Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. 322 pp. Bibliography. $50.00
(cloth), ISBN 0-8020-2015-9 .
Malcolm M. Feeley , School of Law, University of California at Berkeley.
picks up any of the standard texts on the history of criminal justice in
England (and for that matter elsewhere) written over the past fifty years,
turns to the index, and looks under W or F for entries for "women" or
"female," there will not be much to find. These terms do not appear in some
indexes, but if they do, they are likely to refer to a limited set of
"female" offenses, such as witchcraft, prostitution, or infanticide, or else
to an especially sensational case. Apart from some recent scholarly work,
women as ordinary criminals, committing a wide variety of offenses, have
been ignored by historians of crime and by historically-oriented
criminologists. Indeed, these works may buttress the conventional wisdom of
contemporary criminologists, that crime is and always has been a male
failure to consider women as ordinary criminals is not simply a failure to
accord women a symbol of equal treatment; it is a monumental blunder.
Scholars have long been blinded to what has been before their very eyes:
women once constituted a substantial portion of all those charged with
serious criminal offenses, from thirty to fifty percent or more of those
charged with serious crimes in eighteenth and nineteenth century England and
elsewhere. Although men like to gaze at women, here their eyes have glazed
over. Readily available data revealing women's high proportion of serious
criminal offenses in an earlier era have been ignored. Indeed, it is worse;
to ignore implies a conscious decision to pretend something does not exist.
Here, scholars did not see what was often presented in their own tables.
Women were not ignored; they were invisible. Women crime historians have
fared somewhat better in all this; a number of them have written outstanding
studies of women and crime, but still their work has concentrated on
"female" offenses and ignored the important position of women in "ordinary"
indicated above, in
Netherlands, and elsewhere, women once constituted from 35 to 50 percent or
more of those charged with serious criminal offenses, in contrast to the
eight to twelve percent in contemporary America and Europe. There are no
good causal studies of the origins of this high level, but it is now fairly
clear that this level declined throughout the latter part of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, and reached contemporary levels somewhere in the
late nineteenth century. This pattern holds for both crimes against
property and crimes against persons, including violence. Still there is much
work to be done exploring shifts in the mix of crimes committed by women.
One unsolved mystery is what caused the marked decline in women's
involvement in the criminal process.
noted above, in recent years a few historians or historically-oriented
social scientists have begun to address these issues. Once women were
rendered visible, their prominence in crime pleaded for investigation.
University of Toronto historian John Beattie was perhaps the first historian
of the English criminal process to devote considerable attention to women
and ordinary crime. His monumental study, Crime and Courts in
devoted a lengthy chapter to an examination of the high (by contemporary
figures) levels of women charged with serious but ordinary criminal offenses
in England (and ten years earlier, he published a separate important article
on the topic. Others have followed suit. This author, with Deborah Little
(1991), carefully charted the decline of women accused of serious (often
capital) offenses in England throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth
century (from nearly forty percent to around ten percent), and in a second
article (Feeley 1996) reported the same pattern in other countries, and
began relating it to patriarchy brought on by the rise of industrial
capitalism. University of Toronto sociologist John Hagan and colleagues have
traced the decline--from high levels to much lower--of women charged with
serious crime in Toronto. And Oxford legal historian Lucia Zedner has
written a major book on women and crime in the Victorian era, which argues
that the marked decline in women charged with serious crimes can be
attributed to a shift in popular attitudes about women. She argues that
popular understanding redefined deviant women from bad to mad during the
late Victorian era, and as a consequence women were shunted away from the
criminal process and into the newly emerging mental asylums. Others too have
begun to mine this territory, which was readily obvious once women became
Knelman's recent book, Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the
English Press, is a welcome contribution to this important new area of
scholarship. Rather than examining women and crime generally, she focuses on
women murderers in the nineteenth century. She observes that in the
nineteenth century, "there was a significantly higher participation rate for
women in murder than in other crimes" (p. 4), and proceeds to explore this
little-known and under-examined phenomenon.
begins with an introduction and first chapter which outlines her ambitious
agenda: "the reality of the female homicide in the nineteenth century is
examined so as to sketch out its causes and extent, and also to provide a
context for the analysis of its representation that comes later" (p. xi). In
Chapter One she sets out her concerns: the backgrounds of deprivation and
oppression of murderesses; their motives and methods; and how they fared in
the criminal process; how the types of murders they committed changed over
time; and how all this differed from the ways male murderers were treated.
