This landmark study offers a rogues’ gallery of women—from the Colonial Era to the 20th century—who answered abuse and oppression with murder: “A classic” (Gloria Steinem). Women rarely resort to murder. But when they do, they are likely to kill their intimates: husbands, lovers, or children. In Women Who Kill, journalist Ann Jones explores these homicidal patters and what they reflect about women and our culture. She considers notorious cases such as axe-murderer Lizzie Borden, acquitted of killing her parents; Belle Gunness, the Indiana housewife turned serial killer; Ruth Snyder, the “adulteress” electrocuted for murdering her husband; and Jean Harris, convicted of shooting her lover, the famous “Scarsdale Diet doctor.” Looking beyond sensationalized figures, Jones uncovers different trends of female criminality through American history—trends that reveal the evolving forms of oppression and abuse in our culture. From the prevalence of infanticide in colonial days to the poisoning of husbands in the nineteenth century and the battered wives who fight back today, Jones recounts the tales of dozens of women whose stories, and reasons, would otherwise be lost to history. First published in 1980, Women Who Kill is a “provocative book” that “reminds us again that women are entitled to their rage.” This 30th anniversary edition from Feminist Press includes a new introduction by the author (New York Times Book Review).
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A SEAMSTRESS NAMED MARGARET NICHOLSON WAITED by the garden entrance to the Palace of St. James's for the returning carriage of King George III. In her gloved hands she carried a "memorial" — a written petition to the king — and, concealed beneath it, a long knife. The carriage arrived, the king descended, and Margaret Nicholson pressed forward to deliver her memorial and a stroke of the knife; but the king was saved by his exceedingly fine manners. As he took up the paper he bowed deeply to Miss Nicholson and so avoided the blow. Soon enough, the king's attendant yeomen caught "her drift" and disarmed her. Under questioning Nicholson claimed she had not meant to kill the king but only to terrify him so that he would grant her petition. The paper, however, was blank. When her landlords testified that Nicholson mumbled to herself a good deal, the king clucked over the poor woman, magnanimously refused to press charges, and committed her temporarily to the custody of one of his messengers who, for lack of anything else to do with her, took her to his home in Half Moon Street. What else was the fellow to do? It was 1786, just a few years too late to pack her off to America, where for years England had been dumping her riffraff.
From the very beginning of colonization, England had seen North America as (among other things) a convenient refuse heap. Abrupt changes in England from a feudal to a commercial economy had produced an enormous class of rootless, migratory poor people who turned for survival to crime. For the most part, their crimes were fairly trivial matters of shoplifting or pickpocketing, but the seventeenth-century Englishmen of property were alarmed and saw to it that the law defined more than three hundred crimes, including even such petty offenses, as major felonies punishable by death. Soon the country seemed to be overrun with felons, but the American colonies provided an out. Enforced transportation of felons to the New World, argued supporters of the policy, offered three distinct benefits: it relieved England of its criminal population; it improved the character of the individual criminals by giving them employment; and it provided labor needed to sustain the colonies.
James I initiated the policy in 1615, when he empowered members of the Privy Council to reprieve ablebodied felons "fitt to be ymploied in forraine discoveries or other services beyond the Seas" and willing to be transported to the colonies. Within the year, the first twenty convicts had been reprieved and handed over to Sir Thomas Smith, governor of the East India Company, for transportation to the East Indies. For the next twenty years Smith received convicts from the crown and shipped them to Virginia. Over the years, cumbersome legal procedures were changed several times to make conditional pardoning a formality. Sheriffs handed over reprieved felons directly to merchants who carried them to the colonies and sold them as indentured servants for the seven-year term required by law. By the mid-seventeenth century, transportation of felons was a private enterprise, and a lucrative one.
