FULL TEXT: Is there a “dementia Americana” for women murderers?
Are women who kill men protected from capital punishment by an “unwritten law” which, says they shall not be hanged?
The plea of the eloquent California lawyer who defended Thaw that the “unwritten law” justifies a man in killing another under certain circumstances finds an equally strong counterpart in a public sentiment firmly fixed in most States which silently protests against capital punishment for women.
Is this sentiment, which may be called the new “unwritten law,” the incentive to recent numerous murders of men by women.
The question whether women become murderesses because they are, through a maudlin public sentiment, immune from the severest penalty of the law, is one which criminologists and the legal profession now discuss without reaching a solution which will receive general approval.
The hanging of a. woman in Vermont a few years ago for the murder of her husband, though the people of the State protested, proved that the executive of the State was firm in heeding the cold demand of the law. On the other hand, the commutation of the death penalty to life imprisonment. In the case of Mrs. Aggie Myers would indicate that the chief executive of this State yielded to the almost unanimous prejudice against capital punishment for women.
The recent killing of Walter S. Guerin, a young artist, by Mrs. Dora McDonald, wife of an ex-gambling and political boss of Chicago, has given rise to the question whether the woman committed the deed in the full realization that the sentiment opposing capital punishment for women would save her from the severe penalty of the law, or whether she counted on the strong political influence and wealth of her husband to extricate her.
~ Chicago Sentiment Divided. ~
Although in Chicago sentiment is divided as to justification or lack of justification for the killing, the feeling is strong that she ought not, and probably will not, have to face the risk of the extreme penalty should she be convicted.
The actual motive of this still very recent crime is as yet unexplained. The murderess has since the day of the tragedy been suffering from real or feigned mental derangement, and in lucid moments has declared that she killed the artist in self-defense and again has stated that she went to Guerin’s studio to put an end to a burden of blackmail which he had forced upon her.
On the other hand, Guerin’s relatives say it was murderous jealousy which led to the crime, that Dora McDonald was so infatuated with the young man that on hearing a false report that he was to wed another she was driven to frenzy, and determined to kill him rather than permit another woman to take her place in his affections.
Mrs. McDonald has obtained her liberty temporarily, under heavy bail, and while already indicted for murder in the first degree, remains safe from inquisitors m her luxurious home. While juries in Illinois have not been too reluctant in punishing women for murder, they have invariably disregarded the State’s plea for capital punishment.
~ Transferred His Affections. ~
More sensational, perhaps, was the recent killing of former United States senator Arthur Brown, of Utah, at Washington, D. C. , by Mrs Annie M. Bradley. The man, according to the woman’s story had often promised to obtain a divorce from his wife and marry her. At other times, it is claimed, he promised to and did acknowledge publicly that Mrs. Bradley’s two younger children were his. When she discovered this he had transferred his affections, after his wife’s death, to another woman, whom it was rumored he was about to marry. Mrs. Bradley followed him to the National Capital and killed him.
Whether the “new unwritten law” will prevail to save Mrs. Bradley from capital punishment in the event she is convicted is a problem. Though possessing no means she has many influential friends, who are standing by her. A half dozen able lawyers have been engaged to defend her and they are sanguine they will secure acquittal.
~ The Case of Mrs. Tolla. ~
There nas been one recent case, though, where a jury scorned the new “unwritten law” and did not hesitate to convict a woman for murder. It was in Jersey City that Mrs. Antoinette Tolla in defense from the persecution of Joseph Santo shot and killed him. Even the wife of the slam man justified the killing, but the jury failed to see any extenuating circumstances or to be influenced by the defendant’s sex and found her guilty of murder in the first degree. However public sentiment proved powerful enough to save the woman from an ignominious fate and influence brought to bear upon the State board of pardons resulted in a commutation to life imprisonment.
A different wrong from the one usually actuating women to slay men figures in the mysterious case of the Baroness, de Massey. She came to this country a few months ago and in New York killed Gustav Simon a wealthy shirt manufacturer who she alleges, murdered her husband in France. It was to avenge her husband’s murder she declares, that she followed Simon and killed him. The family of Simon deny the woman’s story and assert that she attempted to blackmail her victim and failing and fearing exposure, she slew him.
There are the same elements of mystery and contradiction in this murder by a woman as in the McDonald-Guerin tragedy in Chicago. The trial will doubtless reveal the truth and demonstrate whether the now “unwritten law” which safeguards murderesses will prevail to save the Baroness de Massey, should she be convicted.
~ May Escape Death Penalty. ~
There are, however, numerous precedents to make the baroness hopeful that she will either be acquitted or escape the death penalty. There are the cases of Florence Burns, Rosa, Salza, Josephine Terranova, and Nan Patterson. The first three named who killed men were set free by juries in the case of Nan Patterson, the former show girl was placed on trial three times for the alleged murder of Caesar Young, an English sporting man, who died from a pistol shot while in a cab with her. There was no proof that Nan Patterson shot the man but his severance of his relations with her was claimed by the prosecution to furnish the motive which probably led her to kill him.
The prosecution amassed much circumstantial evidence to show that Nan Patterson committed the crime, but on each one of the trials as many different juries failed to be convinced and disagreed. She was given her freedom. Since then she became reconciled to her husband, and the two are living together. Only her trial will determine whether Goldie O’Neil, a once popular chorus girl will fare better, as well, or worse than Nan Patterson. She stabbed her husband to death with a hatpin. She claims self-defense, and her friends and relative’s sustain that plea.
~ Sentiment Favors the Women. ~
On the other hand, the State declares it will prove that Goldie O’Nell, chafing under the matrimonial yoke, deliberately drove a hatpin through her husband’s heart. In jail at Bridgeport, she awaits her trial. Sentiment in the community, as in most others in America, favors the new “unwritten law” for women.
In the South, where the ancient “unwritten law” is still strong in turning men, the new “unwritten law,” which saves murderesses from capital punishment, does not appear from a recent instance to grant them absolute immunity. Mrs. Annie Birdsong, member of a prominent family of Mississippi, and a cousin of former United States Senate McDaurin, of South Carolina, shot and killed Dr. Butler, an intimate friend of her husband. The woman’s plea was that her victim had slandered her without cause.
The prosecution claimed that Mrs Birdsong was infatuated with Dr Butler, and that she was enraged at his coolness toward her. The ablest lawyers of Mississippi were arrayed on both sides, former Senator McLaurln appearing as one of the counsel for his relative. The defense felt that their case was so strong that Mrs. Birdsong must easily go free. But, contrary to general expectation, the jury thought otherwise, though it exercised a large degree of mercy.
She was found guilty of manslaughter, and received a term of several years in State’s prison. A motion for a new trial was made, successfully in the near future, Mrs Birdsong will face a jury for the second time, and the impression is that the verdict may be acquittal.
~ The Case of Judge Favrot. ~
Differing from the Birdsong case only in that the accused slayer is a man, instead of a woman, but in all other essential circumstances the same, is that of former Judge Favrot, now a Louisiana Congressman-elect, who on the day he was elected, shot and killed his most intimate friend, also a physician, for the same cause Mrs. Birdsong claims impelled her crime, only that Congressman Favrot asserts that his victim slandered the good name of his wife.
Favrot still being judge of the court whose duty it was to summon a grand jury to take up his case could not act, but after considerable delay, a special judge was named, a grand jury impaneled and an indictment for murder in the first degree returned. This bill, however, sustained by the lower court, has been quashed by a higher tribunal, and while it is almost certain that a new indictment will be found against Favrot, it is believed certain that the “unwritten law” will prove effectual in saving him. The two cases are cited merely because they are similar in circumstances and to show that while the only difference is the sex of the slayer, juries are differently swayed by what has recently been called “dementia Americana,” a new name coined by the chief counsel in Thaw’s defense for a public sentiment which has abided with and influenced Americans from the earliest time.
~ The “Unwritten Law” and Its Power. ~
In considering the force and power of the new “unwritten law” which comes to juries from the people and virtually tells these arbiters of the fate of murderesses that they shall not hang a woman only crimes in which men are the victims of wronged women’s passion or jealousy are cited. There are many other murder cases in which females are the slayers, but in which women or children are the victims.
The mercy of the new “unwritten law” extends to the latter as well as to those who take the life of men. Around the men slayers, though, there is more of the glamour of romance, sentiment, and human sympathy than there is for the woman or girl who kills either another of her sex or children. Mercy is the softening factor in punishment for a woman who, through jealousy or cruelty, slays one of her sex or a helpless child. But no real sympathy is aroused for such an offender, and punishment tempered with leniency, is the inevitable decree.
The woman who kills a man to redress a wrong done her which the law will not right for her rarely risks the extreme penalty. This fact, for fact it is, and based on precedents and recurring precedents in new crimes, is argued by criminologists to be the cause of the sudden and appalling increase in the number of murders by women-killings in which men are the victims.
~ Many Still to Be Tried. ~
There are a large number of murderesses yet to be tried for their deeds, too recent and with the details too fresh in mind, to prove that the new “unwritten law” is inflexible. It remains to be seen how jurors will act in some very remarkable cases in which women are the defendants.
An Italian girl, Maria Schabara, while in one of the crowds which daily assembled to catch a glimpse of Evelyn Thaw, little dreamed that she would speedily become the occupant of a cell in the jail. In the throng she espied Nicola Ferrance, a young countryman who had cast her off. She was at his side. In a moment and pleading with him to do her justice. He pushed her from him and laughed Maria drew a revolver and shot him. Her sole and strong hope of escape is that her story will move the jury to comply with the new “unwritten law.”
Emma Ripkie, not quite twenty, awaits in a cell at Council Bluffs, Iowa, her trial for the murder of Frank K Potts, her affianced. She discovered letters written to him by another woman, and shot him to death while he was asleep. In his room Miss Ripkie exhibits not the least fear of the outcome of her crime.
~ Killed Six Weeks After Marriage. ~
Mrs. Margery Clark enticed Algernon S. Atwood to Boston six weeks after his marriage, shot him to death on his arrival and then mortally wounded herself. She had wired Atwood that she was dying and prompted by his former affection for Mrs. Clark he went on to his death.
Mrs. William Robinson, of Terre Haute and accused her husband of being untrue to her He laughed at the charge and she became enraged and shot him. She feels confident, that she will go free.
Jennie Ruth Burch, a half-breed young Indian nursegirl killed her three-year-old baby charge because she feared punishment for burning a barn owned by the child’s parents at White Plains, N. Y. The youth of the murderess, and the fact of her Indian blood, while it may save her from the electric chair will probably result in her confinement under strict restaint in the State reformatory. The new “unwritten law” will not be a factor, it is assumed, in deciding her fate.
~ Girl Shot by Sister. ~
More thrilling was the shooting of Ida Goff, a girl in her early teens, by her sister Mrs Josephine Kelly, who charged alienating her husband’s affection. At Atlanta, Ga., Mrs. E. M. Standifer shot her seventeen-year-old sister to death for the same reason, and the jury set her free. Mrs Kelly, from the present status of public feelings in Baltimore, where the tragedy occurred, will probably suffer light punishment.
Several women are to be tried in Kentucky in the near future for the killing of the women who they believed robbed the slayers of their husband’s affections. Likely as not the new “unwritten law” which extenuates the crimes of women who slay men will prevail to save them.
Acquittals of women recently who murdered men who wronged them are numerous enough to prove how strong is the trend of the public mind in its opposition to punishing slayers of the gentler sex.
[“Does the New ‘Unwritten Law’ Shelter Women Who Shed Blood,” (from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch) Washington Post (D. C.), May 12, 1907, p. 10]
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