"the mother of this boy, being deserted by her worthless husband, having turned her thoughts on me, as likely to be her protector, may have caused this striking resemblance"

The theory that a child’s appearance is governed by the impressions the mother receives during conception goes back to the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and reigned well into the early modern period. Not only was it used to account for monstrous births, it also provided a useful cover for adultery. As in the tale Rev. Wringhim repeats, women’s claims that their child’s skin colour was a product of untimely interruption by a black servant seem to have been greeted without much suspicion.

On the Hayloft, 1872. Post-coital interruptions could have grave effects on the appearance of one’s offspring
Public DomainOn the Hayloft, 1872. Post-coital interruptions could have grave effects on the appearance of one’s offspring - Credit: Konstantin Trutovsky