Murder by women in eighteenth century London and Paris


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We appear fascinated with the phenomenon of the woman who kills. In the last year alone in the UK, both ITV and channel 4 have launched popular documentary series chronicling the shocking lives and crimes of women who commit murder. But what is it about the murderess that renders her so interesting? To social historian Dr Anna Jenkin (@acjenkin), it is her ability to offer unique insight into the gender dynamics, and broader cultural climate, of the society in which she lives. Anna’s PhD thesis explores female perpetrated homicide in eighteenth-century London and Paris.

Dr Sarah Burdett caught up with Anna to discuss the findings of her research.She began by asking what it was that inspired her to investigate the topic.

Anna Jenkin: I started as an undergraduate studying eighteenth-century London, and in the second year of my undergraduate I looked specifically at the case of Sarah Malcolm, who is a serial killer, mass murderess, in 1730s London. I found the case a really interesting insight into an aspect of life in London, and women’s lives specifically, that often you don’t get a lot of detail about. So although it was quite an extreme example of a woman who killed her employer and two other maids in the household that she was working, in telling her story you actually get much more about the intricacies of everyday life in London at this time. So I thought this was a really interesting way of thinking about how men and women were living in these cities, but also, of much broader dynamics of power. Because female murder is such a rare act, and was such a rare act, it was particularly distressing to the society in which it took place, particularly in these very close urban areas, so you find a lot of much broader dynamics of power projected onto these cases. So that is why I decided on the question of female murder. I wanted to look specifically at eighteenth-century London and Paris because it was a time when both cities were undergoing very major paths of modernisation and growth. There were great deals of similarities between these two cities which were undergoing huge amounts of population expansion as well as economic booms, which were leading to the growth of a bourgeoisie, or middling sort, but on the other hand, politically, there were these huge differences between London post-Glorious Revolution, and France before the French Revolution, which meant that there are some really interesting similarities and differences that can be unpicked between these two cities. Female homicide is such a rare crime, that contemporary commentators don’t have the general narratives of criminality or of violence to project onto them, so when trying to understand and unravel these crimes people drew from much more complicated, or perhaps more run of the mill everyday narratives in seeking to explain and understand what was going on. So I used this very small lens to understand much bigger narratives of change that these two cities were going under, at the same time but also in quite different ways.

Sarah Burdett: I asked Anna to elaborate on the proportion of female perpetrated murder, to male perpetrated murder.

AJ: Female homicide in the eighteenth century, particularly in London and Paris, was about 10 percent of male homicide. I found about 2000 cases of male perpetrated homicide in London in the period 1715-1789, and for that same period about 200 cases of female perpetrated homicide, and the same in Paris. The Parisian court is much larger so I found about 500 cases of female perpetrated homicide and 5000 cases of male homicide. So in both cities it’s about a tenth, which interestingly is the same proportion as today. So it is a much rarer crime. But I think what is interesting about the urban context is that you often find in historiography and in writing about female homicide in this period quite a lot of stereotypes of female homicide as being something that is very polarised. When women are treated in the court, historians have argued, women are either completely innocent or entirely guilty, whereas for men there is this much stronger category of men who are found guilty of manslaughter. This, the argument goes, is because men were in spaces like pubs and drinking houses where they were more likely to get into drunken brawls. The statistics show that more women were acquitted of murder than men, but actually the conviction rates are almost exactly the same, in both cities, and for men and women: about 20 percent of cases led to an execution in the two cities, so the number of women actually being executed for murder, although it’s smaller, the proportion is the same for men and women. And although there are fewer women being found guilty of manslaughter, the kinds of cases that we would associate with male murder, so drunken brawls and people grabbing the nearest instruments and smacking each other over the heads with them, you do find with women as well in both cities. I think that’s particularly interesting. It says something about the kinds of lives that women were living at this time. You tend to think that they were becoming cloistered and that everything was becoming much more domestic, and women weren’t having the opportunities to go out and get into these very tense situations. But that doesn’t appear to have been the case. I should say actually that homicide statistics are a very difficult thing to deal with, because although it is likely that when a murder is committed it would have led to a prosecution, we can’t know that, and there could be a huge number of murders that took place in the eighteenth century that didn’t end up in the courts. It’s unlikely that there would have been a great deal because there were quite strong judicial infrastructures by the eighteenth century, but we don’t know. So it could be that women were committing a lot more murders somewhere else that they weren’t being prosecuted for. I don’t think that was probably the case, but you never know.

French murderess in her prison clothes

SB: Anna’s comments regarding the difficulties in measuring homicide statistics led me to enquire as to how she had gone about conducing her research. I wanted to know which databases she had used, and whether she had found these to be particularly effective, or whether there had been limitations.

