Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A wicked knowledge.


Battling ti tree scrub - almost impenetrable at times.



Cooke, Matatoki, 1898.

When Elizabeth Cooke went missing from her home in Warahoe, Matatoki on an August night in 1898 her mother immediately sent for her son to organise a search party.  Neighbours with dogs began scouring the  very rough country dominated by high ti tree and thick undergrowth.  Hindering the search through the night was a  fence which was very difficult to to negotiate in the dark.

 Patrick and John O'Brien of Matatoki joined Elizabeth's brother William in the search.  They hunted through the dense and bristly ti tree surrounding  Cooke's house and on the opposite side of the road until about midnight when Joseph Boyle joined them and they formed two parties.

Patrick and Joseph paired up and continued the search, which was noisy with dogs barking and shouts to Elizabeth.  Around 2.30 am  they heard  Elizabeth call.  She was on the opposite side of the road to her house, a couple of hundred yards away, coming out of the ti tree on to a track that led to the road.  Joseph asked if she was all right and she replied that she was.  He took her arm and helped her into the house.

Mrs Cooke undressed Elizabeth and put her to bed.  All that day the 21 year old  had been very ill and lying on the sofa.  About 6.30 pm Elizabeth had gone outside and Mrs Cooke followed her.  She met Elizabeth coming back towards the house and the girl seemed very poorly indeed.  Mrs Cooke asked Elizabeth if she was unwell and should she send for a doctor  Elizabeth told her mother not to worry; to let her lie down and she would be "all right."  Elizabeth then went into the house by the back door while Mrs Cooke remained outside. About five minutes later her other daughter, Carrie, informed her that Elizabeth had gone out again and it was then she had vanished.

  Elizabeth was in a very weak condition and on being questioned by her mother said she had had a baby and had left it in the ti-tree.

Mrs Cooke asked her if the baby was alive and Elizabeth replied it was not, it had never cried. She said that after giving birth, between fainting and sleeping, she was in such a condition that she did not know where she was. She did not come round until she heard the boys near her.  She told her mother that she wanted to go and find the child- she could do so at any moment.

The search now became one for a  baby.  It continued all day Sunday with no success.  On Monday morning Mrs Cooke went to the police station who later reported that they  were informed that a young woman had been "confined of a female child under peculiar circumstances."

Mrs Cooke returned home with Dr Callan to attend to her daughter.  Detective Herbert and Sergeant Steevens arrived at Matatoki about 12 noon.  Elizabeth was in bed and gave them particulars as to the direction in which to search for the baby.

After half an hour the policemen found the baby in some ti tree scrub, partially covered with fresh fern that had been placed around it.  The navel cord appeared to have been cut about 6 to 8 inches from the body but it had not been tied.  A small narrow track led past the spot to within a foot or two where the baby was found.  The place was a difficult one to search and it was by great luck that the baby was found in so short a time.  It was brought to the house and identified by Elizabeth along with a black handled table knife.  Mrs Cooke told the detective that the knife had been missed on Sunday.

An inquest into the affair had to be adjourned as Elizabeth too was ill to give evidence.  A strange feature of the case, noted the Thames Star,  was that although searchers came within a few yards of the spot in the ti tree where Elizabeth was lying, she seemed to have refrained from uttering any sound to reveal her whereabouts.
Her crime was concealment of birth which usually saw women charged with six months probation and being named in newspapers.  Due to their physical and mental condition they were usually not held responsible for their actions, but they had to endure great shame throughout the proceedings.

When the inquest was held Sarah Cooke, widow, mother of Elizabeth, stated that she had noticed the previous March that her daughter did not appear to be in her usual health.  On being questioned Elizabeth said she was "all right."
Mrs Cooke's reason for questioning her was that Elizabeth looked stouter than usual.  She suspected that Elizabeth was pregnant.   Elizabeth had never admitted this and Mrs Cooke had never asked her directly whether she was.  Elizabeth became  indignant on being questioned about her health.
Mrs Cooke felt he daughter had no intention of concealing the birth and that the death occurred through her daughters ignorance.  Elizabeth had since told her the name of the father, but this was not made known publicly.

