Mercy, Pardon, or Death: Race, Gender, and Female Killers in 1920s Florida

Friday, January 3, 2020: 2:10 PM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Vivien Miller, University of Nottingham
Two white women in Jacksonville, Florida, were convicted of murdering their husbands without any recommendation of mercy and sentenced to death in 1926 and 1927. Yet, neither woman was executed as the governor and state pardon board commuted the death sentences to life imprisonment in 1929. Hall was tried and convicted alongside her “paramour” whose death sentence was also commuted. Extant legal records suggest that the mercy recommendation shielded women from execution as it gave Florida jurors the flexibility to be simultaneously punitive and benevolent, but unusually it was not extended to either Berta Hall or Billie Jackson. These capital murder cases are mentioned in previous death penalty and executive clemency studies but with limited analysis or contextual evaluation. Florida prison committal rates for white women doubled and the rate for black women rose by 70% between 1926 and 1928. At least half had been convicted of interpersonal violence offences. Using surviving prison records, official correspondence, and newspaper sources (the state pardon board records are unfortunately still heavily restricted), this paper uses female capital and non-capital murder cases to explore intersections of race, gender, class and punishment in 1920s Florida. It argues that racial benevolence had clear limits as social and economic turmoil from the South Florida land-boom-real-estate collapse reverberated across the state and Jacksonville was in the midst of a major crime wave. One report suggested the city’s homicide rate had risen to 75.9 per 100,000 population, and state prison committals for interpersonal violence and property offences from Duval County certainly jumped from 98 in 1925 to a high of 172 in 1927. It considers also whether the controversial and much-publicised 1925 New York execution of Ruth Snyder stoked official anxieties over female execution in Florida, in the same period that hanging was being replaced by electrocution.