Honora Higgins - the tragic tale of a servant girl from Galway -
- now with a happy ending -
Honora/h Higgins was born about 1838 in Tuam Galway, daughter of Thomas Higgins and Mary O-Neill and sister of my great x 2 grandfather Thomas Higgins. No baptism has been found for Honora or her older sister Margaret, however she appears to have been born about 1838/39 according to her age on her shipping records.
Immigration: Honora did not come to Australia in 1841 with her parents. We could speculate that since her mother Mary was pregnant with son Thomas who was born on board the Albatross during the voyage, it may have been considered too hard to take care of their youngest child, 3 year old Honora. Honora eventually arrived in Australia on 20th August 1860 aboard the Tudor with her cousin Honora O'Neill. Honora was a general servant. She was Roman Catholic and could read. He older married sister Mary Burke paid the deposit for both girls. The deposition register shows they were residing at Drinaun which is one mile east- south-east of Tuam
Crime and Punishment: In December of 1861, Honora Higgins, a servant at Richmond Vale was committed to trial for the crime of infanticide after a autopsy on the body of her illegitimate male child. The Sydney Morning Herald dated Monday 9th December reported the following:
Hunter River District (From the Maitland Papers of Saturday) Committal for Child Murder An inquest was held by the coroner, Mr. Thomson, on the 4th instant, at Mr. Atkinson's Metropolitan Hotel, East Maitland, on the body of the illegitimate male child of Honora Higgins. From the evidence it appeared that the accused was a domestic servant with Mr. Bartlett, at Richmond Vale, and that on Thursday, the 28th ultimo, she was delivered of a male child. The following is the evidence of her fellow servant, Mary Hogan: "On Friday morning last I went into the bedroom at Mr. Bartlett’s residence at Richmond Vale. I saw the mattress of the bed higher than it ought to be. I lifted the mattress up, and laid my hand on a baby's head, but did not move it in any way. I am a domestic servant at Richmond Vale, and am acquainted with the prisoner Honora Higgins, who is also a servant there. I had not the slightest idea that the prisoner was in the family way. The head of the child I touched was under the mattress of the prisoner's bed. I rose at six o'clock that morning, and left the prisoner in bed, who afterwards rose, and whom I saw at work in the dairy. When I entered the bedroom and saw the head of the child, it was between eight and nine o'clock. It was my belief the child was cold. I did not observe a handkerchief about its neck. It was wrapped in something, but I could not say what it was. The prisoner complained of being ill on the previous day (Thursday), and remained in bed all day. I assisted in taking in and giving her meals. She took nothing but tea. She did not say what was the matter with her." The witness, on being re called, further stated "I never mentioned the circumstance of finding the child under the mattress to the prisoner. I never saw the prisoner making any baby linen. I never mentioned the circumstance of seeing the baby under the mattress to Mr. Bartlett until the Sunday evening, but I had a suspicion that the child was the prisoner's, and I intended to speak to the prisoner's mother of it." Henry Garvín deposed that on Monday evening he proceeded with constable Smith to apprehend the prisoner, whom he met on the way to Maitland to give herself, up for concealing the birth of a child; she freely acknowledged her offence to him, and told him that the child was buried in the sand at the back of her master's premises ; she returned with witness to the spot, and putting her hand into a hole pulled out the child, which was wrapped in a piece of calico ; there was a red handkerchief tied round the child's neck, with a single knot in front, which she attempted to untie, but witness prevented her ; he asked her why she tied the handkerchief round the child's neck and she said that she only lapped it round: the prisoner informed witness that the child was born dead on Thursday, and that she buried it on Friday. Dr. Wilton stated that he had examined the body of the infant which was that of a full matured child, but from the decomposition it was impossible to I discover any marks that may have been on it ; he opened the chest and took out the lungs, which was the principal test for ascertaining whether the child was born alive or not. The lungs of a child born alive should swim when immersed in water, whereas those of a child born dead would sink. On throwing the child's lungs into water they swam; the lungs also appeared full- an indication that the child had breathed. He examined the prisoner, and found that she had been recently confined. The tying of the handkerchief round the child's neck would cause strangulation. The jury returned a verdict of "child murder" against the prisoner, who was committed for trial at the ensuing Maitland Circuit Court on the coroner's warrant.
