Dorothy Talby is chained to a post at the corner of Prison Lane, with the hot sun blazing on her matronly face, and all for no other offence than lifting her hand against her husband....
--Nathaniel Hawthorne, in Main Street
....see poor Dorothy Talby, mad as Ophelia....
--Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Medical Essays
We simply don't know what to do with the Medeas of the world, mothers who are as "mad as Ophelia," who suffer from psychosis and murder their own children. Execution? Life imprisonment? Commitment to a psychiatric hospital?
It's a question that Americans have wrestled with for nearly 400 years. Before Andrea Yates drowned her children, before Darlie Routier stabbed her children, before Susan Smith drowned her children, before Deanna Laney stoned her children, before Maggie Young drowned her five children in a bathtub in 1965, there was Dorothy Talby, the first woman in North America known to have murdered a child while in the throes of delusion. And the date of the event is very early indeed.
Dorothy Talby and her husband John came from England to settle in Plymouth in colonial Massachusetts. The painstaking records kept by the colonists offer a full picture of their life together. After obtaining an allotment of land, Dorothy and John had several children; the last was a daughter named Difficulty, who was baptized on Christmas, 1636.
The Talby marriage was a tortured one. After the birth of her last child, Mrs. Talby "became melancholy and possessed of delusions." Dorothy quite evidently suffered from a severe mental illness and often threatened her family. Dorothy's husband complained of her bizarre behavior to authorities in Salem, who sentenced her in 1637 to be chained to a post for "frequently laying hands on her husband, to the danger of his life."
The treatment was ineffective, and she was excommunicated. This was also ineffective. When she became increasingly violent, she was publicly whipped. Then in 1638 "her mind again became more clouded." The rest of the story comes from the original records:
She believed that God revealed to her the necessity of taking the life of her baby, in order to save the child from future misery.... she was led to take the child's life, by breaking its neck. She made no secret of the murder, and when apprehended confessed the deed.
In the [Salem] court, on this day, upon her arraignment, she, however, stood mute a good while, -- until the governor told her that if she did not plead she would be pressed to death. She then confessed... she was duly sentenced....
Mrs. Talby asked to be beheaded, but the sentence imposed by borrowed English law was hanging in Boston two days after her conviction in December, 1638. At the time of her hanging, she had to be forcibly detained. When her face was covered with a cloth, she ripped it off and stuffed it in the rope that had been placed around her neck. She was then "cast off, and, after a swing or two, she caught at the ladder."
Dorothy Talby was one of the first women executed in the colonies; two females had been executed earlier -- Jane Champion and Margaret Hatch -- but their crimes are lost to history. And thus the history of the death penalty in the United States can be said to begin with a Medea, a woman "mad as Ophelia," and four centuries later we still face the dilemma of what to do with them.
....see poor Dorothy Talby, mad as Ophelia, first admonished, then whipped; at last, taking her own little daughter's life; put on trial, and standing mute, threatened to be pressed to death, confessing, sentenced, praying to be beheaded; and none the less pitilessly swung from the fatal ladder.... The cooper's crazy wife -- crazy in the belief that she has committed the unpardonable sin -- tries to drown her child, to save it from misery; and the poor lunatic, who would be tenderly cared for to-day in a quiet asylum, is judged to be acting under the instigation of Satan himself. Yet, after all, what can we say, who put Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," full of nightmare dreams of horror, into all our children's hands....
--Oliver Wendell Holmes