Chapter Two is directed at her central concern, indicated by the book's
subtitle. It outlines the book's plan to explore how murderesses were
represented in the popular press, and describes the various forms the
popular press took in the nineteenth century. Her aim is to show how the
Victorian press "constructed" murderesses according to preconceived and
shifting notions of femininity. This is an ambitious and exciting agenda
six long chapters in Part II constitute the core of the book. Here she
presents and examines her data, case studies of women who murder. Each
chapter examines a different type of murder: multiple murders; murder of
husbands, lovers, or rivals in love; child murder, baby farming fatalities,
and infanticide; murder of and by servants; and murder of the elderly. Each
has a similar structure, which consists of accounts of the circumstances of
the murderesses, their paths through the criminal process, and how they were
portrayed in the popular press. Some of the chapters also include additional
discussions of still other murders, and more generalized discussions of
sensational forms of murder and the public's and press's reaction to them.
For instance, one chapter contains the best analysis of baby farming that I
have read. Baby farming involved a mother in desperate straits sending a
young child--usually an infant--to a woman or couple, for a lump sum payment
in what might be considered an informal adoption or a foster care
arrangement. However, these caretakers in turn would allow the child to die
through neglect, starvation, poisoning, or failure to treat an illness. This
practice was well-known in the nineteenth century, although how common it
was is difficult to determine, since (as Knelman reports) until the late
nineteenth century few people, including public officials, cared to
investigate rumors about it. A section in another chapter examines poisoning
of family members in order to collect relatively modest amounts of insurance
benefits, a practice that apparently disappeared as chemical testing
improved and insurance companies developed more aggressive and sophisticated
techniques to investigate fraud. (This in itself would be the subject for an
III consists of four short chapters that explore the "meaning" of female
crime. They are designed to show "how the emphasis on sexuality in press
representations of murderesses reflected changing popular attitudes and
contributed to the Victorian construction of femininity" (p. xi). Topics
include the image of the murderess, the feminine perspective, the body of
the murderess, and the murder of the murderess. Each examines a different
facet of popular characterization of and reaction to murderesses.
count Knelman's book is only the second full-length scholarly book, at least
with a broad sweep, in recent years which seeks to understand women and
ordinary crime (here murder) in nineteenth century England. The other is
Lucia Zedner's Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian
(1991). But as important as it is, this book is seriously flawed. Although
it purports to be a scholarly academic inquiry into an under- examined
phenomenon, it nevertheless shares a great deal in common with the many
sensationalized accounts of female murders published in the nineteenth
century, which the author herself draws upon. The book dwells upon the
exceptional, rather than the typical and the mundane. Almost all of the
important substantive chapters consist of discursive accounts of
"sensational" murders drawn from the popular press.
first blush, the author cannot be faulted for this focus. After all, her
book is about "the murderess and the English press," and so it might seem
reasonable to concentrate on notorious and newsworthy cases. But this focus
is problematic for several reasons. First, she never describes how she
obtained her core data--the set of sensational cases. They are not a random
sample of all cases involving female murders. Nor are they a sample of women
charged with murder. (Among other things, it would have been nice to know
why some of those accused later had charges dropped or were acquitted.) In
short, she offers no criteria for identifying "the women whose murder cases
were among the most sensational of the century in England" (p. 275).