Felons were brought in such numbers that colonial leaders feared for the health of society. Apparently the moral character of felons was not necessarily improved by moving them from one side of the Atlantic to the other. As one of the Georgia Trustees noted ruefully: "Many of the Poor who had been useless in England, were inclined to be useless likewise in Georgia." Colonial court records, strewn with cases of convict-servants who burned their masters' houses, stole their property, and murdered them, indicate that many people who had been criminal in England continued their criminal careers in America. In 1751, the Pennsylvania Gazette angrily commented on a recent series of convict robberies and murders:
When we see our Papers fill'd continually with Accounts of the most audacious Robberies, the most cruel Murders, and infinite other Villainies perpetrated by Convicts transported from Europe, what melancholly, what terrible Reflections must it occasion! ... In what can Britain show a more Sovereign Contempt for us, than by emptying their Jails into our Settlements; unless they would likewise empty their Jakes on our Tables?
And Benjamin Franklin, petitioning Parliament in 1767 or 1768 to stop transporting felons, claimed the convicts "continue their evil practices" and "commit many burglaries, robberies, and murders, to the great terror of the people."
Massachusetts Bay Colony restricted immigration in 1640 to keep out people of unorthodox religious views and vicious character. Connecticut followed in 1660, admitting only people of "honest conversation." The southern colonies badly needed agricultural laborers, but after a servant uprising in Gloucester County, presumed to have been fomented by convicts, Virginia thought her peace "too much hazarded and endangered by the great numbers of felons and other desperate villains sent hither from the several prisons in England," and in 1676 Maryland, too, passed "An Act against the Importation of Convicted Persons into this Province." But the trade in convicts had barely begun.
In 1717 Parliament passed "An act for the further preventing robbery, burglary, and other felonies, and for the more effectual transportation of felons" which provided that felons deserving to be whipped or branded could be sentenced instead to transportation for seven years. In other words, transportation was no longer an alternative to criminal punishment; it became the punishment itself. In addition, convicts under sentence of death could still choose to be transported, although their term of servitude was extended from seven to fourteen years. For the next sixty years the colonies enacted laws against importing felons, but England disallowed them all, since Parliamentary law superseded and nullified colonial statute. Franklin proposed in return to send American felons to Scotland and American rattlesnakes to the garden of George III. Only after the Revolution was the new nation able to stop convict transportation, producing a crisis in England as jails overflowed into the new, short-lived penal colony at Sierra Leone and the floating prison ships from which too many (like Dickens's Magwitch) escaped, until finally the twelve-year surplus of felons could be shipped out to the new Australian dumping ground at Botany Bay. But until the Revolution, England continued to transport her convicts to America; and Americans, it must be said, continued to buy their labor.
Other nations took up the policy. The Pennsylvania Assembly advised the governor in 1755 that "the Importations of Germans have been for some Time composed of a great Mixture of the Refuse of their People and ... the very Jails have contributed to the Supplies We are burthened with." France had taken to exporting convicts even earlier, making transportation an official policy in 1682; and in 1719 the worst Parisian jails and hospitals were opened to the unsavory Scotsman, John Law, head of the Company of the West, charged with populating French colonies in the New World. Soon Louisiana was notorious as the last refuge of French whores and scoundrels.
By the time transportation ended with the Revolution, some thirty-five to fifty thousand convicts had been brought to America. Perhaps one-third of them were women.
Records are elusive and fragmentary, but bits and pieces suggest a picture. Nine female felons were shipped to Virginia in 1635. Such shipments continued throughout that century and the next. In 1692 Narcissus Luttrell recorded "that a ship lay at Leith, going for Virginia, on board which the magistrates had ordered fifty lewd women out of the houses of correction and thirty others who walked the streets after ten at night." Six shipments during 1719-21 brought more than 400 convicts to Maryland, one-third of them women. In 1723 Jonathan Forward, one of the most notorious contractors in the business, was paid £4 per head to transport 66 felons, almost half of them women. About one-third of a shipload of 70 convicts Forward brought from Newgate to Maryland or Virginia in 1730 were women. One-third of 32 felons shipped on July 17, 1731, and almost half of 118 felons shipped October 26, 1732, were women. In June 1758 the Snow Eugene brought to Maryland 51 men and 18 women "of His Majesty's Seven Years' Passengers." Perhaps the last person transported to America, in October 1774, was Mrs. Elizabeth Grieve, a con artist convicted of posing as cousin to the Duke of Grafton and thereby "defrauding divers persons."
Some of the women, at least, must have been glad to be transported, for justice in England was heavy-handed. Public hangings of women at Tyburn were regular and festive occasions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Mary Jones, whose case often is cited as an infamous example, was convicted in 1772 of stealing bread to feed her two children after her husband had been impressed into the navy. She was hanged. Women convicted of more "serious" crimes suffered accordingly. Coining shillings, which disrupted economic power balances, and murdering one's husband, which disrupted social power balances enough to be categorized as petit treason, were punishable by burning at the stake. Accordingly, Catherine Hayes was burned in 1726. Isabella Condon was burned in 1779, Phoebe Harris in 1786, Margaret Sullivan in 1788, Christine Bowman — the last person so punished — in 1789. The executioner had devised a little cord that fitted around the prisoner's neck. With it, he could humanely throttle the woman before the flames reached her, so that she was insensible or dead when she burned. Very often this garroting device did not work.
Women convicts who escaped death suffered in the prisons. English jails were notorious holes freely spreading disease and despair. Newgate Prison, in the summer of 1697, teemed with women convicts awaiting transportation. While authorities negotiated with the colonies in America and the West Indies, the women waited in Newgate until the stench became so great that neighboring residents complained to city officials. The shipment was turned down by most of the colonies, although New York said it would accept if the women were "young and fitted for labor." The stinking women finally were sent to the Leeward Islands.
What was a woman to do? Defoe's Moll Flanders was quite right in judging that "the market is against our sex just now; and if a young woman have beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty, and all these to an extreme, yet if she have not money, she's nobody. ... the men play the game all into their own hands." The problem throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was largely a question of numbers: about 5 percent of upper-class English girls remained unmarried in the sixteenth century, but by the eighteenth century between 20 and 25 percent were spinsters. "There is no proportion between the numbers of the sexes," Defoe's heroine observes, "and therefore the women have the disadvantage." Upper-class spinsters might retire, as Mary Wollstonecraft observed, "with a small stipend and an uncultivated mind, into joyless solitude," but poor spinsters were driven by the lack of job opportunities into prostitution. For Moll's class, only two occupations for women were thinkable, and the requirements for each were clear: "... it was requisite to a whore to be handsome, well-shaped, have a good mien and a graceful behaviour; but ... for a wife, no deformity would shock the fancy, no ill qualities the judgment; the money was the thing."
If a woman had money she could merge with a titled man who might become her manager or her albatross, but in either case, her vocation. Having "looks" but no money, she could become, like Moll herself, the "friend" of a number of men in rapid sequence, possessed of just enough temporary constancy to forestall naming her occupation for what it was. And such a woman, like Moll, would pick up along the way some helpful skills as con artist and cutpurse. Such a woman — again like Moll — was likely to be transported.
Even those women who bravely welcomed transportation as a second chance suffered on the arduous crossing of two months or longer. Chained together, confined to the hold, and furnished with little more than dry peas, salt pork, and gin, the prisoners sickened and died. Captains of convict ships wanted to keep their passengers alive, since money made from selling the convicts went into the captains' pockets. Still the convicts died in wholesale lots: 61 out of 153, 37 out of 108, 15 out of 50, 20 out of 61, 30 out of 87, 38 out of 95. For some reason, women seem to have fared better than men. More women survived the voyage, and while half the men died soon after landing, almost two-thirds of the women lived on. Some historians explain that the thoroughly dissolute male felons were "ridled with disease" when they were transported, but it is hard to imagine that the desperate, stinking women of Newgate were healthier.