AJ: For London I used the Old Bailey Online, which is a fantastic resource of digitised transcripts of all of the Old Bailey proceedings, which were the published accounts of trials that took place in London from 1674-1913. We don’t have exhaustive accounts of the period before 1715 so we can’t get a mass total of that period, but after then we have a pretty good idea of all the cases that were prosecuted in London. The Old Bailey proceedings is a wonderful resource in terms of the information and detail that it gives. Increasingly in the eighteenth century cases were more and more supposedly reported verbatim, which means you get these very long transcripts of conversations about exactly how people understood the intricacies of motivation and what kind of evidence might be used to prosecute or to create a defence. There are some limitations with the London cases: particularly, often fewer details are given for defence pleas than we might hope for, and if a case was reported to be ignoramus and was thrown out, those aren’t always reported, so there are some limitations there. For the Parisian records I used a record called catalogue 450 which is a record of the Parisian court of the Parlement. The Parisian judicial system was incredibly complicated at the time but basically you went through all these lesser courts and then if you had been accused of a crime that carried the death penalty, like murder, you were sent to the court of the Parlement for an appeal, and this happened whether you were found guilty or not guilty or somewhere in the huge range of sentences that the Parisian court had in between. Catalogue 450 was assembled in the 1780s and it was supposedly a register of all of the cases that had been tried at the Parisian Parlement since 1700. Actually there’s lots and lots of holes in the data: some of the records probably were lost in the French Revolution and there’s lots of difficulties in working out exactly where the cases came from because the judicial stretch of the Parlement was very large and covered about 100 miles, so it wasn’t just Paris. Sometimes you can work out which cases came from Paris, and sometimes you can’t. So there’s some difficulty knowing which were specific urban crimes, and which weren’t. The Parisian cases are also written in French legal shorthand, which is pretty interesting to uncover. There’s some tiny minute differences in some of the symbols which are the difference between somebody just having undergone torture, and somebody having been executed, so actually the tiniest flick of a pen could have led to something very different, so that is also challenging. I think the biggest challenge was that in both sets of cases gender is not actually recorded. In London that’s alright because male and female names were different, but in Paris there are a lot of names that both men and women had: so names like Claude, Stefan, Dominique, and even Anne actually was a male and a female name, so working out who was a man and who was a woman was pretty difficult. There’s some punishments in France that were only given to men, like being broken on the wheel, or being sent off to row in the galleys, like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, so if someone was sentenced to that I could work out they were a man. But I did end up with about a hundred cases of people called Claude, and I thought that perhaps there was a particular study that I could have done just of murders committed by people called Claude! But in the end I just left them out of my survey. So there were some gaps here and there but it gives you a sort of overall understanding of how gender might have been perceived.

SB: Intrigued by some of the different kinds of punishments to which Anna had alluded, I next wanted to know whether the treatments dealt to male and female murders differed routinely, and whether this was the case in both London and Paris.

AJ: There are differences in the ways the courts treated men and women. In London the most striking one is the sentence of petty treason. This was a specific sentence in London which was given for murders which were seen to have some sort of aspect that meant that there was a subversion of power within them. So the idea was that they were a miniature treason. This was metered out for women who killed their husbands; it was also metered out much less for servants who killed their masters; or for curates, who murdered their Bishops. So wives who killed their husbands were sentenced to petty treason, for which the sentence was burning. The last burning for this in London, although there were ones elsewhere in the country, was the trial of Catherine Hayes in 1726. So this was the main way in which women were treated differently. Men could be sentenced to petty treason and for that they were hung in chains, and in fact one of Catherine Hayes’s associates, who was her lover and also her son (it’s a very complicated case!), he was hung in chains alongside her, and his body was exhibited on a gibbet afterwards. But that was the key difference. Aside from that men and women were usually hung in London. In Paris it was much more complicated. The system of punishment in Paris was much more complicated in general. In London if you were found guilty of manslaughter you’d either be fined or you’d be branded or you’d be hung and that was the end of it. In Paris there wasn’t quite this clear connection between certain crimes leading to certain sentences. Often because this was looked over by a judge – they didn’t have juries in eighteenth-century Paris, it was an absolutist system of justice that was intentionally kept very mysterious – it meant that for every single crime you could have a vast array of different kinds of sentences and different kinds of mutilation in particular. Mutilation was quite a popular aspect of eighteenth-century Parisian justice. Men were much more likely to be found guilty, and were in fact exclusively found guilty of being broken on the wheel, which was an awful punishment, where you had each of your limbs broken with an iron bar and you were left stretched out on this wheel to die, it’s very gruesome. And also men were sent to the galleys. Women were often imprisoned. In Paris they had a large punitive infrastructure for imprisonment: they had the prison of Bicêtre which was for men, and Salpêtrière which was for women, and women were often sent to prison for lesser crimes and actually throughout the entire trial period. Women were also burned in France more often. The crime of poison carried burning in France – that was for both men and women actually in France. France was generally more complicated, and a little bit more violent in what they decided to meter out to you. You might have your hand cut off before you were executed depending on what you had done and there were all kinds of codifications and symbolisms of murder. There are lots of expectations that people were more squeamish about doing that to female bodies but actually they weren’t really, with the exception of being executed on a wheel: women were often mutilated and had bits of them cut off and things before they were executed as well.

