Friday, September 23, 2011

“Why Women Kill,” by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes - 1933


FULL TEXT: Women commit murder because they love, because they hate, because they fear, because they want money. I have put love first on this list because in all those cases which are thought of as famous murder mysteries it almost invariably happens that what we call “love” –  that is, the master passion of humanity – has played the leading role in the story. A crime committed tor the hope of sordid gain arouses hardly a flicker of interest, but the murder mystery in which sex provides a possible motive will be discussed with heat and even anger in all those places where men and women congregate.

It is a strange and terrible fact that, interwoven in the dark roots from which spring so much that is obscure in our poor human nature, love and hate are closely allied. Thus it constantly happens that when a woman commits murder she will do it for love of a man coupled with hate for his wife, or for any other human being who stands in the way of her securing her desire. This point is rarely made by those who are interested, either professionally or in a simple human way, in crime. Yet hate sometimes counts as much as love in a murder where the love interest alone is considered supreme. That, too, even if the hate is never revealed but remains hidden in the heart of the murderess.

One instance of this kind leaps to my mind.

The Bravo case remains, and will always remain – what is indeed rare in those stories of crime which come to light – a profound enigma. Although it all happened sixty years ago, I have heard people argue freely as to whether the case was one of murder or suicide, and if murder, which of the two women concerned poisoned Charles Bravo. Just as the American Borden case, as described by your famous criminologist Edmund Pearson, is the most puzzling murder committed in the history of America, so is this Victorian mystery the most puzzling case of Great Britain.

A rich and beautiful widow called Florence Ricardo married a handsome and wealthy young lawyer named Bravo. They were very much in love with one another, but the bridegroom had one outstanding fault – the kind of fault which is rarely mentioned in polite society – that of penuriousness. At the time of her marriage his bride had stipulated that her friend, Mrs. Cox, should remain on as housekeeper-companion. That lady was the widow of a clergyman, the mother of several children of school age, and, apart from the generous salary she received from her friend, was extremely poor.

There came a day when Bravo, grudging Mrs. Cox her high salary and her keep, persuaded his wife to give her notice. Mrs. Cox took the news calmly and made all arrangements to leave with her children for a property in the West Indies, which was all she had in the world. But before she had time to leave the luxurious establishment which she had been taught to believe would be her home for life, Charles Bravo had a sudden attack of illness. Even before most women would have felt anything like real alarm, Florence not only sent but for a doctor but dispatched a man post-haste to the greatest London specialist of that day. But nothing availed. Bravo died within a few hours of his seizure, solemnly assuring the medical men, who had at once realized he was dying from the effects of an irritant poison, that he had taken nothing save “a little medicine for toothache.”

Strange revelations were made during the protracted legal inquiry which followed. There was evidence that Bravo had become desperately jealous of a former lover of his wife named Dr. Gully. Also that this lover was a married man and had had relations with Mrs. Bravo between her first and second marriages. These surprising statements, which unfortunately appeared true, were all made by Mrs. Cox for no apparent reason when under oath in the witness box. I say “for no apparent reason” because not only was Gully’s wife still alive but it was proved that Mrs. Bravo had not seen him since her second marriage.

In the view of the present writer, the lady companion, Mrs. Cox, hated Charles Bravo for having broken his word regarding herself. And then, after having compassed his death, realizing that the net was closing round herself, as she was the only human being who had any direct interest in that death, she betrayed her kind, generous friend in order to shift the center of suspicion from herself to Mrs. Bravo. She succeeded only too well, for, as has been the case not once but many times in the civilized world, the Victorians of Mrs. Bravo’s day said to themselves: “This woman has been unchaste, so she is probably
a murderess.”

The verdict left the question open, but Mrs. Bravo, overwhelmed with shame and grief –for she had been devoted to her husband died within a year; and it is a pathetic circumstance that she left a substantial sum of money to Mrs. Cox’s children, of whom she had become fond during her long association with their mother.

