Debauched, Desparate, Deranged: Women who Killed

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Prof. Carolyn Conley, The University of Alabama at Birmingham

  • cconley@uab.edu

 

This book means a great deal to me in part because it was finished after I retired from teaching and moved to a city away from my life at the university. While I miss my students and colleagues, it was liberating to write for myself-a book that has no bearing on tenure or promotion but instead allows me to consider what I have learned and concluded over nearly four decades. (Why I choose to write social history from the perspective of violent crime has certainly inspired speculation from university administrators, friends, and family. The University President once suggested that having it known that I wrote about women who killed might make me a more effective department chair.)

I sometimes feel I have spent the past 40 years trying to explain what writing the social history of crime means and this book is the culmination of that struggle. I remember one heated discussion with someone who insisted I was not an historian at all but a sociologist. It is true that social historians (myself included) often focus on relatively short periods of time, largely because of the nature of the sources we depend on. The existence of the Old Bailey Sessions Papers which cover(with a few gaps in the early years) the period 1674 to 1913, offered a chance to enjoy the defining task of the historian- studying change and continuity over time. Examining two and half centuries of official records (which sometimes included the statements of the accused as well as witnesses), as well as well as the contemporary media accounts provided me the luxury of examining changes over centuries. If not the longue durée, I was at least able to assess more than a few decades.

People have also sometimes tried to assure me that I am really a legal historian. While I certainly consider laws, legal procedures, and political systems, looking at cases reveals far more about society than looking at statutes. Both judges and juries were more than happy to ignore or at least work around the written law to reach preferred outcomes. Legislation often simply codified what had already become standard procedure.

Most of the friends I have made since retirement assume my book is part of the True Crime genre-it is not. Certainly, my sources are “true” (pace post-modernists) and homicide is a crime. Sarah Malcolm, whose portrait appears on the cover created quite a sensation in the eighteenth century and would doubtless have qualified for podcasts and mini-series today (the cover portrait was done by Hogarth). But for all the gore and heart of darkness aspects of the homicides (and some of them are truly ghastly) I hope my book has more to say about the larger question of how circumstances could impel women to commit homicide and how changing social perceptions and assumptions influenced the way those women were treated. In turn, those questions illustrate the power of gender roles.

“Debauched, Desperate, Deranged” were the designations given to women accused of homicide. Though the dominant adjective changed over time, the circumstances of women’s lives meant the three adjectives were almost always at least partially accurate. Women rarely killed out of malice or avarice.

Few women were charged with homicide but assumptions about gender clearly influenced how they were treated. Many of us either can (or someday will) feel a certain ambivalence about a middle-aged woman who is excused for killing her husband because a woman “at her time of life would have no very clear idea of what she was doing or what she did.” Two centuries earlier, a woman accused of the same crime burned at the stake for petty treason. In both cases, it’s clear that gender mattered. I hope my book offers some insight into how and why the response to women who killed (and by extension even those that did not) changed so dramatically.

 

Debauched, Desperate, Deranged; Women Who Killed, London 1674-1913 (2020) is published by Oxford University Press.

 

About the author: Carolyn Conley is Professor Emerita in the Department of History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she served as Department Chair and Director of Graduate Studies. Her previous books are The Unwritten Law: Criminal Justice in Victorian Kent (Oxford University Press, 1991), Melancholy Accidents:The Meaning of Violence in Post-Famine Ireland (Lexington Books, 1999), and Certain Other Countries: Homicide, Gender, and National Identity in Late Nineteenth-Century England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (The Ohio State University Press, 2007).

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