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Victorian Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman part II

Continuing from Part 1:

The chapter concerning Madeleine Smith and Angélina Lemoine involves murders that occurred as the result of sexual relations outside of marriage. The common thread here is that both women, fed a steady diet of romantic literature, initiated sexual relationships laced with faux romantic ideals, which compromised their social standing, and that they then took actions to remedy their errors.  The Lemoine case is interesting for the argument that Victoire Lemoine (Angélina’s mother), who was obviously the main instigator in the murder, was judged not as much as for the crime but for her “Voltairean beliefs, her separation from her husband, and most importantly, her ‘failure’ as a mother,” and the judge zeroed in on the “pernicious literature” Angélina was allowed to read.  While it’s impossible to argue that Angélina’s reading did not play a role in her relationship with the family’s coachman, rather than blame the literature itself, these days we should rather blame the isolated, sterile life Angélina led in which reading added the only available avenue for romance and escape.

Vicorian murderessesWith the reconstruction of the Constance Kent case, the author built an alternative scenario which seemed somewhat questionable, but in the case of Célestine Doudet, a solid case is argued for the homeopathic doctor father’s complicity in deaths of his daughters at the hands of their French governess. The widowed Dr Marsden placed the care of his 5 daughters under the care of Célestine Doudet with explicit directions regarding the manner in which one of the girls was to be ‘cured’ of masturbation. The case against Doudet is clouded by the father’s negligence, instructions, and sexual paranoia. It’s incredible that so many people ‘investigated’ allegations brought by a concerned neighbor, and yet the abuse continued until it could no longer be concealed. The appalling mistreatment of the children, although ostensibly to ‘cure’ sexual behaviour, includes an element of sexual masochism and sexual frustration, and the subsequent case against the governess opened the door onto Victorian sexual repression & corporal punishment (this chapter includes the mention of clitoridectomy–the Victorian cure for masturbation and the development of a locked ‘panty-girdle’ device in use at many boarding schools) ; those Victorians found more ways to not talk about sex than anyone else and that indeed seems to be the case here. Murder and its justification boiled down to the question of masturbation, and just how far one should go to stop it.

The pathetic result of the case was its reduction to the question of whether or not the Marsden girls were or were not masturbators. In the process the children were forced to be as much defendants in the proceedings as Célestine Doudet. Both sides, after all, accepted masturbation as a morally culpable act which produced recognizable physical consequences. The children, then were literally on trial.

I’m not going to delve into the whole book, but chapter 4, for this reader, was the most fascinating in the book. Titled The New Woman, this chapter examines the cases of Florence Bravo and Henriette Francey, both examples of the ‘new woman’ whose increased visibility in society “expanded her theoretical opportunities to raise the moral tone of society [but] it had also, according to observers, made her recognizably more open to dangerous and corrupting influences.”  Sexual improprieties lay at the heart of the cases of Florence Bravo and Henriette Francey. Newspapers of the day went wild with the Florence Bravo case–not only had she separated from her first husband, she had a married lover in her past and had the audacity to dye her hair red! Florence Bravo was a wealthy, independent woman who’d escaped the noose of a miserable marriage only to find that she was in the same state shortly after marrying for the second time. Henriette Francey, also a married woman, shot her victim, hunting him down when he fled her home and finished him off in front of witnesses while stating that she hoped he was dead. Her defense was that the man she shot had tried to rape her–although that version of events becomes somewhat suspect as the chapter continues.  This story’s notoriety was magnified by the dead man’s reputation; he was called  “Don Juan of the subprefecture” by the newspapers.

The author states that the Francey case was just one of many of a “growing number of cases since the 1870s in which women were committing acts of criminal violence and successfully defending themselves by pleading honour or revenge.” Chivalry played no small role in both cases, and when questioned, both of the accused women fell back to, or relied on traditional views of Victorian women, and in these cases, those traditional views of women saved both of the accused. Henriette’s version of events–that she allowed a man who’d try to rape her once–back into the house and was alone with him a second time, while she armed herself a revolver ‘just in case,’ makes little sense, but there was a great deal of intelligent strategic planning; she clearly modeled her case on that of a similar crime involving a certain Mme. Hugues. Witnesses testified that the victim was a relentless Lothario, and thanks to the appeal of her argument, Henriette Francey was acquitted to the sound of cheers. ” She emerged, for the jury  at least, as another of the favorite female creature is Victorian imagination, the wronged woman.”  The author builds a plausible version of the true events of this case, and if she’s correct, then Henriette Francey committed the perfect murder.

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Victorian Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman Part I

“I had read the novels of George Sand and I was divided between the shame of having given myself to a servant and the joy of having raised to my level a man who, according to the social laws, was in a position inferior to my own.” (Angélina Lemoine during interrogation.)

Given the title Victorian Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes, I expected, well, something along the lines of sensational true crime stories, but instead, the book is a scholarly social study examining the circumstances which led to the crimes along with the attitudes of society, the judges, the juries and the newspapers. Some of the women here were convicted of their crimes, others were suspected of crimes on what seems today the flimsiest of evidence, and others who should have been convicted walked away mostly thanks to prevailing 19th century attitudes about women. This is a reprint from 1977, and portions of the book originally appeared as articles in Feminist Studies, Victorian Studies, and the Journal of Psychohistory, so that should give you a sense of the book’s scholarly tone.

