In the 1940s and '50s, newspapers across the U.S. of A. carried stories about the "first all-woman jury" in a given state or county. It seemed a matter of time and mathematics that the phenomenon would occur twenty- or thirty-plus years after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Kentucky had its first all-woman jury in 1956. (1) Hampton, Iowa, saw its first female panel in the county in 1958, and it was front-page news. (2) In Illinois, Saline County saw its first all-woman jury in 1953. (3)
Across the pond, the first all-woman jury was empaneled at the Old Bailey, London's criminal court, in 1974, a tad bit behind the times. (4)
Perhaps the most interesting stories involving all-woman juries concerned criminal defendants who were also women. And how did the accused females fare before juries of their peers? Were the women jurors soft-hearted sob-sisters (as those who were opposed to women serving on juries were inclined to stridently claim), or did the ladies not hesitate to convict when the evidence warranted it? Here are a few examples.
In the Midwest in 1949, Mrs. Agnes Garnier, 53, went on trial for murdering her wealthy employer, John E. Owen. An all-woman jury deliberated for nearly eight hours and convicted her. (5)
In 1947, in Des Moines, an all-female jury convicted Mrs. Opal Dixon of trying to rob a bank, a conviction that resulted in a sentence of life in prison. (6)
In 1977, an all-woman jury convicted Shirley Garcia, 22, of Crown Point, Indiana, of conspiring to kill her husband. (7)
In 1979, in Houston, an all-woman jury heard the case of a 27-year old mother accused of injecting her three-year-old daughter with fecal bacteria, causing repeated infections. According to the United Press coverage, a doctor saw Mom unhooking little Kimberly's IV bag containing antibiotics, and the mother admitted "cutting down" on the girl's medication. The doctors also testified that the mother had an "abnormal craving for attention." It sounds like a classic case of Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy. The jury convicted the mother and gave her a full decade in prison for the offense. (8)
All that said, the truth is that all-woman juries occurred in America decades, even centuries, before the 1940s. Michigan had its first all-female jury in 1919. Kansas, 1912. According to popular legend and the official website of the State of Wyoming, the first all-woman jury sat in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1870. (9) But female panels went back even further than that. According to a female historian and college chair who gave a lecture in 1931 on the subject, a jury composed entirely of women sat in judgment on a mother accused of infanticide in colonial Delaware in 1656. (10) Today, it is widely believed that the jury acquitted Judith Catchpole.
But according to the historian, a much more reliable source than the Associated Press, the defendant was convicted.
(1) Lincoln Star, June 16, 1956.
(2) Hampton Chronicle, Sept. 18, 1958.
(3) Harrisburg Daily Register, Sept. 30, 1953.
(4) Lincoln Star, July 7, 1974.
(5) Waterloo Daily Courier, June 19, 1949.
(6) Council Bluffs Nonpareil, March 1, 1947.
(7) Doylestown (Pa.) Daily Intelligencer, Nov. 19, 1977.
(8) Chicago Daily Herald, April 18, 1979.
(9) Gettysburg Times, July 23, 1959.
(10) Frederick Post, March 26, 1931.