This paper uses criminal poisoning by fathers in Victorian England and the Unites States in the late nineteenth century as a means of examining two related issues in criminal justice history: male motivation for a crime typically associated with women, to consider differences and similarities; and the legal, media, and ... (Show more)
This paper uses criminal poisoning by fathers in Victorian England and the Unites States in the late nineteenth century as a means of examining two related issues in criminal justice history: male motivation for a crime typically associated with women, to consider differences and similarities; and the legal, media, and popular reactions to such cases.
At the height of the mid-nineteenth-century English poisoning panic in 1849, the executions of George Howe and Rebecca Smith for the murders of their infant children could not have elicited more dissimilar reactions. Howe was reviled as a man “by no means possessed of right feeling” and decried for his refusal to confess, while Smith was viewed with sympathy even though she had admitted killing eight of her own infants; her husband, meanwhile, was publicly vilified for a “total absence of feeling” and readers left in no doubt that he was the cause of her “many and severe privations.” The differing tenor of the media reports reveals a key feature of the popular response to violence in the home. Fathers and mothers who poisoned their children did so for similar reasons, but as Victorian society increasingly demonised violent men, fathers were generally viewed less sympathetically than mothers. However, women who failed to uphold the virtues associated with their role as ‘domestic angels’ were subjected to even harsher condemnation.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the motives for and understanding of criminal poisoning by fathers was complicated by the issue of race. In October 1895, in the small rural settlement of Milner, Georgia, African American preacher and plantation worker, Tom Speer, deliberately poisoned his wife and children, one fatally, with rat poison following a marital argument. The “fiendish” crime and technological changes driving newspaper syndication ensured this crime story reached Americans in many states, during a period of considerable anxiety over male domestic responsibilities and masculinity generally and rising Black crime rates in particular. Amid economic, racial, and political turbulence in the decades after the Civil War, Americans learned, largely from newspapers, of fathers/husbands of different racial and immigrant groups who annihilated their families out of revenge and jealousy, and of fathers who poisoned their children and then themselves, due to poverty and failed businesses, grief over the death of the wife and mother, and because they were “tired of life.” As in England, these groups of male poisoners were increasingly demonised during the second half of the nineteenth century. (Show less)