Debauched, Desperate, Deranged: Women Who Killed, London 1674–1913

Author: Carolyn A. Conley
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2020. 240p.
Reviewer: Katherine D. Watson ǀ January 2022

This book joins the growing body of scholarship based on the digitised records of the Central Criminal Court in London, an online database providing verbatim accounts — albeit not always complete — of the trials held between April 1674 and April 1913, together with details of verdicts and sentences. Carolyn Conley has extracted, quantified and analysed the trials of all 1,408 women accused of homicide, enabling her to identify patterns in the characteristics of the killings and the legal responses to them. These in turn are linked to female status, opportunities and stereotypes. The central finding is that “over the centuries women who killed went from being portrayed as wicked and fully responsible for their actions to being seen as pathetic victims of circumstances and biology” (p.4). How this process occurred is shown through the use of case studies and statistics, but why it happened as and when it did in London is not tackled in as much depth.

The chronological organisation identifies changing perceptions of female killers, culminating in the widespread Edwardian assumption that women who committed homicide were driven by biological factors beyond their control. The basis on which key turning points (1713, 1754, 1834, 1874) were established is not apparent, but the profound impact of Victorian attitudes to femininity is reflected in the fact that two of the four chapters address the years between 1834 and 1913, when women’s killing became increasingly restricted to the home. The modern assumption that female killers are mad or bad was clearly taking hold in the period 1834–1873. The victims of female-perpetrated homicide were and remain largely the same, however: newborn infants, children, and sexual partners. Criminal trials thus reveal society’s concerns about both victims and perpetrators.

The contexts within which killings occurred is discussed alongside the reactions to them, effectively demonstrated by the use of quotations from witnesses, judges, other observers and the accused women themselves, as reported in newspapers and the court proceedings. This evidence, combined with statistics of convictions, sentences and executions, reveals numerous interesting and important trends, not least the fact that although the proportion of female homicide defendants actually rose from 21% to 31% (p.3), the chance that they would be convicted of murder fell drastically between 1674 and 1913 (p.204).

The rate of and motives for husband killing stayed consistent over two centuries, but sympathy grew for women who experienced long-term abuse, leading to higher acquittal rates. More married women were prosecuted for killing their own children, but the gap between single and married mothers narrowed as they were held fully responsible only if they had the financial and intellectual means to provide for their child. The conclusion, more overtly comparative than the preceding chapters, points out key differences that emerged between men and women in relation to homicide, and summarises the main cultural changes that appear to have affected prosecution rates for women who killed.

The rich trove of source material on which the book is based offers students a starting point for investigating the role of violence and its gendered deployment in London, while the broader issues raised should serve as a stimulus to further academic research on women and criminal justice.

Dr Katherine D. Watson, Reader in History, Oxford Brookes University

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