Twisting in the Wind

Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press

JUDITH KNELMAN
Copyright Date: 1998
DOI: 10.3138/9781442682818
Pages: 368
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442682818
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Twisting in the Wind
    Book Description:

    Murders by women were sensationalized in the English press during the 19th-century. Knelman analyses histories of different kinds of murder and explores how press representations of the murderess contributed to the Victorian construction of femininity.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8281-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xii)

    I began this study of gender-specific interpretations of nineteenth-century murder in what turned out to be the middle, having stumbled, in an effort to trace the development of sensational reporting in the English press, on a spate of murder trials and executions of women in 1849. This proved to be but one contingent of a steady procession of women to the gallows in the 1840s, which saw the emergence of women as the first serial killers of modern society. How the press responded to this threat is one part of the story; what pushed the women to murder in the...

  5. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  6. Part One: Patterns and Perceptions

    • ONE The Case of the Vanishing Murderess
      (pp. 3-19)

      This book does not attempt to justify murder by women, merely to understand it. Women accused of murder in nineteenth-century England got bad press. It is my contention that women who killed were held in lower regard than men who killed, yet were considered more interesting to contemplate. Were they really as monstrous as they were depicted in broadsides, newspapers, and books?

      Until the nineteenth century, murder was thought of as an act that could always be controlled by the will. What set humanity above animals was the restraint of passion by reason. Womenʼs bodies were meant for giving and...

    • TWO The Popular Press
      (pp. 20-44)

      The Victorian murderess presents two faces to readers. One is what E.M. Forster would have called ʻflatʼ - a one-dimensional portrait in a gallery of stereotypes. This is the face sketched in contemporary reports. Broadsides and newspapers depict the murderess as a monster because she has behaved in an extremely unnatural way. She is an outsider who has refused to abide by the rules of society. Literature, because it fleshes out its characters, tends to look into the circumstances that triggered peculiar behaviour. Victorian news reports are black and white in more ways than one.

      Literature, more like life, has...

  7. Part Two: Murder

    • THREE Multiple Murder
      (pp. 47-84)
      Susannah Holroyd, Jane Scott, Betty Eccles, Sarah Dazely, Eliza Joyce, Sarah Freeman, Mary Ann Milner, Mary May, Mary Ann Geering, Sarah Chesham, Mary Emily Cage, Mary Ann Brough, Catherine Wilson, Mary Ann Cotton, Ellen Heesom, Margaret Higgins, Catherine Flannagan and Elizabeth Berry

      The peculiar practice of killing relatives for pin-money appears to have caught on in England by 1840, initially, at least, as a response to the pressure of poverty. A correlation between rates of theft and depressed economic conditions was made at the time;¹ with hindsight, there is no reason to exclude murder for insurance money from such an exercise, and every reason to indict women as the chief perpetrators. Women had the responsibility of putting food on the table. This position not only pressured them into obtaining it, but afforded them the opportunity to doctor it so as to eliminate...

    • FOUR Murder of Husbands, Lovers, or Rivals in Love
      (pp. 85-122)
      Martha Alden, Ann Crampton, Sarah Huntingford, Ann Barber, Sophia Edney, Sarah Westwood, Catherine Foster, Mary Ball, Sarah Ann French, Charlotte Harris, Ann Merritt, Hannah Southgate, Mary Reeder, Maria Manning, Martha Brown, Ellen Cook, Elizabeth Gibbons, Eleanor Pearcey, Betsey MʼMullan, Fanny Oliver, Adelaide Bartiett, Florence Maybrick and Alice Rhodes

      Patrick Wilson found that nearly every woman executed after 1843, when Home Office statistics began identifying criminals by gender, was influenced in her crime by a man. ʻThe husband or lover of a murderess invariably plays a part in causing the murder,ʼ in Wilsonʼs view, ʻif only, because, like Everest, he is there. The same cannot be said of male crimes of violence.ʼ¹

      Wilson is not holding men responsible for the murders, but he does point out that the ubiquitous Thomas Newport could well have inspired, and even condoned, Sarah Cheshamʼs poisoning activities, Robert May (who had married Mary after...

    • FIVE Child Murder
      (pp. 123-144)
      Ann Sandys, Ann Arnold, Celestina Somner, Selina Wadge, Louise Massett, Elizabeth Warriner, Frances Kidder, Ann Barry, Jane Crosby, Harriet Parker, Frances Stewart, Ann Lawrence, Christiana Edmunds and Constance Kent

      Though nowadays twice as many victims of female killers are husbands as are children, in nineteenth-century England babies and children were the most common murder victims of women. In Victorian Kent, for example, only one woman killed her husband, but 71 per cent of the victims of murderesses were children. There was an even higher rate (more than 90 per cent) of females indicted for murder at the Old Bailey between 1856 and 1875 who were thought to have murdered their children. Carolyn Conley, author of the Kent study, speculates that husbands were protected at the expense of children because...

