Sunday, January 10, 2021

Carolyn A. Conley's "Debauched, Desperate, Deranged"

Carolyn A. Conley spent her academic career at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she served as Director of Graduate Studies and Department Chair. Her research focuses on criminal violence in the British Isles, and she also taught Celtic history, the history of Britain and the developing world, and historiography.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Debauched, Desperate, Deranged: Women Who Killed, London 1674-1913, and reported the following:
I would say that the page 99 test is partially valid for my book. Three spousal homicides on page 99 certainly match the title. One woman killed her husband during a drunken brawl, one killed her abusive partner out of desperation, and a third was suspected of poisoning her husband. The woman who beat her husband to death was acquitted, the battered wife received a relatively light sentence. The suspected poisoner was executed even though she argued that she had been “deprived of reason” and she had nearly died from eating the same dish that killed her husband. But the female poisoner represented premeditation as well as treachery. Further, the woman had violated the established order by “taking away the life of him to whom you owed allegiance.” Poisoning was one of the very few types of homicides in which men enjoyed no physical advantage.

Though the cases do demonstrate the three categories of female killers generally, women who killed their husbands represented a special category legally and culturally. The rate at which women were accused of killing their husbands remained flat for the entire two and a half centuries covered in this book, even though the rates for other types of homicide fluctuated wildly. However, the change in the response to such homicides did correspond to larger trends as women were increasingly likely to be seen as incompetent rather than evil. Killing a husband was legally an act of petit treason until 1828 and several women were burned at the stake for it during the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. By the early twentieth century many women who might have burned two hundred years earlier were acquitted or given light sentences on the assumption that a woman’s biology meant that she often “might have no very clear idea of what she was doing.” Women defendants were treated more leniently by the early twentieth century as the courts concluded that women’s inherent intellectual limitations meant they were not fully responsible for their actions. One of the most frustrating conclusions of this book is that such condescension saved many women from the gallows and progress is never strictly linear.
Learn more about Debauched, Desperate, Deranged at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue