Female Killers in the 20th Century: Gender, Modernity, and Punishment in Comparative Perspective

AHA Session 9
Friday, January 3, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Empire Ballroom West (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Richard F. Hamm, State University of New York, University at Albany
The Audience

Session Abstract

The punishment of murder in the twentieth century differed from the penalties for culpable homicide in the pre-modern period in three respects. First, in most countries where the criminal law was founded on common law, offences against the person were defined as crimes against the sovereign or the state. Second, the penalties for most forms of homicide were based on the offence, not the status of the individual. And third, murder became one of the few remaining offences punishable by death. However, pre-modern patterns of punishment and constructions of culpability persisted in advanced liberal democracies. This panel explores this theme of persistence by focusing on homicides involving female suspects. Through a comparison of cases in Florida, Quebec, California and New South Wales, these papers highlight the enduring religious, social, cultural and political dimensions of homicide’s prosecution and punishment. In each of these jurisdictions, the female killer was the exception, which forced authorities and the public to question culpability and motivation in gender-specific ways, filtered through readings of class, race, ethnicity, religion, age, marital status, and sexuality. Yet, those lenses differed significantly between jurisdictions. In Quebec, the conviction of an Italian woman, sentenced to death in 1935 for hiring two men to kill her husband, provoked conflicting readings of her criminal culpability traceable to wider social and political fissures that divided French and English campaigners, Protestants and Catholics, and the case also inspired immigrant women to speak out (in vain) on the condemned woman’s behalf. In Florida, a crime wave and an economic downturn in the mid-1920s contributed to the unprecedented convictions of two white women for the murder of their husbands, with neither receiving a recommendation to mercy. However, the state pardon board’s decision to commute their sentences expressed squeamishness over the prospect of electrocuting the women so soon after the controversial electrocution of Ruth Snyder at Sing Sing. In California, the punishment of domestic homicide offenders fell more heavily on husbands than wives in the early twentieth century, as jurors were prepared to consider the defence of justification for women who killed. Yet, that gender-based reasoning started to give way around mid-century. As women gained greater independence, the question, ‘why didn’t she leave?’ made convictions and guilty pleas more likely for abused wives who killed their partners. In New South Wales, husband poisoners, among the most feared female offenders in the post-convict era, were punished severely, and the last woman in the state to be executed was hanged for that crime in 1889. By the early twentieth century, however, jurors rarely convicted women accused of this offence and the few who were convicted were granted clemency. The shift in this instance had less to do with changing gender relations than it did with the widening provisions for criminal appeals and higher standards of proof.
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