To this day innumerable English people are convinced that Mrs. Bravo killed her husband, though they cannot supply any motive which should have caused her to do so.

French law, in fact if not in theory, accepts murder when provoked by the passion of love as being on quite another level from that committed for a sordid motive. The woman who commits murder because she has loved, and especially because she has lost her lover’s love, is regarded with tenderness and sometimes even with respect by the French public. The first time this unwritten law took effect was when a pretty young singer named Marie Biere was seduced under promise of marriage by a Parisian man-about-town named Robert Gentien.

The man evidently intended their secret love affair to be short, passionate and sweet. But the girl was convinced that he intended to make her his wife, and she thought so more than ever when she found she was about to have a child. But, malting one excuse after another, Gentien put off their marriage day. The child was born and its mother began a curious diary which later was produced at her trial. One phrase ran: “My baby is not well today. Should anything happen to her Robert will have to die.” The child did die at the age of six months, and its mother wrote: “Life means nothing to me now. Baby has died and her father must die with me. We shall soon be with her in a better, kinder world.”

Even so, it may be doubted if she would have carried out her intention if it had not come to pass that Gentien became intimate with a young actress.

Marie Biere learned of that new love and she wrote on a photograph of her lover these words: “This is Robert whom Marie has condemned to death.” She was in earnest this time, and one afternoon, when he was walking with his new love, Marie fired two pistol shots at him. He was grievously wounded, and the girl was arrested; and though Gentien did not die she was put on trial for attempted murder, the penalty for which was death.

The case aroused passionate interest all over Europe. The prisoner was defended by Lacliaud, the greatest advocate of that day. He drew a terrible picture of the idle man of fashion who makes love to a virtuous girl with the same easy-going, careless cruelty as that displayed by a child who tears off the wings of a butterfly.

The jury was absent less than five minutes; when they returned they announced that they had been unanimous in voting for her acquittal. So ended the first great French criminal case in which the Unwritten Law was successfully invoked.


It sometimes happens, though not often, that fear causes a woman to commit murder. Such, it was charged, was the motive which inspired Madeline Smith, the exquisitely pretty seventeen-year-old daughter of Scotch architect. Her tragic story, narrated at her trial, resulted in the Scotch version of “Not proven.”

The testimony indicated that had Madeline not given what is now called “the glad eye” to a passing stranger she would have remained virtuous, securely anchored to normal life and destined to be a happy wife. When walking one day in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, she fell into talk with a good-looking youth named Angelier, a clerk in a merchant’s office. Unknown to her parents, they began meeting. But she became ashamed of the deceit she was practicing on her family, for twice during the first year of their acquaintance she tried to break off what had been till then an innocent friendship.

Their friendship ceased being innocent, and Madeline Smith wrote more than a hundred passionate love letters to Angelier. These he carefully kept, and there came a day when, in order to force her to marry him, he threatened to show her letters to her father.

Fear and shame made her nearly distraught, and there are no more moving letters in the world than those which were written by this Scotch girl in answer to her lover’s blackmailing threats. Again and again occur in them the phrase, “I could never see my dear papa again,” and “I could never live through the shame of my parents seeing those letters, which were written for your eye alone. You had promised to destroy each as you received it.”

The prosecutor’s claim was that Madeline Smith made more than one attempt to poison her lover and that at last she succeeded. After his painful and terrible death agonies during which, it was contended, he probably suspected the truth and remained silent for love of her, the letters she had so feared would be revealed to but one person, or at the most to two, were found and, further, read aloud during the course of her trial for murder.

Considering that the French marriage system is based on every reason excepting that of romantic love, it is a curious fact that on two occasions French women have committed murder publicly, and apparently feeling unashamed, because of love for their respective husbands.

