten months before the birth—that is, three months before conception—the mother lost a child by scarlatina. At the same time the mother’s infant sister, about the same age as her own child, died of the same disease. Both were buried in the same coffin, and so placed that at the funeral only the two little faces were visible lying close together on the pillow….
Such cases as the following are not uncommonly met with in the literature. The reporter delivered a woman of an anencephalus at the seventh month and put it in a jar upon his office table, where another woman, pregnant about ten weeks, saw it as she came to consult the doctor. She is said to have been much frightened and shocked at the sight of this “imp staring her in the face.” Six weeks later she miscarried, giving birth to a four-months fetus, also an anencephalus of the same type as the former. The author has them pictured convincingly side by side. He naively states that he could get no history of maternal impression in the first case.
A case of so-called “kynocephalus” was reported within a few years in Chicago, where the maternal impression was due to the mother being frightened and bitten by a dog. When the child was born its head was supposed to resemble that of a dog; hence the name coined. To make the thesis more conclusive the skulls of dog and fetus were shown side by side.
While two months pregnant a woman saw a pet kitten torn and mangled by a dog. This horrible sight caused her much mental shock. The inevitable old woman prophesied that a monster would result. At four and one half months the woman aborted, giving birth to a hemimelus anencephalus. Each limb ended with the first bone, and the entire vault of the cranium with its contents was wanting. Of course the reporter agreed with the old woman that the impression caused the monster. The kitten’s legs were partly torn off by the dog, and that accounted for the hemimelus; while the fact that the terrifying object was a cat accounts for the anencephalus, which made the head look something like that of a cat.
In the first place, the theory of maternal impressions should explain all cases. In spite of diligent search into the former history of the pregnancy, in most cases no event is found which could account for the presence of the particular anomaly under consideration. Thousands of anencephali and other monsters are born without the possibility of the most diligent inquiry eliciting any story of fright by cat, frog, or other animal, or indeed any unusual occurrence during the pregnancy. Conversely, all cases of fright or nervous shock during pregnancy should be followed by the birth of a monster, or at least of a child showing some anomaly. Comparatively few women, especially susceptible as they are to nervous stimuli on account of the pregnancy, go to term without at some time having a mental shock or a fright at least as great as most of those reported as evidences of maternal impression. As a matter of fact, monsters and even slight anomalies are rare when we consider the number of children born every day.
Dr. Lewis finishes up, rather severely:
….In short, all malformations and monstrosities can be explained by purely physical and mechanical causes, entirely remote from psychic influence, so that there is never any reason to invoke the mysterious or the supernatural to explain natural phenomena. “Maternal Impressions,” Henry F. Lewis, M.D. The American Journal of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children, Vol. 40, 1899
If you believe the papers, Dr. Lewis was in the minority.
A child was recently born at Pittsfield with the perfect body of a boy, but with a head shaped like an elephant’s, with flopping ears, nose elongated into a trunk, and other facial peculiarities of that animal. Its mother had been frightened by a circus elephant a few months before the birth of the child, which was happily born dead. An equally hideous monstrosity, called a “snake-child”—a boy baby three months old, with all the characteristics of a snake—is attracting the attention of the quidnuncs in Harwich, down on Cape Cod. It is deformed in several respects, and is said to be a frightful object. Springfield [MA] Republican 9 January 1871: p. 8
Shades of John Merrick, the Elephant Man.
Sometimes it seemed as though the papers were competing for the best maternal influence tall tale. This one is a prize-winner:
A RAT BABY
A prominent physician said to a Plain Dealer representative today, “This ‘devil kid’ is certainly a most remarkable freak of nature. I do not in the least doubt the existence of the monstrosity; in fact, if you will come with me to my office I will show you something quite similar to it.” The reporter at once accompanied the physician to his office and upon arrival there the doctor took from a box, which was filled with jars containing “specimens’ preserved in alcohol, a jar carefully wrapped in a thick cloth, which was removed by the physician and the jar held up to the reporter’s view.
“Great heavens! What’s that!” exclaimed the reporter.