The Maitland Mercury dated the 8th March 1862 carried the following report of Honora's trial:
Child Murder Honora Higgins was charged with the murder of her male child, at Richmond Vale, on the 28th November last, and also with concealing the birth of the child. The prisoner pleaded not guilty, and Mr. Wisdom, instructed by Mr. J. Meagher, was assigned for her defence. The following witnesses were called for the Crown : Henry Garvin, Dr. William Wilton, Mary Hogan, Fawkner Hope Bartlett, and Elizabeth Bartlett. The prisoner was a domestic servant of Mrs. Bartlett's, of Richmond Vale, for about two months previous to the birth of the child. She was accustomed to sleep along with a fellow servant, who, however, never had heard her mention the condition she was in, nor yet suspected it herself. The birth appears to have taken place on a Thursday. On the previous Saturday Mrs. Bartlett, who had suspected, from the girl's extraordinary size, that she was in she family way, asked her was it so, when she replied that it was not. On Wednesday the prisoner had a heavy day's washing. On Thursday she complained of being ill in the chest and stomach, and on her mistress going to see her in bed, she asked her for a dose of salts but Mrs. Bartlett gave her some castor oil and peppermint, thinking it was a more suitable medicine. No sound of crying was heard during the day, although the mistress and others were in and near the room where prisoner was. Next morning her fellow servant got up at six o'clock, and left the room without having observed anything unusual. The prisoner got up an hour later, and went out. The other girl, Mary Hogan, was in the bedroom about eight o'clock, when she noticed an unusual elevation on the bed, and on removing the sheets discovered a baby lying on it ; the head was bare, the body covered with a white wrapper, and nothing was observed around its neck. From the medical evidence it appeared quite certain the prisoner had given birth to a child about that time. A few days afterwards, on the 3rd December, two of the Maitland police were going out towards Maitland Vale when they met the prisoner and another woman riding towards the town. The prisoner gave herself into their charge for concealment of the birth of a child. On being asked what she had done with the body, she conducted the police to the bank of the creek, near Mr. Bartlett's house, and putting her hand into a natural hole in the face of the bark, pulled out the body of an infant; it was in an advanced state of decomposition. While she was taking it out, a white cloth fell off it. There was an old silk handkerchief tied tightly round the neck and fastened with a single knot, which prisoner undid with her finger, but was prevented from removing the handkerchief, by the constable. The medical gentleman who afterwards saw the body was also of opinion that the handkerchief had been very tightly tied round the neck, in such a manner as might be expected to cause strangulation, although another professional gentleman thought the appearance of tightness might have been occasioned by the swelling of the parts immediately adjoining the handkerchief, and also that the absorption of moisture by the handkerchief would cause it to contract and become tighter ; in fact, it was completely saturated with matter from the decomposing body. Dr. Wilton, who examined the body on the 3rd December, was of opinion that the child had come to maturity, and had no doubt that it had breathed. The ground on which he concluded that air had circulated through the lungs, was, that they floated when he put them into water, which they would not have done had the child never breathed, and that they exhibited what is called "crepidus" when squeezed. On this point however, Dr. Scott, the only witness called for the defence, differed somewhat from the opinion just given. He said there might be sufficient air in the lungs, before the child was fully born to make them float in water ; and also that after the lapse of six days after death the hydrostatic test would be worthless, since the lungs might float from putrefaction. The doctor was also of opinion that a child was only fully born when it had attained an existence separate from its mother, by the cutting of the cord. It was admitted by both medical gentlemen that the first children of women was more frequently still-born than their subsequent offspring. Mr. Wisdom addressed the jury for the defence ; and his Honor summed up, reminding the jury that if they were not satisfied that the prisoner was guilty of the capital offence, they might, if they thought she was merely guilty of concealment of birth, return a verdict against her on that count. The jury, after retiring for twenty minutes, brought in a verdict of guilty of concealing the birth of a child. His Honor, before passing sentence, enquired whether anyone could give evidence as to the girl's character, when Mr. Bartlett said he had reason to be satisfied with her, so far as he knew her. His Honor then, after remarking upon the extreme prevalence of the crime with which the prisoner was charged, and regretting that the law did not award a severer punishment for the offence, sentenced her to two years' imprisonment in Maitland gaol.
Maitland Gaol reports confirm that this is Honora who arrived on the Tudor in 1860. She is described as being a servant and Roman Catholic. She was 5 foot 1 inches tall, with a slight build and a sallow complexion. She had brown hair and brown eyes with no distinguishing features. She could read but not write.
Discharge: Honora was discharged from the Maitland gaol on 5th March 1864.
What happened to Honora after her release?
I searched for evidence of Honora after her release from gaol for many years but she appeared to have vanished from Australian records. It was not until several Ancestry DNA matches connected me to a family line in New Zealand that I may have finally found the answers.