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[Carolyn Ramsey (guest-blogging), November 17, 2006 at 10:23am] Trackbacks
The Failure of Intimate-Violence Prevention:

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.

Sammy Finkelman (mail):
>> 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,

I don't think sympathy waned. What probably hapepned (if you can show eniency earlier) is that law enforcement got more professional. Giving special treatment to women who murdered their husbands would not be impartial justuice. But my impression is that in the Twentuieth Centry we got more and more of this "crimes opfsion" defense. Possibly there was moere leniency after conviction. before all you could do was acquit. Another thing might have been t try to treat men who murderewd their wives more equally wuith women who murdered their husbands.

>> 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.

They wouls always have met with that.

Perhas there was a time when the idea women are not responsible for theior actions prevailed.

>> 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. <<

Paternalism is not consistent with legal equality.
11.17.2006 11:45am
Daniel San:
Very interesting work. Thank you.

I am not convinced that scepticism about "Battered Women's Syndrome" represents so much declining sympathy for women who murder intimate others as a general scepticism about a plethora of "syndromes". The apples to apples comparison is not the commentary of pundits or even the admissibility of expert testimony concerning the syndrome, but whether juries were acquitting or convicting.

Women's hesitancy to report abuse by police-officer husbands reminds me of similar arguments concerning legislation to bar persons convicted of domestic battery, or who have orders of protection against them, from possessing guns. Of course, the wives' options are not as restricted as they were in the period of your research.
11.17.2006 12:43pm
Carolyn Ramsey:
I'd like to respond to a few comments that readers made about yesterday's post, but I'm posting them on today's thread because I think there's a greater likelihood that they'll be seen here.

1. Anonymous999 asked if Colorado and New York differed in terms of the gender composition of juries. In both states during the late 1800s and early 1900s, juries were composed exclusively of men. New York changed its laws to allow jury service by women in the late 1930s. Colorado took a similar step by amending its constitution in 1944.

2. Logicnazi makes an interesting and intelligent argument that "the death penalty is viewed differently in more lawless societies than in more civilized ones." This reader contends that, in a lawless society, male citizens will be more worried about street crime that threatens them than about the moral disgust that intimate murders arouse. Self-preservation trumps moralization. I enjoyed reading this post, and I think that Logicnazi has a point. However, although New York City was more sophisticated than Denver, it was not necessarily safer. I don't have statistics at my fingertips, but I have encountered a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting that New York City was plagued by robberies, gang violence, and non-domestic murders in the late 1800s. This eastern city had more officers per capita than Denver, but it still was not policed effectively, in part because the police were captured by the corrupt political machine. Even more importantly than the actual crime rate was the perception of late nineteenth-century New Yorkers that they faced a significant threat from the so-called "dangerous classes." For this reason, I'm unconvinced that the distinction Logicnazi makes explains the differing sentencing strategies of New York and Colorado.

3. Finally, Bruce Hayden questions whether the acceptability of using physical violence against women could have lingered in Colorado -- a state that was second only to Wyoming in granting women the right to vote. He makes a valid point to which I have two responses: First, I don't mean to imply that violence against women was a social ideal in late nineteenth-century Colorado, or even that it was tolerated. The fact that Colorado juries frequently convicted men of murder for killing their wives or lovers certainly shows that extreme violence was not tolerated. It's the relative leniency of sentencing in Colorado that interests me. Second, granting woman suffrage may not be inconsistent with the rise of a less protective, paternalistic, or romanticized view of the female sex. As I suggest today, it's possible that women's assertion of independence as the twentieth century progressed made them appear less sympathetic both when they were assaulted by men and when they defended themselves with lethal violence.

Thanks for the thought-provoking comments.
11.17.2006 2:06pm
Roger Schlafly (www):
You say that states were lenient to female criminals before 1920, but how do you know that there wasn't similar leniency afterwards? You say that you are going to study that next, but until you study it, how do you know?

It seems to me that there is still leniency towards female criminals in the law and in public opinion. Just look at the sympathy towards Andrea Yates.
11.17.2006 5:21pm
BoBo (mail):
"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."

My answer: Maybe inmutable human nature, honey?
11.18.2006 12:25am