Presumably she identified them by reading widely in the English press of the
day, and rummaging through the archives of Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.
However they were selected, it turns out that there are exactly fifty "most
sensational murderesses," and her study consists almost entirely of telling
the reader about them.
casual selection process prevents her from successfully pursuing three of
her central objectives, identifying what was distinctive about English
murderesses in the nineteenth century, showing how the press "constructed"
them, and demonstrating how these two factors related to each other and
changed over time. In her first chapter, Knelman proposes to identify
distinctive features of female murderers by contrasting male and female
murders with respect to both the frequency and types of murders committed,
and by showing how murders of both sexes were represented in the press. She
even presents some quantitative data comparing male and female murderers
which reveals that women committed roughly one third of all murders in the
nineteenth century, a proportion much higher than in the twentieth century.
This is an intriguing and important finding. But her case selection process
does not allow her to explore it systematically, and she loses focus on the
issue. Even when she does return to differences between male and female
murderers in order to highlight distinctive features of murderesses, it is
not always clear exactly what she is comparing or precisely what is
distinctive. At the outset, she says that her "research shows that
expectations about criminal behavior were different for women and men" (p.
xii), but nowhere does she explain what she means by this or systematically
compare differences in treatment, either by the courts or in reports of
sensational murders in the popular press. At one point, for instance, she
compares figures for all (reported) male murderers with her sample of fifty
of the most sensational murderesses. This of course is no meaningful
comparison at all. Elsewhere, she says she cannot make careful comparisons
of males and females because national judicial statistics did not begin
distinguishing by sex until mid century. This might be the case, but it
would have been relatively easy to collect such figures for central London
by quickly going through the indexes of the Old Bailey Sessions Papers. Or,
as she was culling reports of sensational female murders, she might also
have collected a sample of sensational male murderers. If one wants to
identify the distinctive ways women who murdered were portrayed in the press
(e.g. evil, sick, malformed, and the like), such comparison is crucial
Perhaps her response would be that her central purpose was not to compare
men and women (though comparison would seem to be necessary to identify
"distinctive" features), but to explore, as her subtitle indicates, "the
murderess and the English Press." But here too, case selection poses
problems. Although she does present stories about the "most sensational
murderesses," the social constructionist approach she explicitly embraces
requires a broad sample of cases in order to answer the question, how and
why were some women and some offenses made sensational and others not? What
distinguishes some cases from others? What functions for the press and for
society did these particular constructions serve? A social constructionist
perspective requires an examination of the "filtering" out process and the
functions served by it. But this book does not pursue such questions very
Furthermore, to argue, as she does, that the image of the murderess shifted
over time, requires a more systematic analysis of change than is provided in
this book. Although she does offer a lively and informed discussion of the
various forms the popular press took throughout the nineteenth century, this
alone does not accomplish her stated objective. The book covers almost an
entire century--the first sensational murderess in the nineteenth century
was convicted in 1807, and the last in 1899-- and at times she pauses to
briefly discuss changes over time. Yet nowhere does she present in
systematic fashion ways that the image of the murderess changed over time.
Nowhere does she undertake a content analysis (of even a casual sort) of
language or images in the press to see if it presented distinctly different
images of women at different times. Nowhere does she convincingly show that
popular conceptions of femininity changed, and this in turn affected which
murders were deemed sensational. No where does she identify and examine
"moral panics" over types of murderesses that were "created" by the media,
or to which the media responded.
does describe some important changes; shifts in forms of murder, and reasons
for murder. But she has little to say about them, and indeed from her data
it is not clear that these were shifts in actual (all) murders by women or
only in sensational murders. For instance, she discusses the decline in
poisonings after a spate of arsenic poisonings in the 1840s led to enactment
of a law banning over-the-counter sale of arsenic. In her treatment of this,
Knelman presents the increase in arsenic murders as well as their subsequent
decline as fact. Yet she provides us with no convincing data to show this
(all one can do is cull her appendix and find that sensational murders by
poisoning decreased after mid-century). Very probably she is correct. Yet
one would think that a social constructionist would have jumped at the
opportunity to ask, was there really an increase in arsenics in the 1840s?