SB: I was now keen to know more about the most common relationship between the murderess and her victim. I also wanted to gain some insight into the different methods of murder employed by men and women.

AJ: This is a really interesting question because often female homicide, particularly in the eighteenth century, is categorised as something quite passive and quite planned. Often people talk about things like poison as being the classic female weapon: women couldn’t kill their chosen victims with their hands so they used all these underhand methods. And this isn’t really the case. For both men and women the most common forms of homicide were stabbing. We can’t get such complicated statistics for Paris unfortunately, but for London both men and women were most likely to kill their victims by stabbing, and then by hitting them with an object. One of the interesting gender dimensions seems to be that men were more likely to hit their victims over the head, while women beat them around the body. I don’t know if this is just a language difference, or whether it’s because men are taller. In both cases they’re often using the weapons that are at hand, so for women this is often things like pokers, and quart-pots. A lot of women, about 20 percent of women who were accused of murder, were inn-keepers, and it was during some sort of dispute in an inn. So often it was things like quart-pots and things to hand that were used by women, where men were more likely to hit each other with things from their workplace, so tools and spanners and rods and that sort of thing. Men were more likely to use pistols. Women often didn’t have access to pistols. And women did use poisoning in London more often than men. There’s only one or two cases of male poisoning, but actually there’s only about 12 cases of female poisoning in London. In Paris it’s slightly different. Poisoning was much more common in Paris and particularly for women. About 20 percent of female murders were committed by poisoning in France, and for men, although it was only about 3 percent of male murder in Paris, that accounted for about 112 cases, so it was much more common in France. I haven’t quite got my head around why this might be. I think potentially it might just be because poison was more common in France. Although there is also a real obsession in Paris with poisoning, and this started in the early part of my period. In 1680 there was a huge scandal in Paris known as L’affaire des poisons, where a huge web of poisoning and witchcraft was uncovered at the court of Louis XIV. It was led by a woman called Catherine Monvoisin who was a sort of sorceress, wise women. But it went right up the echelons to Louis’s head mistress, Athénaïs de Montespan, and it was an incredibly secret case. Louis burned a lot of the records by hand at the end of it, which makes it quite hard to study. But it was all over the papers as well, as one would expect, even though it was meant to be something hush hush, and it led to a real obsession with poisoning in France. I also have a theory, although there’s no way that I can really prove it, that there’s something to do here with the fact that there were common food shortages in France. By this period food supply in London was a bit more stable, whereas in Paris famine was still an element, so there’s still an increasing obsession with food in France. The other thing is that there is a judicial infrastructure in Paris that there wasn’t in London to investigate these cases. If somebody died of something mysterious, where they had a stomach complaint before they died in France, it was investigated and there was an autopsy, whereas in London they didn’t have that kind of infrastructure. So poisoning was a women’s weapon in France in a way that it wasn’t in England. In terms of the victims relationships, husbands were the most common victims of female homicide, where we can know victims, which is only possible in a certain amount of cases. In both cities husbands are the most common victims, but in London, where we can get more information on victims, it does seem that actually there was a much more varied array of victims. As I said women were sometimes victuallers, so you’ve got things like tenants, servants, people that they knew who they were drinking with or working with. And it’s interesting that although female homicide is often characterised as something that was taking place in the home, about 42 percent of London homicides were taking place in public yards, or taverns, or the street even. So female homicide involved an array of acquaintances within the household or within a close community where tension was more likely to build up. You see this also in the age of murderesses. In London , women who were accused of murder were usually about 36 or 37 which is much older than the average age of an Old Bailey defendant, which was about 24. So these are women who are living in a community where clearly tensions have built up over time. For male homicide also, wife murder is quite common. It’s a smaller proportion, it’s only about 5 or 6 percent of male homicides in both cities, but what’s particularly interesting about marital homicide is that we generally think, when we talk about things like petty treason, that there was this obsession with women killing their husbands, because it was seen as a kind of subverted treason: your husband should be your King. But actually when we look at conviction rates it is men killing their wives which had the much higher conviction rates. About 50 percent of men who were accused of killing their wives were executed in both cities. Perhaps it is cases where men killed their wives in particularly violent ways which were the ones that were prosecuted, so it could be that there were far more cases of men killing their wives that didn’t ever make it to trial, and it was only the extreme ones which led to this pattern of execution. Or it could be that there was this increasing concern with domestic violence perpetrated by men in the household, which historians such as Joanne Bailey and Garthine Walker have already started to trace. It’s also interesting to note that male defences for manslaughter can’t be used against women really because women were perceived as being weaker. So when men killed women they were much more likely to be convicted, whereas with women the gender of the victim doesn’t seem to make that much difference at all. Male or female, it’s much more about the circumstance and the method of murder. Cases where there’s more violence, so cases where women hack at each other with axes, or things like shooting, or stabbing, tend to have the more likely guilty verdict, where things like kicking and hitting, where it could be manslaughter, seem to lead more to a not guilty verdict. So for women it’s very much based on the method that they use. But for men, the gender of the victim, and the circumstances of the victim, do seem to have played more of a role in determining whether a man was convicted or not.

SB: Anna had explained that male perpetrated homicides took place in taverns and in the streets. I wondered what she felt this said about urban living as a whole, in eighteenth-century London and Paris.

AJ: I think what you see from these cases is that urban life was tense; that there was a lot of difficulty and violence; and that often, certainly the people you find in murder trials, lived together in very close conditions where tensions and difficulties could grow. It’s interesting that a higher than average proportion of women in both cities who were accused of murder were single women. I think they were particularly vulnerable both to accusation, but also perhaps to living in situations where tensions could overflow into murder. The idea that all female murder was plotted and premeditated is really not the case in eighteenth-century London and Paris. It does seem to be much more about the tensions and difficulties of living in often very confined spaces, where there was a high turnover of people. You were living among strangers and getting to know people very quickly, often in places where the stakes for survival were also quite high, in terms of getting your rent, or being paid for things, so it’s often when there’s a perceived sleight in terms of money that things can fall to blows. You also see that a lot of women accused of murder in London were midwives. About 20 percent of women accused of murder in London were midwives. So there you see things about the night time economy I think, and the movement of women around the streets. When you look at homicide you’re looking partially at social actuality, at how people live, but also at sites of fear. People have to make the decision to prosecute a homicide, and also as a jury to then decide who’s likely to be guilty, so you do get these broader sites of concern in female behaviour. Those commonly accused are people like midwives, women running taverns, and then also servants, who are particularly common in Paris. There’s a much higher proportion of servants accused of murder in Paris, and this, I think, is because the female servant was actually a slightly newer phenomenon in Paris than it was in London in the eighteenth century. This concept of single women living in fairly intimate and close connections to their employers was clearly something that was quite a site of concern in Paris. In London I think that had already happened in the seventeenth century. Service had become feminised a little bit earlier, and perhaps employers were a little bit better at controlling their servants, so you have fewer servants being accused of murder than things like midwives and landladies in eighteenth-century London.

SB: Finally, I asked Anna how her research might interact with modern day assumptions about male and female violence.

AJ: The question of how far it connects to today is a really interesting one. There’s a lot of work and scholarship that argues for a sea-change in the way that homicide, and understandings of gender and homicide, happened in the early nineteenth century. This is something that I haven’t done enough research on to agree with, or disagree with necessarily, but the argument goes that with the rise of criminology and sexology and all these Foucauldian ideas in the early nineteenth century, the idea of women as being passive becomes much stronger. So actually the dynamics that you see in eighteenth-century murder don’t necessarily travel through to today. There are perhaps arguments that eighteenth-century London and Paris were very different societies than today. But what I’m particularly interested in, and what my thesis more generally deals with, is the idea of how female homicide is perceived. I think you see today, as in the eighteenth century, that as female homicide is a rarer crime than male homicide, that means that when it happens, and when commentators and the media and the judiciary are trying to understand what has led to this homicide – trying to explain it and perhaps normalise it – they’re looking to much broader narratives of change. Sometimes these are things like extreme sexual activity, or stereotypes of murderesses as being debauched, or on the other hand being totally passive and committing something almost entirely against their will. But I think it is slightly more complicated than that. The general narrative is that female homicide is just not understood because you have all these stereotypes that come into it. But I think that you see in the eighteenth century and you do see it today that actually there’s more complex dynamics going on. When you look at a female homicide often what we’re talking about is much broader concerns about the lives of women in a particular area or a particular space, and the sites of power within that. But it is true that within female homicide, and I think you do still see it today, it’s much harder to think specifically about this as a crime committed by a person, because we are often too busy thinking about the implications of it being a crime committed by a woman.

Sarah Burdett is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Warwick, and a member of The Staging Napoleonic Theatre Team (School of Modern Languages and Cultures).

Music by Tom James Parmiter

Main picture: Elizabeth Brownrigg

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