Biography, Blog, Women's History

A supposititious child by Dr Linda Maynard

On 26 August 1910, a notice appeared in the San Francisco Examiner: ‘Wanted. For adoption – a newly born infant; must be a boy.’ Four years later, Dorothy Slingsby, an American in her forties, finally confessed to placing the advert. Her motivation sprang from a duel anxiety: fear that she might not only lose the baby she was carrying but also that she would fail her husband by not providing him with the family he desired. During her ten-year marriage to Charles, a former naval officer and future tenant for life of a wealthy Yorkshire estate, Dorothy suffered three miscarriages.[1] When she fell pregnant again earlier that year, Charles observed his wife’s ‘very nervous’ condition. That summer, he reluctantly agreed to Dorothy leaving their home in British Columbia to stay in San Francisco to receive care from a physician recommended by a trusted friend. After feeling nauseated one day, a frightened Dorothy placed the advertisement during a momentary ‘funk’-  a ‘whim’ of a woman for whom a hint of ill-health could foreshadow another pregnancy loss. Ultimately, this incipient act undermined her claim that on 1 September she gave birth to her son, Teddy. Her contested narrative of events led to a long-running legitimacy case in the British courts.

Dr William Fraser, a medical practitioner, presented an alternative version of Teddy’s birth. For Fraser, the timing of the advert was fortuitous, having been contracted to provide obstetric services for Lillian Anderson, an unmarried eighteen-year-old from Geyserville. Ironically, Lillian’s path to Fraser’s office in Chinatown, a district notorious for its association with the ‘underworld’ of opium dens, gambling and prostitution, was driven by a desire to keep her condition secret. A chief requirement of their agreement was that Fraser procure a suitable home for her baby.

Just under a week later, having responded to Dorothy’s advert, Fraser brokered the unofficial ‘adoption’ of Lillian’s one-day-old male child. Fraser’s screening of the prospective ‘adoptee’ was hardly rigorous, merely ascertaining that Dorothy had sufficient means to provide the infant with a good home. The day after the birth, Dorothy came to Fraser’s office and left thirty minutes later with Teddy, having borrowed $50 from a female companion to pay for his services. When, contrary to state law, Dorothy insisted that Teddy’s birth certificate reflect that she and Charles were his parents, the doctor scarcely demurred. This breach subsequently exposed Fraser to a prosecution by the Board of Health.

Through choice, the two women at the heart of this transaction never met. Yet their lives remained entangled for the next six years; their intimate life stories subjected to regulatory and legal scrutiny. Despite the mounds of evidence compiled by the competing factions in the dispute, Dorothy remains an elusive historical subject; her voice only appearing directly in the coerced narratives of deposed and oral testimony and a rare press interview.[2] The ‘sentiments, fears and desires’ of this childless, middle-aged woman were put on public display.[3] Her treatment by the press and in the courts was, in turn, sympathetic and denunciatory.

The actions of Charles’ family in England forced this private affair into the limelight. From the outset, they had opposed what they regarded as an unsuitable union between their eldest son and an older, Catholic widow. Taken unawares by the announcement of Teddy’s birth, Charles’ father employed private detectives to investigate further. Deploying a combination of investigative practices and strong-arm tactics against key witnesses, the detectives swiftly traced the amended birth certificate and sourced the original advertisement made out, they asserted, in Dorothy’s handwriting. This formed the basis of a counter-narrative that Dorothy had in fact miscarried. To cover this up, she sourced an illegitimate child to pass off as her own.

Once the ‘true’ circumstances of the birth had been communicated to the family back in England, they remained implacable against Charles’ entreaties to accept his child. Swayed by Teddy’s strong physical resemblance to him, Charles believed his wife, certain that antagonism towards Dorothy had fuelled his family’s efforts to besmirch her and brand Teddy a bastard. With both sides resolute in their stance, Charles turned to the legal system, petitioning on Teddy’s behalf under the Declaration of Legitimacy Act 1858. In turn, Charles’ brothers alleged that Dorothy had passed off another woman’s child as her own. The ensuing dispute plunged the family into potentially ruinous litigation, with 34 court-ordered depositions taken from witnesses based in the United States, and over 30 days of hearings in the British courts. Against the backdrop of the Great War, the combination of high financial stakes and audacious deception ensured that public interest in this ‘romantic’ case remained high.