    • SIX Baby-Farming and Infanticide
      (pp. 145-180)
      Mary Lockham, Hannah Halley, Rachel Bradley, Catherine Welch, Ann Harwood, Rebecca Smith, Jane Taylor, Ellen Lanigan, Amy Gregory, Ann Barnes, Charlotte Winsor, Margaret Waters, Amelia Dyer and Ada Chard Williams

      Infanticide was the most common type of murder by women. It was also by far the easiest type to hide and, in its traditional form, the least threatening to the general public. But in the second half of the nineteenth century, the child-care industry developed to the point where it was obvious that women were professionally murdering babies for money. People tend to react to crime according to how threatened they feel, and these hired murderesses aroused strong antagonism in the public mind.

      Many murderesses were no more than teenagers who had killed their illegitimate babies out of a sense...

    • SEVEN Murder of and by Servants
      (pp. 181-206)
      Eliza Fanning, Ann Heytrey, Martha Brixey, Sarah Thomas, Marguerite Diblanc, Kate Webster, Hannah Dobbs, Esther Hibner, Sarah Bird and Theresa Sloane

      The line between privilege and dependence was nowhere more sharply drawn than in a home where servants were kept. If their power sometimes prompted employers to unreasonable demands, accusations, and verbal and physical abuse, it also on occasion provoked the abused to fight back against weak or elderly oppressors. For female employers especially, the risk of theft, abuse, or even murder was considerable. The risks for female servants were a function of their physical vulnerability along with the class and gender bias so evident in nineteenth-century England.

      In 1816 a London policeman complained of the easy mode servant girls have...

    • EIGHT Murder of the Elderly
      (pp. 207-222)
      Mary Bateman, Jane Jamieson, Mary Ann Higgins, Eliza Ross, Mary Ann Burdock, Martha Browning, Mercy Catherine Newton, Alice Holt and Louisa Taylor

      A sizeable proportion of the nineteenth centuryʼs most avaricious murderesses picked on their elders, who tended to be not only weaker, but more credulous, than most people. It was relatively easy to get the elderly to swallow poison as medicine. If necessary, they could be throttled or smothered. And sickness and death at their age could be passed off as natural.

      If murder was detected, however, there was a good chance that it would be well publicized and the murderess execrated. For one thing, the public had a vested interest in discouraging such activity. Anyone in a position to leave...

  8. Part Three: Meaning

    • NINE The Image of the Murderess
      (pp. 225-233)

      Until the 1880s, when the plight of Adelaide Bartlett, and then of Florence Maybrick, attracted the attention of middle-class women, the image of the murderess was controlled by men. In the courts and in the press, they evaluated her behaviour in terms of their own needs and expectations. Needless to say, she fell short. The murder of her own child by an insane mother could be forgiven, but the murder of womenʼs social betters - and in that category I include their husbands - could not even be understood. It was monstrous, unnatural female behaviour.

      It is clear from the...

    • TEN The Feminine Perspective
      (pp. 234-248)

      It stands to reason that, if murder by women is to be properly reassessed, it must be done from a feminine perspective. Until the 1880s murder by women was detected, reported, and judged by men, who, reacting to cultural and emotional conditioning, had trouble seeing them as human. Once women threw off the patriarchal standards that had been imposed on them and took up their own causes, with their own point of view, they looked for and found different things in the justice system from what men had.

      Female spectators were always a part of the spectacle in murder trials,...

    • ELEVEN The Body of the Murderess
      (pp. 249-257)

      It was widely believed that, though women were by nature morally superior to men, those who were ʻunnaturalʼ - violent - were much more of a menace than the same sort of men. The murder of Constance Kentʼs little brother was characterized by one paper as ʻthe revengeful act of a woman - morbid, cruel, cunning - one in whom the worst of passions has received a preternatural development, overpowering and absorbing the little good that she ever had in her nature.ʼ¹

      ʻHistory teaches us that the female is capable of reaching higher in point of virtue than the male,ʼ...

    • TWELVE The Murder of the Murderess
      (pp. 258-272)

      Until the end of public executions in England in 1868, men and women of all classes avidly devoured stories about women who killed, delighted in their trials, and came from far and near to see them hanged. If the hanging body was a message to society that disorder could result in death to the body politic,¹ the hanging female body carried even stronger overtones. Destructive forces would be eliminated. Passion, sexuality, and volatility were shortlived.

      There were fewer executions after 1838, when the death penalty no longer applied to theft and fraud, and there is no reason to doubt Thomas...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 273-274)

    Though the women whose transgressions and punishments are documented in this book are not admirable, some of them are likeable, and many of them endured far more humiliation, deprivation, terror, and pain than they deserved. Throughout the nineteenth century, until the 1880s, and especially in the first half of Victoriaʼs reign, their trials and executions served not only to deter prospective murderers, but to assert the power of the ruling class in general, and men of that class in particular. The limp feminine form twisting in the wind after an execution, once a boisterous crowd had had its will of...

  10. Appendix: A Chronology of Murder
    (pp. 275-278)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 279-306)
  12. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 307-312)
  13. Index
    (pp. 313-322)