My intimate homicide data does not conclusively explain why the criminal justice system in the late 1800s and early 1900s punished intimate murders committed by men but failed to prevent them from occurring. However, my University of Colorado Law Review article (see 77 Univ. Colo. L. Rev. 101 (2006)) offers several hypotheses: "First, the decline of neighborly and family intervention against intimate violence thrust the problem upon a police force that was too corrupt and brutal to handle it effectively. Second, caught in a cycle of violence and dependence, some victims impeded solutions by refusing to seek or accept help from the police. Third, whereas Victorian social values . . . generally condemned a man's brutality against his girlfriend, wife, or family, the same countercurrents that produced intimate assaults frustrated efforts to curb them."
Nineteenth-century police officers were widely criticized in the press for being partisan and unprofessional and for using excessive force against criminal suspects. Some of them beat or even killed their own wives, as well: "In 1891, for example, on-duty patrolman William Smith inflicted a fatal head injury on his wife with his truncheon after she interrupted him at the [New York] saloon where he drank and caroused with another woman. Police officers' notorious readiness to lie, cheat, and assault may have . . . deterred victims from seeking their assistance."
The arrest and prosecution of batterers was hampered by the unwillingness of victims to report abuse and by victims' tendency to recant their allegations before or during the criminal trial. As I note in my article:
Two [other] factors seem to have led to non-reporting and victim recantation. First, as the Borgstrom case [see 70 N.E. 780 (N.Y. 1904)] demonstrates, a visit from the police might cause an abuser to become even more violent. A typical New York City woman was afraid to have her husband arrested for beating her 'as he would murder her if he ever got out [of prison].' Second many victims of intimate abuse worried that their family's livelihood would be destroyed by a criminal case. Battered wives, in particular, might face terrible hardship if the men upon whom they depended financially were imprisoned, fired from their jobs, or shunned by business associates for being wife beaters. The spouse of New York City police officer William Smith, who clubbed her with his truncheon, attempted to keep the cause of her ultimately fatal injuries a secret. As her brother testified, 'she was shielding [her husband], she was afraid he would be broken off the police if she reported his attack on her.'
Some police officers did respond to reports of intimate violence, but their efforts often "met other forms of resistance, besides victim recantation. Some were shot or faced life-threatening assaults from wife-beaters and their cronies." In New York City in 1891, for example, Officer Herrlich was assaulted by an allegedly abusive husband's friends, who pelted the officer "with stones and huge pieces of ice" when he responded to a call for help. As I contend in my article:
Such incidents confirm the resilience of beliefs in the wife-beating prerogative. However, I am less convinced than other feminist scholars that the white male establishment simply transformed its rhetoric to hide a firm commitment to the brutal subjugation of women. Rather, in my view, the ice-throwing incident described above [and the intimate murder cases that I analyze in my article] reveal a deep cultural rift over the issue of intimate violence . . . Punishing murderers may have reinforced the status regime ensuring that the white male establishment did not undermine its claims to legitimacy by shedding too much intimate blood.
Nevertheless, resilient beliefs in the wife-beating prerogative were not synonymous with a conspiracy against women. In my view, it is more plausible that, instead of being controlled by a hegemonic gender ideology, late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America was divided over whether violence had a legitimate place in family government. The press and the jury box demonstrated little empathy for males who killed their intimates, and policemen like Officer Herrlich even attempted to quell the battering before it escalated to homicide. In spite of such efforts, some American men continued to believe that 'a few thumps once in a while can do no harm.'
. . . [T]he same values that promoted protectiveness toward women contained loose threads that often unraveled in actual intimate relationships. Frustrated by their inability to achieve success in the public sphere, husbands, fathers and brothers may have stuck angrily at those who loved and lived with them. Told to be sober, restrained, and industrious, some [Victorian] men rebelled and were none of these things. As ideals of masculine physicality began to supplant Victorianism around the turn of the century, certain aspects of the new ideal seemed to resonate with the violent conquest of women. Even though public figures like [Theodore] Roosevelt denounced child-murder and wife-beating and placed the American mother on a pedestal, other voices — including those of eminent scientists — celebrated men's primitive sexual instincts as a counterweight to the 'unnatural' behavior of the woman suffragists. This competing strand of early twentieth-century culture suggested that, if females failed to be modest, refined, and maternal, all bets were off . . . [w]oman must then bear the brunt of unfettered masculine violence.' In increasingly anonymous urban environments that were not policed effectively, such tensions and countercurrents killed.
My article ends with cases from the Progressive Era. I am now starting a book project that would extend my research beyond 1920 to discover how and why sympathy for women accused of murdering male intimates waned, so that the efforts of defense attorneys to introduce battered woman's syndrome evidence in the late twentieth century were initially met with hostility from the bench and the legal academy. My current hypothesis goes something like this: When women gained the vote and began to work side-by-side with men in the public sphere, the paternalism that characterized public responses to the homicide cases of the late 1800s and early 1900s diminished.
In writing this book, I plan to expand the geographical scope of my research to include other American states, such as California, Massachusetts, and Illinois. I also would like to include data from other countries. For example, I am investigating the possibility of using secondary scholarship and archival material from Australia to assess whether another frontier society approached the problem of lethal intimate violence in a comparable way to Colorado. Because my research is ongoing, I would be especially gratified to receive feedback on the material I have posted here.