jones | kill | women |
Ann Jones' Women Who Kill
Women Who Kill: A Social History of Women Murderers in the U.S.A. from Colonial Times to the Present
Beacon Press. 1996
ISBN: 080706775X. Paper.
448 pages; $16.00.
"Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her father forty whacks. Then she took
another one, and gave her mother forty-one." Would the public forgive?
Perhaps, but it helped if you were a lady. The most famous murderess in
American history was found innocent in a court of law, in spite of both
motive and evidence. Jones' detailed analysis of each of the cases she
presents is as intriguing as a summary of a whodunit.
Lizzie's father, Andrew Borden, was a sullen and miserly man who forced
Lizzie and her sister to lead lives of social isolation and boredom totally
separated from the community in spite of her family's wealth and social
position. Although an heiress, Lizzie lived a poor girl's life. Still,
according to the defense, Lizzie had no motive, because no respectable,
well-brought-up daughter could murder her father for money. Lizzie was
presented to the jury as the epitome of godliness and cleanliness. For
an axe murder there was an astonishing lack of blood except for a miniscule
speck on Lizzie's petticoat, carefully explained by the defense as a trace
of Lizzie's monthly sickness which had ended the night before the murders.
After the murders, Lizzie was twice observed descending to the cellar where
a pailful of bloody towels was kept. However, respect for female modesty
prevented the discussion of menstruation in a courtroom, and the bloody
towels could not be used as evidence.
Ladies who appeared in courtrooms respectably dressed and tearful,
presenting an image of injured if foolish innocence were protected by
social taboos that were of no help for black women, sexually "loose" women,
or victims of rape and seduction, who were often punished more severely
than men guilty of similar crimes.
But no single case is more
provocative than the explanations for either conviction or acquittal as
a reflection of the social attitudes of the times.
The good, outwardly devoted wife could sometimes avoid being considered
a murderess, because no matter how difficult her life might be with a
husband who drank and gambled away all the money she managed to earn, it
was inconceivable that she would take matters into her own hands with the
easy weapon of poison.
Three defendants in famous poisoning cases were saved from punishment only
by what a prosecutor called the law's chivalry. In Jones' interpretation,
this unequal justice was a precarious prop for society's grand illusion
that men loved and protected women, and that women, by nature, in spite
of the most brutal treatment, still loved men. Any woman could easily
poison any man she lived with, but fathers and husbands could not act on
this fear, the fear of "household fiends." Denial was safer!
Denial, to mask the greater evil of the relations between the sexes,
permitted the lesser evil of the acquittal of the guilty. In our time,
until recently, wife-beating has been treated as a family quarrel, and
millions of wife-beaters have had little or no interference from the law.
Many battered women have repeatedly asked for help from the police and
some finally have been driven to kill. Jones has used her meticulous
research to demonstrate the effects of sexual stereotyping, class, and
race on the way society treats women who murder. Times have changes
somewhat, but the challenge still exists to unite honesty, fairness, and
compassion in the social attitudes which influence the law.
Phyllis Ehrenfeld has received the
Arnold Gingrich Award in prose for the most highly evaluated fellowship from
the New Jersey State Council for the Arts. She has been Editor of the
American Anorexia Bulima Association for ten years. Several of her plays
have been presented as staged readings in the Bergen County area.