“That,” said the physician, “is a specimen for which I would not take $1,000. It is a fully developed male child with a perfect rat’s head and tail. I was at this birth myself, and after much persuasion and a pledge of secrecy as to the name of the parents I was promised the monstrosity in the event of its death. It lived two weeks, and I then obtained possession of it, and have had it ever since. How do I account for this freak of nature? Easily enough. The mother told me the story herself. While at work in the kitchen one evening some months before the birth of this rat-child a long wharf rat ran across the floor, having been driven into the house by a dog. The woman saw the rat when it entered the door, and she attempted to escape from the room, and in doing so, stepped on the rat and crushed it. She felt it writhe when she stepped on it and fell in a swoon upon the floor. When she revived the first object that met her sight was the dead rat, crushed out of shape and with blood oozing from its nose, eyes and ears. That accounts for the hideous deformity of the thing you see in this jar. When alive it squeaked like a rat, its black bead like eyes snapped and its tail moved restlessly to and fro. It had two half developed tucks protruding from the lower jaw and overlapping two tiny teeth in the upper jaw and ate solid food with avidity. The sediment which you see in the jar is largely composed of the hair which has fallen from various portions of the skin, caused by contact with the sides of the jar. The Coshocton [OH] Democrat 3 April 1888 [One wonders if this was originally published on April 1…]
The Devil Baby/Devil Kid/Demon Child was a recurring theme in the papers. The Demon Child was always born of foreign parents—often Eastern Europeans—after 1870, the United States saw an enormous influx of Eastern European and Russian immigrants, resented and discriminated against, much as the Irish had been. And the Child typically had horns, cloven hooves, and a tail. He also walked and talked right at birth and was quite profane. Perhaps the most famous Devil Baby was the one believed to live at Hull House in Chicago.
The Italian version, with a hundred variations, dealt with a pious Italian girl married to an atheist. Her husband in a rage had torn a holy picture from the bedroom wall saying that he would quite as soon have a devil in the house as such a thing, whereupon the devil incarnated himself in her coming child. As soon as the Devil Baby was born, he ran about the table shaking his finger in deep reproach at his father, who finally caught him and, in fear and trembling, brought him to Hull-House. When the residents there, in spite of the baby’s shocking appearance, wishing to save his soul, took him to church for baptism, they found that the shawl was empty and the Devil Baby, fleeing from the holy water, was running lightly over the backs of the pews.
The Jewish version, again with variations, was to the effect that the father of six daughters had said before the birth of a seventh child that he would rather have a devil in the family than another girl, whereupon the Devil Baby promptly appeared. The Long Road of Woman’s Memory, Jane Addams, 1917
Some maternal influence stories were more plausible than others, like this case of what is probably anencephaly.
Birth of a Monstrosity – A Human Frog.
Bellefontaine, July 2 The wife of a resident of this city was delivered this morning of a human frog. The parents reside in the western part of this city. The child’s head apparently grows right from the shoulders—no neck. The face is right on top of the head, with mouth and eyes precisely like a frog. The arms and legs are also an exact counterpart of that animal’s, being bent in the position when swimming, the hands and feet terminating in long claws. The umbilicous is situated on the back and a well defined heart and liver attached to the back of its neck. A rudimentary arm also sprouts from each side of its head. The human monstrosity was born dead, although thriving to within a few minutes of its delivery. Fort Wayne [IN] Weekly Sentinel 9 July 1879: p. 1
Other stories are easier to label as hoaxes, although genetics experts or obstetricians may have a scientific explanation for birth defects described as dog-, coon- or cat-like. The literal truth of these stories aside, their interest lies in the belief system that finds nothing implausible in the idea that the exposure to violence of a pregnant woman could result in a monstrous birth. Certainly we know that fetal exposure to cortisol, the stress hormone, can cause damage to the developing brain. Were these stories some dimly-understood version of that idea? Or cautionary tales meant to reinforce contemporary notions of treating the pregnant woman tenderly and shielding her from all strain?
A Child With a Dog’s Head.
A Pittsburg correspondent of the Cincinnati Commercial asserts that there is a singular freak of nature near Greensburg, Pa., which has never been made public. There is a family residing near there which has a child that was born in human form, with the exception that the child had a dog’s head on its body. It is now in its twelfth year, hale and hearty, but barks like a dog. The family served, at the time of its birth, a death warrant on the doctor attending, and a neighbour woman, who had called in for the occasion, stating that they would be killed if they ever revealed the misfortune. There are five other children in the family, who are all perfect and intelligent. How this fact reached the ear of the reporter, is that a party who was on his way to Colorado revealed it to him just before departing. He said he visited the house one day on business, but found the parents out and the children were too small to explain intelligently their whereabouts. In looking about the house to see whether they were in any of the rooms, he chanced to open the door of the room in which the monstrosity was confined; after taking a good look at it. He was about to close the door when the parents came in another door. The father immediately drew a revolver upon the man, and there made him promise never to reveal the fact, or then and there meet his death. He answered in the affirmative, and there learned that the mother a few months before the birth of the child had visited a neighboring family who had a ferocious dog, which attacked her. The family says that no one living has ever seen the child but the doctor and female attendant upon its birth and themselves. The matter has made their whole life a torture, and while they have prayed daily for its death it continues to remain healthy. It barks occasionally and raises quite a furore in the room, but to prevent the public from suspecting anything they constantly keep several dogs about the place. The family are well-to-do, and own quite a valuable farm. The Marion [OH] Daily Star 10 March 1881
A Human Monstrosity.
