This series of four handwritten notes from four different historical actors in early twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro (called Cariocas) provides us a glimpse into the worldviews of women and men in relation to the practices of abortion and infanticide. The notes were all included as evidence in police investigations or court cases related to possible reproductive crimes. They come in the form of denunciations of neighbors (as in the 1904 note written by a woman below or the 1923 note authored by a male); as notes to the midwives who performed the abortion (as in one 1930 note); or as notes from dying women to their boyfriends (as in the other 1930 note). They provide a counterpart to more traditional historical sources on fertility control by bringing us into the worldviews of all those involved in the practices.
One thing historical sources on fertility control, including abortion and infanticide, in Latin America can tell us is that regardless of the surrounding legal or medical restrictions, women will continue to seek out ways to not have children. We also know how elite policymakers, whether church officials, medical practitioners, or government legislators, viewed abortion and infanticide – as grave sins and an affront to the patriarchal and racialized order of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Latin America. We know less about how everyday people felt about these practices.
In 1904, Margarida Rosa de Assumpção, a resident of the city of Rio de Janeiro, let the authorities – and her neighbors – know exactly how she felt about both abortion and infanticide. In her two handwritten notes, Assumpção denounced her neighbor, the nineteen-year-old “China” for committing infanticide after an unsuccessful abortion, as well as her aunt Lina for assisting her. The local police precinct opened an investigation, interrogating China, Lina, and China’s boyfriend Saturnino. China acknowledged that Saturnino had deflowered her – he had taken her virginity with the promise of marriage. She further admitted that she had unsuccessfully taken medication to provoke an abortion. In the end, she alleged that she gave birth to a stillborn infant. Although nothing resulted from the investigation, in fact, it seems to have languished on the detective’s death for years, Assumpção’s denunciation provides a rare glimpse into intra-class condemnation of what she perceived as unruly and improper female sexuality. In addition to detailing China’s sexual exploits, Assumpção implied that Lina was running a brothel. These were not behaviors of proper and honorable women, and thus for Assumpção, they deserved to be brought to official attention.
Questions for Further Exploration:
Men and women of the popular classes and of varying racial identities had their own positions on fertility control. Did they view abortion and infanticide as separate practices with different levels of gravity? Did they confuse the two? Did they sympathize with women who practiced abortion or infanticide? Why or why not? Why did Assumpção denounce her neighbors to the police? What was her worldview toward gender and sexuality? Why do you think she held this position?
Source: Arquivo Nacional, Rio de Janeiro (AN) 0R.0.IQP.3065 (1904)
Na travessa 11 de Maio 16 uma moca donzella teve uma creança e esta creança foi morta por uma tal tia Lina. Afim de não aparecer o fructo de um crime. Esta donzella tem por apelido ‘China’ o pae é machinista do vapor Brazil esta tramoia foi feito emquanto o pae esteve 5 meses e tanto fóra, querendo testemunha procure na mesma travessa 19 a Rosa parteira que é uma testemunha a Albertina que foi que apreciou e o Dr. Mourão que examinou e disse a alguem que ella estava n’um estado tao adiantado, afinal todos da estalagem sabem d’este caso. a creança foi interrado no porão da casa.
Margarida Rosa de Assumpção
Vou vos contar um caso que se passou na Travessa 11 de maio, no. 16 casinha, no. 1 que adivinira o mundo intero.
Nesta casa tem uma grande feiticera por nome Lina que faz toda sorte de fetiços arranja homen pras mulher dá sorte a quem não tem da fortuna e tambem aluga quarto pra rapazes a 500rs. cada hóra. Vou contar o caso.
Tem n’esta casa 2 moça uma chama-se Rita e outra China esta namorou um rapaz por nome Saturnino, passados tempos esta rapaz fez mal a China e ella ficou gravida disia a todos que era molestia foi consultar ao Dr. Mourão e elle disse que ella estava já com 7 a 8 mez de gravidez ahi a feiticera principiou a fazer remedios e feitiços pra ella botá o filho fora mas tanto fez que a criança nasceu bohnita e esperta e a feiticera apertou a garganta da innocentinha e enterrou no purão da mesma casa. O pae desta 2 moças é o machinista do Brasil vapor é o José Bezerra tudo se passou durante as grande viagem d’elle.
A feticeira tem um feto já muito antigo dentro de um vidro que dis que foi da China mas é mentira todos da estalage sabe disso, quem me contou foi a Albertina que vio o caso o feto ella arranjou a muito tempo.
Dr. Police Chief,
In the Travessa Onze de Maio number 16 a young woman had a child and that child was killed by a certain person, Aunt Lina, so that the fruit of a crime would not appear. This young woman goes by the nickname “China” and her father is the machinist of the steamship Brazil. This tricky scheme was done while the father was away for five months. So, if you want a witness, look on the same mews number 19, for the midwife Rosa who is a witness and Albertina who came to know [the situation] and the examining Doctor Mourão and said to somebody that she was in a very advanced stage [of pregnancy], finally everyone from the tenement knows about the case. The child was buried in the basement of the house. — Margarida Rosa da Assumpção.
Dr. Police Chief,
I am going to tell you something that happened in the Travessa 11 de Maio, n. 16, house n. 1 that everyone has surmised. In this house there is a great sorceress [feiticeira] by the name of Lina who does all sorts of spellcasting, procures men for women, and gives luck to those that don’t have fortune and also rents rooms to young men at 500 [mil]reis per hour. I am going to tell about the case.
There is in this house 2 young women, one is named Rita and the other China, who got involved with a boy by the name of Saturnino. Some time ago, this boy ruined [fez mal] China and she became pregnant [and] she said to everyone that it was an illness. She went to consult Doctor Mourão, and he said that she was already 7 or 8 months pregnant and then the sorceress began to make medicine and magic in order to cast out [bota fora] the child but it was so that the child was born beautiful and smart and the sorceress squeezed the neck of the little innocent child and buried it in the basement of the same house. The father of these 2 young women is a machinist on the steamship Brazil. He is José Bezerra, and everything happened when he was on a long journey.
The sorceress has a very old fetus in a bottle that she says was China’s, but that is a lie, everyone in the boarding house knows that. It was Albertina who told me, she saw the incident. Lina got that fetus a long time ago. — Your Servant Margarida Assumpção.
Caulfield, Sueann. In Defense of Honor: Sexual Morality, Modernity, and Nation in EarlyTwentieth-Century Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Caulfield, Sueann, and Martha de Abreu Esteves. “50 Years of Virginity in Rio de Janeiro: Sexual Politics and Gender Roles in Juridical and Popular Discourse, 1890-1940.” Luso-Brazilian Review 30, no. 1 (1993): 47–74.
Roth, Cassia. A Miscarriage of Justice: Women’s Reproductive Lives and the Law in Early Twentieth Century-Brazil. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020.