The Female Criminal of the 19th Century

In discussing the trial of Lizzie Borden, we learn how women of the 19th century were viewed and how it was difficult to see them as “criminal”.

Tara Rose

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Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

In the late 1800’s, when the police were searching for the perpetrator of a crime, they were actually searching for someone who looked like a criminal. Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist, had determined that criminals were born, not made. All nature, no nurture. The physical attributes of a person advertised their criminal nature — those who looked more like primates, or Neanderthals — with a sloping forehead, large ears, longer than normal arms, and asymmetry in the face to name a few. The police often first focused on immigrants because they were outsiders as people were majorly xenophobic at the time. Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, a famed suffragist and temperance advocate, proclaimed: “They are discharged convicts, paupers, lunatics, imbeciles, people suffering from loathsome and contagious diseases, illiterates, defectives…” They were maniacs!

In reading the The Trial of Lizzie Borden, by Cara Robertson, Borden’s arrest unsettles an ethnically and class-determined model of criminality and, as her lawyer argued at the preliminary hearing, caused outrage over ‘the natural course of things.’ As a white, upper middle-class lady, Borden fell safely “outside the evolutionary framework of degeneration that underlay nineteenth-century criminological discussions.” Borden was the third person to be arrested in Fall River in 1892 for murder, and she was the ONLY woman.

Women were seen as more prone to acts of lesser aggression, deeds that seemed more intimate than murder requiring physical force. Poisoning was viewed as a woman’s method of killing in the late 19th century. According to a study done by Randa Helfield:

“Nineteenth century criminology studies show that murderesses used poison more often than any other method. For example, in one survey, it was shown that between 1875 and 1880, 6.8 out of every 10 poisoners were women.”

In Otto Pollack’s book, The Criminality of Women, he concludes that Victorian society created a perfect storm for the attributes necessary for women, considered to be the weaker sex. They…

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Tara Rose

Life-long learner, reader of all things. Writing about what interests me and sharing it with you. https://taramrose.medium.com/subscribe