Narrative agency of women accused of homicide: New York City and London, 1880-1914
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date30/11/2021
Sutton, Rian Ann
This thesis examines the role of narrative agency in the meaning-making process of cases of women accused of adult-victim homicides in New York City and London from 1880 to 1914. The place of women as perpetrators of homicide and the experiences of accused women in both a legal context and a broader cultural context is a growing area of academic inquiry in the fields of history and criminology. Situated at the convergence of a number of gaps in the existing scholarship, this thesis brings together comparative, empirical, and theoretical approaches to shed new light on a key historical period and to contribute to interdisciplinary debates regarding the gendering of criminal justice. The study examines the court records (including trial transcripts and clemency casefiles) and newspaper reports of 169 cases in relation to the legal, social, and cultural contexts in which they were produced. Feminist criminological studies speak of the agency of female offenders almost exclusively in terms of its denial. It is typically argued that the criminal justice system and the media utilise stock narratives to place accused women into limiting categories of ‘bad’, ‘mad’, and ‘victim’ so as to ameliorate the threat such women are presumed to pose to the patriarchal order. These oversimplified narratives deny the accused her status as a fully-human, volitional subject by removing her humanity and/or her intentionality. This thesis shifts the focus from the agency ascribed to the act to the agency of the accused in narrating the act. It argues that women endeavoured to use victim and madwoman stock narratives tactically to disrupt the deployment of the villain stock narrative and thereby secure both sympathetic coverage by the press and lenient treatment from the criminal justice system. In demonstrating this, the thesis examines the circumstances that enabled or constrained the successful deployment of this narrative agency, including dynamics of gender, race, ethnicity, and class, as well as the specific nature of the alleged homicide and the particular court system in which that homicide was tried. While theory-based research of this nature has in large part focused on trials occurring in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, this thesis incorporates nineteenth-century cases so as to expand the scope of this method of inquiry generally and to generate a more complex understanding of cases in this period specifically. The discussion in this thesis regards the trial as a space of meaningmaking in which the legal and cultural significance of the accused and her alleged crime was negotiated and established through a series of narrative exchanges. Accused women participated in this process through a variety of narrations, including pre-trial exchanges with witnesses and representatives of law enforcement, discussions with counsel, provision of testimony, and communications through physical appearance, dress, and emotion. Employing both press records and court records allows for consideration of a range of narrative situations that neither source in isolation reveals in full. Ultimately, this thesis concludes that accused women were not merely passive recipients of meaning made by others; rather, they were active participants in the process by which meaning was made. Due to a variety of structural and cultural factors, this participation prompted anxiety in New York City regarding the stability of the criminal justice system that does not appear to have been similarly present in London.