One of my abiding interests is in women who commit murder, and I pick up all the books on this topic that I find. The last dozen years have seen the publication of Bad Girls Do It! and Women Who Kill and Mistresses of Mayhem and Wicked Women, among many others.
But what has disappointed me about these books is that they relay the same stories over and over and over and over -- the tales of women for whom barrels of ink have already been tapped: Lizzie Borden, Belle Gunness, Belle Starr, Bonnie Parker, Grace Marks, Jane Toppan, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Martha Beck, Jean Harris, Aileen Wournos, Karla Faye Tucker, Dorothea Puente, Ruth Snyder, Susan Smith, Phoolan Devi, Kate Bender, Constance Kent, etc. etc. "Sheesh, aren't there any others?" I've often wondered.
That's the main reason I prefer to get my crime news by reading old newspapers and tattered old true crime paperbacks. And what I've discovered by doing so has really astonished me.
Some authors have asserted that women who commited murders received harsher punishment than their male counterparts. It's true. I have these books on my shelves.
After studying crime stories in the press for years, I've come to some interesting conclusions, and the most remarkable to me involves the treatment of women accused of murder. A certain class of women, anyway. And it defies the prevailing logic.
In 1931, a lawyer rested a light hand on the shoulder of an accused killer dressed becomingly in widow’s black. Turning to the men in the jury box, he declared, “she is too beautiful to be bad."
A deliberative interlude later, the jurymen agreed that the defendant was not guilty of shooting her husband, even if she did confess.
This story—-featuring a weapon, a corpse, a beautiful woman, and an acquittal-—played itself out in courtrooms across the globe for generations, on front pages around the world. I have found clear evidence that the double standard that kept women subjugated actually worked in their favor, curiously enough, in the criminal arena. The standard called for a heavier burden on any prosecutor who sought to convict a woman of murder. It altered the rules of evidence, turned incidentals into reasonable doubt.
This fact was common knowledge in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many men publicly railed against the routine acquittal of female murder defendants. “In the last two cases [featuring accused murderesses],” asserted an 1890s editorial from New York, “sympathetic juries acquitted the fair shootists with such promptness that it would not have created surprise if the jurymen had chipped in and presented the acquitted woman with a silver-mounted pistol, properly inscribed.”
And as a woman columnist, reflecting on the acquittal of 25 (yes, that's twenty-five) women in a row in Chicago, said in 1919: “The man who votes to acquit a woman of murder when he knows that she is a murderess, is usually the sort of man who has deep down in his heart an absolute contempt for women. He thinks of them as little, foolish, emotional, impulsive creatures, who can’t control themselves anyhow... he would no more hold her accountable than... he would hold his little pet poodle accountable because it can’t learn to read."
But for every lawyer, judge, or newspaper editor who decried the lenient treatment of women, another promoted it. Said the leading newspaper of Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1870s: “We never find a woman that is imbued with murderous instincts. Whenever she kills, it is in some terrible outburst of passion that is phenomenal and can hardly repeat itself.”
So they gave women little credit. And little blame.
While the criminal law made things light for women in general, this favoritism was more strictly applied to pretty women than ugly ones; younger women than older; fair-skinned than dark; thin than fat. Heaven help a homely woman accused of murder. Her fate was much more likely to be determined by the facts of the case than the fate of her pretty sister in crime.
I'll continue looking for more of these stories -- there are dozens, if not hundreds, of examples to be found. I've already written on Clews about some of these women, beautiful women who faced a murder charge and compelling evidence -- but who got off, or received a punishment so light that it amounted to the same thing.
Now, whether or not I'll post them on my blog here has become an issue. I would very much like to be paid (imagine that) for all of this research, and I'm kicking around the idea of trying to find someone interested in publishing it. At the same time, I continue to be royally ripped off by other websites who cut and paste my stories wholesale for use on their own websites. Ah, well. What to do. The thieving bastards are damn lucky that this is the 21st century.