"Shaken baby syndrome." Well all know now what that awful phrase means because of the case of Virginia Jaspers.
In the 1950s, a New England woman confessed to the police that she was a serial killer - of infants. Her case is now the subject of a new book from author James Peinkofer, a licensed clinical social worker and expert on shaken baby syndrome. His book is Lilacs in the Rain: The Shocking Story of Connecticut's Shaken-Baby Serial Killer [Amazon; B&N]. The reviews so far are quite flattering.
Curious about the story of how this form of child abuse first came to light decades ago, CLEWS recently had the chance to ask the author some questions, and he kindly replied. Here is our Q&A.
Q. Who was this woman?
Virginia Jaspers was 33 years old at the time of her arrest in late August 1956 for the death of 12-day-old Abbe Kapsinow. She was the daughter of an ex Connecticut state senator ( who had many political ties in the New Haven area). The Jaspers lived in East Haven, CT. After graduating from high school, Virginia attended an 18-month in-home baby nurse program at the St. Agnes Home in West Hartford, CT. St. Agnes was run by the Sisters of Mercy and taught participants how to care for babies in people's homes.
Virginia was quite a sight to many of her clients. She stood 6-feet tall and weighed well over 200 lbs. She was not attractive and was teased repeatedly as a child. She had the gift of gab and was child-like in her laughter and joviality. All her life, she liked caring for younger children, so it's ironic that she abused (and killed) her charges.
Many years after her arrest, the Jaspers case served as the foundation for the first medical journal article to detail Shaken Baby Syndrome as we know it today.
Q. What did she do, and how on earth did she get away with it?
Three-week-old Cynthia Hubbard, the first to die (1948), was thought to have been born with a congenital brain condition, though some of the doctors believed there was more to the story of her death than they could prove.
Three-month-old Jennifer Malkan, the second to die (1950), was believed to have choked on cerealed formula (though the fact that death could occur this way is skeptical). Many people believed that poor Virginia was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jennifer's mother was Joan Brainerd (still living) - a famed concert soloist at the time. Eyebrows were really raised (by doctors) when two-month-old Bruce Schaefer's leg was broken (1955). The case was investigated - but went nowhere. Bruce's father Marvin (still living) teamed with Dr. Salinger (a well-respected New Haven pediatrician) to push for an investigation into Jaspers' background - but, again, it went nowhere.
Finally, after 12-day-old Abbe was brought into the hospital in a coma (later dying) in 1956, that is when the doctors got the attention of the medical examiner and police chief. Four days later, during police interrogation, Jaspers broke and confessed to the deaths. She was also a suspect in 15 cases of physical abuse.
It was different times in the 1940s and 50s. People didn't openly talk about child abuse until the 1960s. Especially medical providers. They were often worried about their reputation and liability issues - even sometimes if abuse was suspected. Jaspers' father was also very influential in the community, which didn't help.
Finally, child abuse injuries were not as fine-tuned as they are today. For decades, it was believed that an infant or child could die from a bed fall (we know today that the likelihood of this is 1:1,000,000).
Q. Do you think it is possible for such a woman to get away with such a series of crimes today?
It is unlikely that a woman could get away with a SERIES of such crimes today. Beating the legal system in single events happens all the time - unfortunately. Also, parents suspect more and talk more about the potential for abuse - i.e. nanny cams.
Q. Do you ever encounter a sense of disbelief among the mental health professionals (or jurors, for that matter) in the cases that you have worked on?
I've had problems with medical providers that I have worked with. Several years ago, a physical therapist, that I had once worked with, shook her infant son and hospitalized him. She was a good-looking middle class woman with a husband and two sons. The boy's pediatrician said that his injuries were from birth trauma (subdural hematoma and severe retinal hemorrhaging). The boy was 4 or 5 months old.
Police investigators consulted with me and I was shocked - initially believing that this mother never could have done such a thing - she was nice, I had worked with her, etc. But, once I read the medical reports and the events of the case, I said it was a slam-dunk case of Shaken Baby Syndrome. An outside neurosurgeon was consulted and he agreed with me (without a doubt). But, the boy's pediatrician was steadfast in her belief that it was NOT abuse. The case never went anywhere.
(Photo - author James Peinkofer)
Q. By the by, are you a true crime fan?
Q. Do you have any favorite authors or titles?
I have enjoyed a variety of authors - esp. ex-FBI profilers's works (Ressler, McCrary, Hazelwood). I read a lot of child killer true crime books, since that is my interest. I am currently working on a book that highlights the 50 most notorious child murders in history.
Q. Can you remember how old you were when you read your first true crime story, and what was it?
I was always a Hardy Boys fan (crime fiction) and even thought of becoming a detective when I was young. As far as true crime goes, I think my first book was Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.I was in my teens. I also really liked Bugliosi's Helter Skelter - which haunted me for days after I finished it.
Ah - both books are on my top ten list.
For more about the author and his new book, check out the official website for Lilacs in the Rain.