The Birth of a Half-Human and Half-Coon Child.
Kokomo, Ind., Jan. 21, 1880
The Dispatch of this city will tomorrow publish a highly sensational article on the recent birth in this county of a well-developed, sharply-defined monstrosity, being half human and half coon. The truth of the statement is vouched for by several of the best farmers in this county, who saw the lusus naturae, and whose testimony cannot be impeached. At the very urgent request of the parents of the monstrosity, their names will for the present at least, be withheld from publication. [Naturally this suggests an attempt to sell many more papers on the morrow…]
About two weeks ago a woman living in Taylor township, this county, about five miles from Kokomo, gave birth to twins, one of which was a well developed boy and the other a hideous monster, half human and half coon. The regularly formed child is now living, but its twin monstrosity lived only a few hours after birth. Every one who saw it at once remarked the striking resemblance to a coon. Its face was pointed, and looked like a coon’s face. It had four feet, resembling claws, on which were great sharp nails. It had a well defined tail four inches long. It had no eyes and its arms and limbs looked like the limbs of the animal it so strikingly resembled. Its body, or trunk, alone bore marks of human nature.
Our medical men are greatly excited over the matter, and great public interest is manifested in this rare and wonderful feat of nature. The theory that human monstrosities, embodying marked characteristics of the human and brute creation, may result from fright or strong mental aversion of the mother during the period of gestation, has received pretty strong proof in this case. This remarkable phenomenon is accounted for on these facts: The husband has followed ‘coon hunting for a livelihood for years. His wife has always evinced a decided dislike for the business, and pleaded in vain with her husband to give it up altogether. Several months previous to the birth of the twins the husband had brought home a ‘coon, which almost paralyzed the wife with a morbid fear and unconquerable aversion. In the light of science and medical history there is nothing unreasonable or increditable in this strange lusus naturae. It has parallels in history. Indiana [PA] Progress 5 February 1880: p. 1
A good deal of ingenuity seemed to go into finding a reason for these sad defects:
A Child Born with the Head of a Cat and the Feet of a Chicken
Nature, when in a festive mood, performs many odd freaks, but the most wonderful of which we have ever heard was the bird of a strange monstrosity about two weeks ago and not a half dozen miles from Joplin. The circumstance was related to us by a physician whose reputation for truth and veracity cannot be questioned. [red flag!] At the request of the unfortunate parents the physician’s name as well as theirs will not at this time be made public.
About one o’clock a.m., 23d ultimo, Dr. ___ was summoned to attend Mrs. ___, who was momentarily expected to be confined. Arriving there he found three or four women gathered in a state of great excitement, and on inquiring the cause of their agitation, he was shown to the bedside, where he found the lady in a state o great nervous prostration. After administering the necessary remedies, which succeeded in quieting her nerves, he was shown into another room where he beheld a strange-looking being which the lady had given birth to a few minutes before his arrival. Even the doctor, who was accustomed to see strange sights, was shocked at this. Wrapped in its swaddling cloths lay the child, if child it could be called, weighing about eight pounds, with a head whose forehead was well developed, but whose mouth, nose, eyes, ears and general countenance were the exact counterpart of a cat’s, though the eyes, from their dazzling brilliancy, looked much like a serpent’s. The body, arms and hands were well formed and natural and so were the legs as far down as the knees. From the knees they bore an almost exact resemblance to the leg of a chicken—the foot was as near a chicken’s foot as can be imagined—and the infant would contract its toes just as a chicken would. Its head and neck were covered with a growth of fine black hair, the body and limbs looked like a chicken when plucked of its feathers; its cries were those of a cat. Other peculiarities were noticeable, but perhaps it is best not to make them public at this time.