Still, the women survived, except when their lives were taken by sacrifice. Like Iphigenia, women were sometimes killed to appease gods or men. In 1654, an old woman named Mary Lee, a passenger on the Charity, was hanged and thrown into the sea to assuage storms supposedly caused by "the malevolence of witches." In 1658 Elizabeth Richardson was executed for witchcraft on another ship bound for Maryland. In 1659 Katharine Grady, bound for Virginia, was declared a witch and hanged at sea.
Some of the women transported from England were poor people, driven by necessity to petty thievery. Some were girls who had been seduced and abandoned or illegitimate daughters not welcome at home, but most were London prostitutes, thieves, receivers, and shoplifters. Some were murderers. They were "a villainous and demoralized lot" according to one Lieutenant Clark, who kept a journal of his voyage on the Friendship with the first convict fleet sent to Australia in 1787. When the women were locked up at night, they broke through the wall that separated them from the men. Clark, who despised the "abandoned wretches," cheered up when they were transferred to other ships to make room for sheep and fodder taken aboard the Friendship at Cape Horn. "I am very glad of it," he wrote, "for they were a great trouble, much more so than the men." Of the sheep, he wrote: "we will find them much more agreeable shipmates than the women."
In the American colonies the frequent advertisements for runaway indentured servants (many of whom were convicts) described women well used to the world. Jane Shepherd: "about 5 feet 3 inches high, of a fair complexion, pretty fat and lusty, has black hair, and is about 23 years of age ... she inclines much to smoaking of tobacco, and her under-jaw teeth are black." Anne Young: "about 30 years old, pitted with the Small Pox, middling tall, and slender ... has run away several times, and knows a great many noted men." Hannah Boyer: "a Convict Servant Woman ... about 23 years of age. Pitted much with Small Pox, has a Scar in one of her Eye Brows, not very tall, but strong, fresh colour'd, robust, masculine Wench. ... She had a Horse Lock and chain on one of her Legs."
Other women came to the American colonies under happier circumstances. From the first settlement of Plymouth Plantation and Massachusetts Bay, wives came with their husbands or followed close behind. The Mayflower brought twenty-nine women and seventy-five men in 1620, and almost every ship arriving in Massachusetts in the following decades carried some women and children. Some of these women came reluctantly; Madam Winthrop kept postponing the trip to join husband John in Massachusetts Bay until he grew quite out of patience. Others changed their minds after they arrived. Young Mistress Dorothy Bradford's fatal plunge from the Mayflower as it lay at anchor off the bleak Plymouth shore was almost certainly no accident. But the women who settled in Massachusetts (or died in the attempt) in the first half of the seventeenth century were unique: they were probably the only Englishwomen who came to America before 1650 of their own volition. Most women were tricked or coerced. They didn't emigrate. They were shipped.
The first consignment of ninety single women was sent to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1620 at the urging of Sir Edwin Sandys, erstwhile highway-man and treasurer of the Virginia Company. Unlike the Massachusetts plantations, Jamestown had been established by a band of rogues and bachelor adventurers. Sandys shared Captain John Smith's opinion that the lack of wives and family attachments in the plantation made it unstable and easy prey to "dissolucon." The women were supposed to "make the men more setled & lesse moveable who by defect thereof (as is credibly reported) stay there but to gett something and then return to England." When the women married, as they all soon did, their new husbands were required to defray the cost of their crossing to the tune of 120 pounds of good leaf tobacco. These young women reportedly came "upon good recommendation," and by 1621 when "an extraordinary choice lot of thirty-eight maids for wives" was sent, the price had risen to 150 pounds of tobacco. The men paid the sales price willingly; by 1622 all the maidens shipped — some 147 in all — were married. (By 1625, due to disease and Indian attacks, three-quarters of them were dead.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Women Who Kill"
Copyright © 2009 Ann Jones.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
introduction to the first edition,
Part 1 - foremothers: divers lewd women,
Part 2 - domestic atrocity,
Part 3 - spoiling maidens,
Part 4 - laying down the law,
Part 5 - let that be a lesson,
Part 6 - totaling women,
Part 7 - women's rights and wrongs,