Elizabeth Cooke testified that she was the mother of the child.  Shortly after the birth she fainted.  She cut the navel cord but did not know it was necessary to also tie it.  When she came out of the faint,  the baby was dead.   If she had known it was necessary to tie the cord, she would have done so.

The defence said this was the first time Elizabeth had got into trouble.  She would be ignorant as to what steps to take on the birth of a child, even had she not fainted.  She had never before seen a newborn baby and although she expressed a wish to go and find the baby, she was too weak to do so.
 
The Coroner said the whole trend of the evidence was that Mrs Cooke suspected that there was something wrong with her daughter but the daughter had always evaded every question by saying she was "all right."

Dr Callan stated that Elizabeth gave all appearances of having recently given birth and she admitted that she had done so.  She was very confused as to the time and particulars of the birth and said that she must have fainted and gone to sleep.  Dr Callan asked her if she heard the child cry and she replied "no."
The child was fully developed and Dr Callan was satisfied upon examination that the child had lived and breathed.  The umbilical cord had been cut about 10 inches from the body of the child; the cause of death was haemorrhage through the cord not being tied.  Dr Callan did not think the child had lived more than an hour.  "With proper treatment," he said "there was no reason why the child should not have lived, as it was exceptionally healthy and well developed."
Sergeant Gillies questioned whether, if the girl was in a fainting condition, could she have cut the cord cleanly?
Dr Callan replied "A person while in a fainting condition could have cut the cord, but it was quite possible that immediately after the cord was cut the girl fainted and was no longer able to tie the cord or attend to the duties of a mother."

The Coroner said there appeared to have been no attempt at deception,  the girl had striven all the way through to keep the knowledge of her condition from her mother "as was perfectly natural."
The fact that she had told her mother where the child was and that she wanted to go and find it was proof that there was no intention of concealment.
"If the child had been deserted by a mother who had had children before, who knew what should be done in cases of birth, who was sane and yet who neglected to tie the navel cord - such an act would undoubtedly be homicide."
In this case the evidence showed the girl had done the thing in ignorance. She had obviously kept the knowledge of pregnancy to herself for shame's sake.

The jury found that the deceased child died from blood loss due to the mother not tying the navel cord; and "that the failure to tie said navel cord arose through ignorance and inexperience of the mother."
The police disagreed.  Immediately after the verdict was given Elizabeth was arrested on a charge of wilful murder of her child.

Lengthy, complicated arguments were heard in court as to whether she was guilty of murder or manslaughter and concealment of birth.

At the end, the Magistrate, Mr Bush,  said  "I have carefully gone through the depositions and I see nothing there that would substantiate the charge of murder and there is no evidence either of concealment of birth...There might be some slight evidence on the charge of manslaughter."
"I find the jury has to be satisfied that the accused had a wicked knowledge of what was done - that there is some act of premeditation."
There was no evidence in this case and it seemed to the magistrate it was not a case to be sent to a higher court.

Elizabeth Cooke, ignorantly naive, having endured a terrible trauma on a cold dark night amongst the ti-tee, with a widowed mother who knew, but was unable to face the truth,  was allowed to go free.
 

Although one newspaper named the child as 'Bessie' she is noted as an unknown child of unknown gender with no name in cemetery records.  She is buried with her grandfather, Edward,  who died in 1892 aged 49 and a four day old baby boy named Charles who died in 1875, probably a baby brother of Elizabeth's.

Steevens is the correct, if unusual,  spelling of the sergeant's name.

Warahoe, Matatoki is now a road but at the time appears to have referred to a general area near the Warahoe stream.

Matatoki was spelt Matatoke at the time.



A St Helens public maternity hospital in NZ -  they came about after an inquiry into maternal and infant deaths during childbirth.

(Source: Papers Past, Te Ara, Sir George Grey Special Collections - AWNS 19280823-50-1 & 19070627-14-3)

© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2013


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