Friday, July 21, 2017

McKenzie on Spousal Murder at the Old Bailey

We received an advance alert on the publication of  "His Barbarous Usages", Her "Evil Tongue": Character and Class in Trials for Spouse Murder at the Old Bailey, 1674-1790, by Andrea McKenzie, Department of History, University of Victoria, in the American Journal of Legal History:
This article analyses and compares the defences, verdicts and punishments of both men and women tried at the Old Bailey for the murder of their spouses or common-law partners from 1674 to 1790, a period that witnessed the gradual if ultimately momentous ‘lawyerisation’ of criminal trial. The vast majority of these cases continued, however, to resemble ‘sentencing hearings’, focusing less on an adversarial contest over guilt or innocence than on mitigating circumstances and the character of defendants, witnesses and victims. While an emerging eighteenth-century culture of sensibility contributed to a decriminalisation of female passion and sexuality, these trials also testify to the continuity and vitality of a discretionary regime and more resilient assumptions about gender and class. In marked contrast with the handful of sensational murder trials that generated media attention and outrage and tended to end in execution, a large proportion of these more pedestrian and representative cases of domestic homicide—particularly women accused of murdering husbands after 1740—ended in acquittal or manslaughter verdicts, especially in cases where provocation could be established. This study suggests that this relative lenience speaks less to the compassion accorded to defendants than a lack of sympathetic identification with their largely working-class victims, especially those of perceived bad character.

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