The Demise of the Victorian Murderess: Female Husband Poisoners, Cautious Judges, and Clement Politicians in Early 20th-Century New South Wales

Friday, January 3, 2020: 1:30 PM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Carolyn Strange, Australian National University
Florence Maybrick, sentenced to death in 1889 for poisoning her husband, was freed after serving fifteen years of her commuted life sentence. News of the American-born Englishwoman’s change of fate shot across the Pacific by cable, and Australian readers consumed the latest account of the “remarkable case.” In New South Wales her story might have stirred memories of a local husband poisoner who suffered the penalty set by law. Louisa Collins was hanged in Sydney in 1889 for using arsenic to murder her husband. The state Cabinet determined that equal justice must prevail for a woman whose crime ‘unsexed’ her. Yet, no other woman was executed, and prosecutions in the state for poisoning also dwindled. Acquittals, convictions for manslaughter, and commutations of death sentences became the norm when women did face trial. What accounts for the Victorian murderess’s demise? Since 1975, when Mary S. Hartman published her landmark book on the domestic ideals of female passivity and purity and the violation of those ideals in murder cases involving women, feminist historical scholarship has exposed significant variations in legal and public responses to females accused of murder. Most studies that examine the post-Victorian period focus on the psychiatrization of female violence, and highlight the role of racial, ethnic, class and sexual hierarchies to interpret patterns of prosecution, conviction and punishment. However, party politics in New South Wales and the direct involvement of trial judges in the executive review of capital convictions exerted significant influence in reducing women’s likelihood of facing death. This paper examines the fate of the six white women, charged in New South Wales with the attempted poisoning or murder-by-poison of their husbands from 1889 to 1921, to illustrate the need to foreground law and politics in the analysis of female-perpetrated homicide.
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