It is said that this unfortunate circumstance was brought about in this way: Some five or six months ago, while the parents resided in another state, the lady was watching a fight between a cat and rooster in an adjoining yard. Two boys, aged ten and twelve years respectively, were watching the contest with great interest. Finally the cat caught the chicken by the neck and instantly dispatched him. The older boy grabbed a light ax, and uplifting it, rushed toward the younger, saying: “D__n you, your cat killed my rooster, and I’ll kill you.” The younger brother, in attempting to escape, stumbled and fell. At this stage of the proceedings the lady fell to the floor in a swoon, but only recovered to pass from one spasm to another, which continued for several hours, and the result was the birth of this monstrosity.
The parents wished the child put out of the way by violent means, but after a deal of persuasion and the promise of a large sum of money, the doctor was allowed to retain it, provided he would never make its parentage known or exhibit for two years. He has hired an old negro man and his wife, who live at an out-of-the-way place on the Arkansas line, to raise the infant. Less than a week ago he heard from it and it was growing finely. Cincinnati [OH] Daily Enquirer 19 August 1875: p. 2
A Child Born With the Head of a Sea Lion.
New York, April 21. Mrs. Linder, the wife of a respectable mechanic living on Jackson Avenue, Greenville, N.J., had become the mother of three children. On Thursday night she gave birth to a fourth child. Mrs. Selma Gruner, a midwife, was in attendance. While she was washing the little stranger she found an entire absence of bony structures in the head. It gave the sensation to the touch as of a hollow rubber ball. On taking the baby to the light Mrs. Gruner observed that it was singularly malformed. The head resembled that of a sea lion, and the horrified midwife felt like dropping the little one and taking to her heels. She called Mr. Linder to look at his child.
The abnormal resemblance had already become more distinct. There was an entire absence of the nasal bones and the lower portion of the frontal bone was undeveloped. The nostrils were only rudimentary. The under lip fell below the chin. The baby had no eyes, although there were cavities or depression corresponding to the orbital spaces. Unlike other infants, Mrs. Linder’ baby does not cry. It bellows when it is hungry, and becomes quiet and gentle as soon as it is fed. It refuses to take natural nourishment, but, although only a few days old, thrives and grows fat on thick cracker pap which would be refused by the stomach of a much older child. The rest of the body and internal organs appear to be normal and are well formed.
The grief-stricken mother hoped that the child would die, but it has grown stronger with each hour of life.
A friend of the family told a reporter of the World yesterday that one day last summer Mrs. Linder visited the aquarium on Staten Island and became much interested in the antics of the seals and sea lions. She talked about them for weeks afterwards. While visiting the place on several other occasions, she always spent a long time before the cage. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 22 April 1885: p. 4
Although the papers revelled in sensational physical cases, mental traits were also believed to arise from maternal influence, which is why there was much concern about hereditary insanity in 19th century literature and beyond.
HAUNTED THROUGH LIFE BY IMPRESSIONS MADE AT THE HOUR OF HIS BIRTH; NOW INSANE
Marietta, O., Oct. 26. Haunted all through life by the terrible impressions made upon him at the hour of his birth, George Yeager, of Richland Township, has been driven insane and has just been sent to the State Hospital.
On the day he was born a terrific thunderstorm was raging, and about the hour he was born a bolt of lightning struck near the home of his parents, frightening his mother almost to the point of unconsciousness. Then, too, while life was bringing him into the world, death had laid claim to his father. This, added to the other harrowing experiences, so unnerved the mother that she has never been as well mentally as she was before.
That these vivid impressions upon Mrs. Yeager communicated themselves to the subconsciousness of her child, are evidenced by the fact that he has ever had an unnatural fear of thunderstorms and death in any form. The finale of this strange life tragedy comes with the commitment of the man to the asylum. Newark [OH] Advocate 26 October, 1904: p. 6
Obviously a fear of thunderstorms and death could be acquired in ordinary ways, quite apart from any pre-natal maternal influence.
Even at the time of the Devil Kid, the theory of maternal influence was being discounted by many scientists. Modern science, of course, has discarded this theory as utter superstition. Obviously we reject the notion that a pregnant woman with a pet parrot could give birth to a deformed baby. But until relatively recently pregnant women were told that smoking and alcohol consumption had no effect on their unborn children. We are only now starting to look at how some forms of mental illness are associated with exposure in the womb to the influenza virus. Stress to the pregnant mother can also cause diseases in the child. Pregnant women are ordered off smoking, drinking, coffee, fizzy drinks and given a host of contradictory prohibitions and admonitions. Rather stressful for them…
I suppose that the one lesson we can draw from the theories of maternal/pre-natal influence is this: whether you subscribe to the tenets of superstition or of science, you can always find a way to blame your mother if you don’t turn out well.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.