Throughout, Dorothy remained adamant that Teddy was her natural child. In a controversial judgment, Justice Bargrave Deane, President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, accepted Dorothy’s story. Dismayed by this ruling, Charles’ younger brothers hired the pre-eminent barrister, Sir Edward Carson, to lead the appeal on their behalf. His careful dissection of Dorothy’s testimony, with its focus on her self-confessed perjury, proved fateful for Teddy’s case. Giving judgment for the family, the Master of the Rolls, Sir Herbert Cozens-Hardy, reinforced traditional gender roles, declaring that it was ‘repugnant to all known maternal instincts’ for an expectant mother to place such an advertisement. The House of Lords agreed, determining that Teddy was a wholly suppositious child foisted on Charles by a deceitful wife.

Middle-aged, married and childless, Dorothy fell into a liminal space of Edwardian female stereotypes being neither ‘old maid’ nor ‘angel of the house’. In the early twentieth century, family courts still regarded procreation as the primary object of marriage. Infertility bore the stigma of disease, marital incompatibility and failure of womanhood.[4] According to one female confidant, Dorothy was ambivalent about having a child at this stage of her life. Complicating matters was the fact that her child would usurp Charles’ brothers in the inheritance stakes. If, as Carson submitted, Dorothy was never pregnant, she had embarked on a high-wire act of spousal deception requiring nerve and all her considerable powers of persuasion.

Whilst it seems indisputable that Teddy was not Dorothy’s natural child, the precise events leading up to his ‘adoption’ are less clear. Hints of the pronounced emotional responses such as anxiety, depression, denial and inadequacy that we now associate with maternal loss can be traced in the evidence before the court, adding plausibility to elements of Dorothy’s account.[5] The exposure of Dorothy’s history of recurrent miscarriages before male-dominated adversarial proceedings showed the limits of judicial empathy for any psychological distress following such loss. Mired within a case arising from a deep family rift and determining the settlement of valued land rights, Dorothy’s characterisation as a woman who ‘gloried’ in untruths masks the complicated motivations and emotions driving her actions.

Charles’ loyalty to his wife and child remained steadfast. Following their defeat, Charles and Dorothy returned to British Columbia where they enjoyed a full and active social life, bringing up Teddy as their own child. There appears to have been no reconciliation between Charles and his brothers. Dorothy died in 1925, briefly stirring a resurgence of press interest in the case.

Dr Linda Maynard’s monograph, ‘Brothers in the Great War’ (Manchester University Press) offers a sibling’s-eyed perspective on the emotional lives of fighting men and their families. The Slingsby illegitimacy suit forms the basis of her current research project exploring the themes of mid-life subjectivities and societal attitudes to middle-aged women and reproduction at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The image of Dorothy, Charles and Teddy appeared in the Los Angeles Herald, 3 December 1914. Courtesy of California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, <http://cdnc.ucr.edu>

[1] In 1915, Canadian physicians estimated that 16 per cent of all pregnancies resulted in miscarriage. Wendy Mitchinson, Giving Birth in Canada, 1900-1950 (Toronto: 2002), 147.

[2] Carolyn Steedman, ‘Enforced Narratives. Stories of Another Self’, in T. Cosslett, et al. (eds.), Feminism and Autobiography: Texts, Theories, Methods (London: 2000), 21-38.

[3] San Francisco Call, 12 January 1913.

[4] Deborah Cohen, Family Secrets: The Things We Tried to Hide (London: 2013), 119-120.

[5] Felicity Jensz, ‘Miscarriage and Coping in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: Private Notes from Distant Places’, Gender & History, 32 (2020), 277; Judith Walzer Leavitt, ‘Under the Shadow of Maternity: American Women’s Responses to Death and Debility Fears in Nineteenth-Century Childbirth’, Feminist Studies, 12 (1986); Leslie Reagan, ‘From Hazard to Blessing to Tragedy: Representations of Miscarriage in Twentieth-Century America’, ibid.29 (2003).

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