The first case was that of Mme. Clovis Hugues, the wife of a distinguished poet who suffered from a sad physical disability: he was a hunchback. As a girl his wife had greatly admired his verse; a meeting took place and they fell in love. The marriage was an ideal one; they had three children and Clovis Hugues became a noted member of .the Chamber of Deputies. And then all at once first the husband and then the wife were thunderstruck to learn that Mme. Hugues was about to be involved in a divorce case as having been, while still unmarried, the mistress of a man named Lenormand, who for a short time had lived in the same block of apartments that she and her parents had occupied.

At first the couple took the matter as a joke. They then discovered with amazement that it was serious and that Lenormand’s wife was going to cite a detective named Morin who had found certain ex-servants who were prepared to swear that Mme. Hugues as a girl had had Lenormand as a lover.

The unfortunate woman, still thinking it inconceivable that any human being could take such a false accusation seriously, went to see Mme. Lenormand. To her astonishment, that lady observed: “Why should I believe you rather than Morin’s witnesses?”

“But I have never seen your husband,” cried Mme. Hugues.

“You must have seen him,” said the other pettishly, “as he lived under the same roof as you and your parents.”

Then Lenormand himself took a hand. He swore that he was not even acquainted with the maiden name of Mme. Hugues, and had lived in the same block of buildings for only a short time. He further declared that to the best of his belief he had never seen her.

However, astonishing to relate, the divorce ease went through. The judge chose to believe that Lenormand was simply lying to save the honor of a girl with whom he had had a love affair. So his wife won her case, and all political and general French society became aware that the wife of Clovis Hugues had been co-respondent in a divorce case and had been proved guilty.

The unfortunate woman at once brought suit against the detective Morin, and she was able to prove he had suborned servants once in her parents’ service with the money given him by Mme. Lenormand. He was condemned to a term in prison, but as this was the first time he had “got into trouble” he was allowed to benefit under the first offender’s act.

After this verdict had been given, Mme. Clovis Hugues left the court where the case had been tried and took up her stand in a passage where Morin was bound to pass on his way out of the Law Courts as a free man.

All at once he came along, smiling and gesticulating, with a number of his friends. As he approached the woman he had so greatly defamed and whose husband’s political career he had ruined she took a revolver out of her muff and fired six shots at him. She was at once arrested and taken off to prison. But within a few hours her cell was filled with flowers, many having been sent from unknown sympathizers. As for Morin, he lingered fifteen days in agony and then died.

Mme. Hugues was brought to trial and elected to give evidence. She explained that she had had enough of what, she said, is called “justice,” and had become weary of trying to get her wrongs righted. She told at length the strange and almost incredible story, including a last desperate attempt made by her to persuade Morin to confess that he had suborned false witnesses, and how, as his only answer, he had laughed at her.

After speaking for more than an hour she wound up with the moving words: “Condemn me to death if you think it right to do so. But first put yourself in my place. I did not wish my children to bear a dishonored name, and I want the whole world to know that when I married Clovis Hugues I was a virtuous girl. Had I remained inactive in the face of such atrocious calumnies it would have been tantamount to a confession of guilt.”

Again there was a unanimous verdict of acquittal, which was hailed with approval all over France.

The second case was that of Mme. Caillaux, wife of the famous French statesman. She shot the editor of a leading Paris daily paper which was attacking her husband. The affair took place in 1914 just before the outbreak of the World War, and probably is remembered by many of the readers of this article.

When women commit murder for money they often behave in a more cruel and callous way than men murderers do. It is also a strange and terrible fact that a certain type of murderess becomes a mass-killer. Such a woman chooses the career of a baby-farmer – hideous and sinister phrase – and allows the infants who have been confided to her care to die from hunger and neglect. Yet another marries one man after another and murders each for the little money she knows to be in his possession.

But most of the women who kill do so for the reason I have put first on my list; and I trust that in time, as they have loved much, they will meet with divine mercy.

[Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, “Why Women Kill – A Noted British Writer of Mystery Tales Says That Woman Commit Murder and Hate, for Fear, Occasionally for Money – But Usually for Love,” The Billings Gazette, Apr. 2, 1933, p. 5]

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