Vicorian murderessesThe book covers 12 sensational murder cases and is broken down into six chapters with two cases linked in one chapter:

1. Arsenic and Matrimony: The Cases of Marie Lafarge and Euphémie Lacoste

2: The Waiting Games of Brides-to-Be: The Cases of Madeleine Smith and Angélina Lemoine

3. The Singular Outcasts: The Cases of Célestine Doudet and Constance Kent

4. The New Women: The Cases of Florence Bravo and Henriette Francey

5. Sex and Shopkeeping: The Cases of Gabrielle Fenayrou and Adelaide Bartlett

6. Poison, Revolvers, and the Double Standard: The Cases of Florence Maybrick and Claire Reymond.

* The thirteen women in the title include the “mother-daughter team” in the Lemoine case.

Each chapter outlines the cases against the accused women, the evidence, the outcome of the trials and societal attitudes of the time. The author emphasizes that most of the women “bungled badly in the act, and those who got away with it relied upon methods that required special circumstances and relations between the sexes.” While some of the murders were truly horrible (the case of Célestine Doudet includes child abuse), other cases generate sympathy. One of the points that the author makes is that the circumstances these women found themselves in, loveless, arranged marriages, for example, happened frequently:

The circumstances which prompted their actions, the stratagems they employed, and the public response to their reported behavior display a pattern which suggest, far from committing a set of isolated acts, the women may have responded to situations which were built into the lives of their more ordinary peers.

This is the author’s argument, and one, that is argued well: the circumstances these women found themselves in were not unique for the times–the uniqueness is found in how the women reacted to their situations. Similarly, the author argues that these women whose cases became causes célèbres in many ways were quite unexceptional” until the crimes were committed. With their “lives thrown open to public scrutiny” some of the most shocking revelations, and those details must have titillated those crowds at the trials, were the sexual details pulled from the dark corners of marriages and examined as part of the tracing of motive.

I was quite familiar with the cases of Madeleine Smith (after all there’s a wonderful film version Madeleine) and Constance Kent, while the other cases were either recognizable just by name or completely unknown. If you’re looking for the nitty gritty details of the crimes, then this isn’t the book for you. as the book examines the “accused murderesses as women rather than as criminals.” Included are some fascinating facts and figures:

For example, in England from 1855 to 1874 the annual totals of women tried for murder, which ranged from twelve to forty-two, twice exceeded those for men and normally were half as high, whereas women were only a fifth to a quarter of those tried in assize courts for all felonies.

The cases of Marie Lafarge and Euphémie Lacoste, four years apart, involved arranged marriages both which ended with dead husbands allegedly poisoned by their wives.  In spite of the fact that there was solid evidence against Marie Lafarge whose case, for this reader, garnered far less sympathy than that of Euphémie Lacoste, the Lafarge case generated a great deal more public sympathy at the time.  Part of this wave of public sympathy for Marie, and not for Euphémie, can be explained by the fact that Marie was a member of the aristocracy and was a Parisian. Also there was the issue that the orphaned Marie was married off  by her relatives using the services of a marriage bureau–a small fact that Marie was unaware of when she tied the knot. Marie’s relatives, obviously in a hurry to get rid of the young woman, failed to investigate her future husband’s finances. Poor Euphémie Lacoste, on the other hand, was just 22 when she was married off by her parents to her nasty, syphilitic 68-year-old uncle, and stuck in the provinces, she was subjected to more judgement and petty, small-minded gossip than her more romantically-perceived Parisian counterpart. These days, Marie Lafarge, who seemed to be her own romantic creation, would be on facebook whipping up a fanbase, or “her believers” as she called them and selling copies of her memoirs.

Both Marie’s guardians and Euphémie’s parents were criticized in the national press for the husbands they selected for their charges. The fact that neither young woman had a real role in the decision was deplored more in Marie’s case, for although Lacoste appeared to be a worse choice than Lafarge, greater regard was expected for the wishes of a young woman of Marie’s status and “romantic” credentials. In any case, a young woman’s right to participate in the choice, and even to seek a love-match, was an emerging urban deal which provincial girls were not seen to share. For Euphémie, criticism centered less on the failure to consult the bride-to-be than on the choice of a husband who was three times her age.

Marie, with echoes of Madame Bovary’s early attempts to make her marriage livable,  preemptively put her foot down in the marriage, and made her own status in the family home quite clear while Euphémie seemed to be little better than a servant/concubine in her uncle’s/husband’s home. Another fascinating tidbit here is the author’s comment that “it has been observed that the French wife consistently exercised more unchallenged authority within her sphere of the home that her English counterpart.”

Both cases delved into sexual relations between husband and wife which included details of neglected  “personal hygiene” by the husbands, and Lacoste preferred to consult the veterinarian for his many ailments rather than the local doctor. The case of Marie Lafarge became one of the weapons in the arsenal for the argument for divorce and the inherent moral problem of a husband’s “legal right to rape,” especially interesting since Marie Lafarge clearly held the reins of the sexual relationship she may or may not have had with her husband. It’s fascinating to read the reaction of the day to Euphémie’s case, a case in which she was clearly victimized by the press and the local population of the small provincial town she lived in.

Part II to follow

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