Sarah Whitton of Alfred chloroformed her 3-week-old infant and threw the child in the Mousam River.

Mary Glynn of Hampden strangled her 11-month-old grandson with a woolen scarf and buried him in the cellar.

Elizabeth Jackson of Appleton cut her newborn’s umbilical cord, wrapped it in a rough blanket and left it in an unheated room, unattended, for three days until it died, all the while listening to its weakening cries. When asked why she did it, Jackson replied, “We wanted to be rid of the trouble of it.”

The horrifying stories of these 19th-century murders, and the sensational trials that followed them, are explored in detail by Maine author Annette Vance Dorey in her new book, “Maine Mothers Who Murdered 1875-1925: Doing Time in State Prison.”

A retired educator from Lewiston, Dorey pores into original source material — newspaper stories, prison documents — to discover who these women were, why they did what they did, and what happened to them. She had stumbled across a case or two back in the 1990s, and was unable to let them go. “I just felt compelled” to learn more about these murderous women’s stories, she said.

Dorey is an avid genealogist and a member of the board of trustees of the Androscoggin Historical Society. When she isn’t investigating terrible historical crimes, she sings in the church choir. 

Q: How did you get interested in this gruesome topic?

A: That’s what everyone asks me. I found one tiny article in a 1917 newspaper microfilm in Portland when I was researching another book. It was this woman who was accused of murder for throwing her baby in the Androscoggin River in Lewiston. I had saved that, and about four years ago I discovered that on my desk, because I was going through a pile of stuff. And I said, “OK it’s time. I now live in Lewiston; I am going to find out about this woman.”

I just wanted to know, what was the story there? Who was this woman? What happened? So I investigated her and I did all that research, and I couldn’t believe that she was convicted and sent to the state prison in Thomaston. That just shocked me. I didn’t think that women were sent there. I tried to find out, how long was she there? Did they have any records? And they didn’t.

Then I discovered that all kinds of other women’s names appeared in the census and in the rosters for the prison. And I started looking at those, and realized that other women were in for murder. 

Q: Was child murder the most common reason that women were sent to Thomaston?

A: No. A lot of women were sent there — I hope you’re sitting down — for adultery. (Dorey discovered that a woman who committed adultery during this time period were typically sentenced to 1 to 3 years in prison.) There were women who had murdered their husbands. Women were in for arson.

One of the tables in the back of the book lists the years and the number of women who were in for different things — burglary, arson, adultery. The more I kept investigating things about the prison, the more I realized I was finding brand-new primary source information that no one has written about. 

Q: You appear to have a lot of empathy for these women because of the socioeconomic hurdles they faced during their lifetimes, but were there any who stood out to you as just bad mothers?

A: That’s really hard to say. I think the communities and the court system and the prosecutors and people who wrote about their trials — newspaper people at the time — they didn’t mince words. That’s why I used a lot of the original material for quotes, so readers could get a sense of how biased people seemed to be. But that I took with a grain of salt, because it was a very judgmental time. Women were just not supposed to do any of that. Women were supposed to be the keepers of the home and do no wrong.

But I tried not to judge. I tried not to sound sympathetic. I just wanted to report what I found. It’s hard to say that anyone who could do away with their child was a good person, but there were so many extenuating circumstances. It seemed clear to me they felt they didn’t have any other option because of the era they lived in. 

Q: In your first chapter, you tell the story of Ianthe (pronounced eye-an-tha) Morgan, who was charged with murdering her infant son. There’s initially evidence that she was really cold-blooded, talking a lot about how her child would soon be dead. But then, as you read on, you find her story is not that simple and there’s other evidence that points to her innocence. Were all the stories this complicated?

A: No. That happened to be the oldest story I found. I thought it was really interesting, so I was putting in so much of the detail, and I thought that set the tone. But people will discover further in the book that some were skimpier, sketchier stories and others were detailed, and others had other complications. There were still questions in my mind at the end of some of them, like, is this the whole story? 

Q: When Ianthe was on trial, a concealed pregnancy and secret birth were considered crimes. That kind of thing must have happened a lot back before there was any birth control. Do you think that fear of prosecution is what led some women to murder their children — they were, in effect, destroying the evidence?

A: I don’t know if it was fear of prosecution or feeling trapped. They were all rural, poor women, so I’m thinking uneducated as well — uneducated in the ways of the world, maybe. But I think it was more a fear of no choice, no other option. 

Q: What was it like for you personally, diving deep into these murders and the trials? Did you ever just have to walk away from the material?

A: Initially, I did. It affected me. I can’t explain why, but the further into it I got, the more files I accumulated, the more side issues I was discovering, then it just became pure research, and I stopped looking at the awful part of it. 

Q: On a lighter note, Gov. (Percival) Baxter was considered ahead of his time in a lot of ways, but I had never heard the story of Sandy the prison dog. Can you talk a little about the dog?

A: He was given to the prison by Gov. Baxter to be a friend to any inmate, because he would always be a willing listener. A pet is non-judgmental. Today, we see pets in nursing homes and other residential facilities. They’re called therapy dogs now. But I think this was way ahead of its time for Gov. Baxter to be thinking so highly of the future and the potential of these inmates that they should have a dog. 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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Twitter: MeredithGoad