On March 25th, 1851 a working-class woman by the name of Sarah Chesham was executed in the town of Chelmsford in Essex for the murder of her husband, Richard Chesham. Her execution was the culmination of a five-year campaign by authorities to track and close down a poisoning ring that was allegedly operating in Essex.
Other members of this
From August 1846 to March 1851, the Assize courts and the coroner’s office were working diligently to try not only to convict these women of arsenic poisoning
This article argues that the application of theories about women and crime, which have been in regular use in the field of criminology for contemporary crimes in the last twenty years, can be used in conjunction with historical methods to advance criminological understandings about female criminality.
This encourages ideas about how criminological methods can be used to advance historical understanding
As Wiener argues: “In [the] repression of violence, law — primarily its criminal side – took a leading role. The law was a complex entity shaped by many players. Legislators, politicians, civil servants, newspaper editors and reporters, amateur and professional magistrates, judges, jurors, lawyers
History can inform a criminological debate about narrative construction, the use of stock stories, and discourses about gender in the courtroom based on criminal cases from over one hundred years ago.
Firstly, I will give a brief background to murder trials of women, specifically involving poisoning, during the
Secondly, I will concentrate on
As this article illustrates there is a long history of the good/bad woman dichotomy in the legal system, one which, as this article presents, has relevance to those practitioners interested in women’s narratives in the courtrooms today.
Seventeen women were executed for poisoning crimes between 1843 and 1852. From 1851 through to 1900, however, only ten other women were found guilty of murder or attempted murder by poison.
The start of the
The roles of men and women in English society were also undergoing significant change in the
Foyster sums up what it meant to be the ideal woman during the nineteenth-century: “Marriage, and motherhood that was assumed to follow, were goals for middle-class women in a society where spinsterhood and widowhood held so many economic and social uncertainties. However, while being a wife
In turn, men were also expected to behave in a
Murderous wives, as Robb states, “evoked fears of sexual anarchy and decreasing patriarchal authority at the very time when
Many women who used poison were murdering husbands in order to leave or escape their marriages, and most of them entered into new relationships and married again soon after the deaths of their previous spouses (Watson, 2010). Even though these fears over women undermining the institution of marriage by poisoning their husbands were genuine, for a majority of women remarrying was the only option for survival in an era when women’s abilities to lead independent lives were severely curtailed.
In total 40 women and 20 men were convicted for killing their spouses with poison during the nineteenth-century in England (Robb, 1997: 176). This number is almost negligible when compared to the 1000 husbands and wives murdered in England between 1830 and 1900, of which cases approximately 90% were men killing their wives (Robb, 1997: 176).
According to Bartrip, some “500-600 people per year, many of whom were children, were ‘ascertained to die’ by poisoning in England alone” (Bartip, 1992: 57), though this number included accidental poisonings. Even though during the 1840s there was relatively little difference in the numbers of men and women tried for using poison to murder, there was an intensifying fear of women who were thought to have easy access to arsenic and other poisons (Whorton, 2010).
There was also a fear that women were forming “poisoning rings” in which they could share poison recipes (Robb, 1997). There was fear at the thought that men would not be able to protect themselves against wives attempting to murder them (Knelman, 1998; Robb, 1997), and that women were willing to kill their husbands for money (Burney, 2006; Ward, 2005).
The cases of Chesham, May and Southgate were not rarities. Women, as well as men, were often fronting court for poisoning crimes in mid-nineteenth-century England. What makes the cases of these three Essex women intriguing is that, compared to others of this period, the legal response to these cases was significantly different and more intense.
The legal narratives offer insight into how the broader societal concerns about women and crime intersected with the cases of these three women, and the resulting manner in which their femininity was interpreted and depicted.