Did passage of the law really reduce poisonings? Or was the increase and
subsequent decrease constructed by the media? And if so, for what purpose?
There is certainly nothing constructionist about her analysis of this
interesting issue. Nor is there elsewhere.
generally, one wonders why the author did not build on Lucia Zedner's fine,
but incomplete investigation of women and crime in late Victorian England.
Zedner presents a strong thesis, but her work cries out for further
investigation. She argues that between mid and late Victorian England as the
first rudimentary elements of the social welfare state were being created,
the popular press and popular criminology redefined deviant women from "bad
to mad." She shows that the popular image of deviant women underwent a
marked change, and that this change was paralleled by a decrease in female
crime. But perhaps because she casts her net so broadly, Zedner fails to
develop a close connection between these two developments. A detailed study
of a single type of serious offense--murder-- would have provided an elegant
opportunity to extend Zedner very important work. I hasten to add that I am
not suggesting that Knelman should have written a different type of book,
only that she could have profitably drawn on materials directly related to
her own concerns and readily available to her.
Knelman's book deals with an interesting, important, and much neglected
topic. It begins with a bang, setting out a very promising agenda. It has
some fascinating and informative discussions of little-known and understood
practices. But it is not well constructed to answer the questions it poses.
It bogs down in a discursive discussion of mini-histories of sensational
murderesses, and fails to draw on data systematically to address the
important concerns stated at the book's outset. It thus makes generalization
impossible, despite the obvious quest for it. This may explain why the book
ends with only a one page conclusion.
Despite these significant shortcomings, Twisting in the Wind is a
valuable contribution to the study of women and crime. It makes a major
contribution to the field by moving away from an exclusive focus on "female"
crimes to explore the wider range of women's criminal activity. Its findings
underscore the importance of and need to examine greater women's criminality
in the nineteenth (and earlier) centuries. It successfully links women's
criminality to the larger patriarchal social structure. It provides valuable
information on little-known criminal practices. It mines the wealth of
materials in the press on women's criminality.
Twisting in the Wind
is one of a small but growing number of studies that are making women
visible in the history of crime. As such, it is a book that belongs in the
libraries of all those who have a serious interest in historical studies of
women and crime.
Feeley, Malcolm and Deborah Little. "The Vanishing Female: The Decline of
Women in the Criminal Process, 1687-1912," Law and Society Review. 25
(1991): 719 . Feeley, Malcolm. "The Decline of Women in the Criminal
Process: A Comparative History," Criminal Justice History: An
International Annual 15 (1996): 235.
Beattie, John M.. Crime and the Courts in England: 1660-1800.
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986).
Beattie, John M.. "The Criminality of Women in Eighteenth Century England,"
in K.K. Weisberg (ed.) Women and the Law: A Social Historical Perspective.
Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Pub. Co. (1975).
Boritch, Helen, and John Hagan, "A Century of Crime in Toronto: Gender,
Class, and Patterns of Social Control, 1859- 1955," Criminology. 28
Zedner, Lucia. Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian England.
(Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991).
Citation: Malcolm M. Feeley . "Review of Judith Knelman, Twisting in the
Wind: The Murderess and the English Press," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, April,
“Although [Twisting in the Wind] fails to
provide new insights into the social construction of murderesses or the
nature of Victorian society, it is worth reading, however. It is
well-researched and engagingly written…[It] makes a useful contribution to
the corpus of information on murder, on the justice system, on the
circumstances in which many poor women lived, and on the press and reading
Kathleen E. McCrone, review of Twisting in the
Wind: The Murderess and the English Press, by Judith Knelman,
Canadian Journal of History 35 (August 2000): 365-367.