In the 1920s, Winifred Black was considered “the best known woman newspaper writer in America.” She began her decades-long career under the pen name Annie Laurie in the 1890s as an original “sob sister,” that derogatory term applied to female news reporters who wrote stories about the horrible conditions afflicted on the poor in the workhouses, hospitals, jails, opium dens, and slums of America. She penned her arguments for civic reform for Wm. Randolph Hearst and his San Francisco Examiner. Later, she became well known as a columnist and the author of advice for the lovelorn.
But on one occasion, she penned an extraordinary rant about the treatment of women who kill.
A bit of background: From about the 1870s to roughly 1930, a prosecutor in the United States who put a young and/or good-looking woman on trial for murder was bound to wind up with his head in his hands. These decades were the Golden Age of the Murderess, a time in which a woman could shoot a man in front of a room full of witnesses and get away with it, if she was appealing enough to a jury. (An all-male jury, it’s important to note, since women did not have the full rights of citizenship.) The phenomenon was quite well known at the time, though it isn’t really remarked upon in any true crime collections I’m aware of (though one of these days I want to write a book about the Age of the Femmes Fatales).
Mrs. Black objected to this light treatment of murderesses.
This column is not fiction; every word is true. I couldn’t figure out exactly which case Black relied upon as an example to begin the piece, but it’s not really material anyway. Enjoy!
“ONLY A WOMAN.”
By Winifred Black
A Western girl had a quarrel with her sweetheart not long ago—not such a very serious quarrel to begin with.
Just something about some actress in a motion picture play.
He said it, and she didn’t like it, and she said something else that he didn’t like, and then he made a few remarks about what he thought of her, and she gave him her full and free opinion of him, and by that time they were both half crazy.
And the woman snatched up a sharp knife and stabbed the man and killed him.
She was arrested and tried, and she was young and rather pretty and her eyes were large and soulful, and she wore a modest and becoming little frock and a discreet hat all during the trial, and whenever it was time to cry, she cried, with telling effect.
The foreman of the jury cried, himself, every time she did – and as for the little grocer’s clerk at the end of the jury box, he was almost hysterical.
The lawyers wrangled and fought, the court room was crowded with loafers, and the woman was acquitted and walked out of the court room as free as air.
I wonder what would have happened to her if she had been old and ugly?
I wonder what the verdict would have been if there had been a woman on that jury?
In Chicago, alone, twenty-five women have been acquitted on the charge of murder in the last eleven years. Some of them killed a man in the heat of passion. Some of them committed murder deliberately for revenge. And one or two of them took a human life for a chance at a little easy money, and not one of them was punished as the law directs that murder shall be punished.
A STRANGE VIEWPOINT
It’s hard to get a man to convict a woman of any serious crime.
Chivalrous, considerate, such respecters of women that they cannot believe them guilty of any sort of crime?
I’m afraid I can’t agree to this point of view.
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.
If they’re good, they’re good, he thinks, because some man has taken care of them and helped them to be good.
If they’re bad, they’re bad because some man has made them bad—they are too silly and too unimportant to be held to answer for their own actions.
When such a man as this votes to acquit such a woman as that, his vote should be looked upon by other women not as a compliment to the sex, but as an insult.
We don’t want to be judged as if we belonged to another race. We’re human beings first, and after that we’re women, and after that we are either wives or mothers or sisters or daughters.
I know a man who never meets a woman in whom he takes the faintest interest, without asking whose sister she is, or whose daughter. He never seems to think of a woman as a separate entity at all.
To him she is simply a piece of baggage, lugged around the world by some more or less fortunate – or more or less unfortunate – man.
Oh, yes, he’s old-fashioned. He isn’t old, but he’s old-fashioned just the same. He wouldn’t convict a woman of murder—not if she was the most cold-blooded, cruel, wicked creature in the world.
Not he. She’d be a woman to him – and that would settle it.
He would no more hold her accountable for what she thought or what she said, or what she did, than he would hold his little pet poodle accountable because it can’t learn to read and will not take the faintest interest in a game of pool.
And yet that man has been educated and taken care of and started in life by a woman.
His father was a chivalrous creature who could never resist a woman—especially a woman who didn’t belong to him—and one fine day he disappeared with an irresistible creature of absolutely melting charms – that no one in the world but himself could see–and the wife he left behind him brought up his son and his two daughters.
The daughters are both sweet girls, one of them is married, and the other soon will be. The son has been successful in business and he doesn’t feel that his mother gives him quite the proper environment at home—so he lives at the club.
“POOR, DEAR MOTHER”
She worked to buy his clothes, and she worked to buy his food, and she schemed and planned, and cried and pinched and saved to give him his chance in life. Being a man of a certain sort of intelligence, he took the chance and made the most of it.
Grateful, oh yes, sentimentally so. He speaks of her as “Poor, dear mother,” and he often seems overwhelmed with a kind of speculative wonder as to how in the world he ever amounted to anything, handicapped as he was by the lack of good, strong, masculine influence.
His father isn’t a coward and a recreant to him—he’s a man. His mother isn’t a brave, courageous, intelligent soul, struggling successfully against great odds—she’s only a woman—and that settles it once and for all.
I wonder if the foreman of the jury that let a woman go scot free after a cruel, inexcusable murder didn’t look at things in a good deal the same way.
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