The Victorian era was named
after Queen Victoria who was the reigning monarch in England at this point.
This era lasted from 1837 until her death in 1901. It was strange that this era
was named after the Queen as women had very few rights and privileges during
this period of time. During the Victorian
age a woman was considered to stay home. Her only purpose was to take care of
the children and to do the housekeeping.
Perceptions about women in the Law in Victorian age
Era had a harsh punishment system for women criminals. The sentences were very
often lengthy and unforgiving for women who induced abortion. As shown in many
records, the age was not always a decisive factor when sentences were passed.
The youngest conviction was for a child as young as eleven years old.
Women were also
very often convicted of violent crimes, such as throwing acid and murder.
beginning of the Victorian Age transportation was a common sentence, while
later on judges rather chose to send women to prison.
In 1832 the Reform Act was introduced, this Act changed the electoral
system of England and Wales. There was no equality between genders at all. When
a woman got married her legal personality was suspended and given to her
husband. This meant that she could not go to court or sign any legal document,
as a contract for example, in her own name and her property and income were
controlled by her husband. Depending on his goodwill she received some money
for the household and herself.
In general a
smaller amount of women was convicted in comparison to men. Furthermore were
the crimes committed by women rather minor and non-violent.
very uncommon and hard to obtain for women during the Victorian era. The only
opportunity for a woman to obtain divorce was to prove that her husband cheated
on her and that he engaged in incest. As women were seen as their husband’s
property, it was commonly accepted for a man to beat his wife if she did
anything that annoyed or upset him. Besides being abused physically, they were
also very often abused mentally.
Another cause was
the economic pressures many women faced. During the second half of the
nineteenth century Liverpool was not a favourable economic environment for world
trade. It was a desperate place for working class women who struggled to
survive. It was a city in which prostitution thrived. But life as a prostitute
in Victorian England was very hard and difficult. After the Contagious Diseases
Acts it became very difficult for prostitutes to practice their job as working the
streets became forbidden. Especially single women, lower class women and widows
had a rough time. In this “category” opportunity was a decisive factor. Item of
clothing and linen such as shawls, pillowcases and handkerchiefs were often
stolen by domestic servants, probably as a contribution to their own families’
subsistence. Another object that was very often stolen were all kinds of foods.
The usual punishment for this was between seven days and three months of hard
labour. Longer sentences might be given for the theft of money or more valuable
4. Criminal women
The crimes of women in
Victorian England could be both ordinary and extraordinary, from
child-stripping, hocussing, and fantastical frauds to brawls, drunkenness, and
acts of utter desperation.
crimes were, as the name says it, crimes committed during the Christmas period.
An example of this is the case of Rebecca Porter. She was a domestic servant in
1864 and was pregnant with an illegitimate child. On Christmas day she secretly
gave birth to her son in her room and strangled him almost immediately after
birth. Afterwards she tried to act like nothing happened and had dinner with
her fellow servants. Her mistress found out and called the police.
crimes were not exceptional. Every year women used the opportunity or were
driven to commit crimes. Some seized their chance to break into houses or
shops, others were arrested for being drunk or for prostituting themselves.
The case of Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton,
also known as the Black Widow, lived between 1832 and 1873 and was an English
serial killer who was convicted for murdering her stepson Charles Edward
Cotton, whom she poisoned. Her sentence was hanging. Some say that she might
have murdered as many as 21 people, of whom 11 of her children. Furthermore she
is suspected of murdering three of her four husbands, probably in order to
collect on their insurance policies. Her main method was poisoning the food of
her victims with arsenic poisoning. This caused a painful but fast death.
Policemen started to investigate her after there were some rumours about Mary
Ann. She was convicted, but her trial got delayed until after she gave birth to
her last child.
5. Women in prison
In the Victorian Era
prisons were very often large, old buildings, such as former castles. They
tended to be damp, unhealthy, insanitary and over-crowded. All types of
prisoners were kept together as for example at the prison Coldbath Fields. Not
only men, women and children did their time here, but also mentally ill people,
heavy criminals and petty criminals. Even people awaiting their trial and
debtors remained here.
Each prison was run by the
gaoler in his own way. He had all the power and made up the rules. The rich, or
anyone who could pay, could buy extra privileges, such as a private room,
higher quality food, a larger amount of visitors, the permission to keep pets, the
possibility to send and receive letters, and obtaining books to read. The ones
who could not pay, lived under a basic regime which was fairly grim. The
prisoners whose sentence was finished even had to pay the gaoler in order to be
Life in prison was supposed
to make the prisoners reflect on their crimes. Many of the obligatory
activities had no other purpose than the effort of carrying out the punishment
itself. Some prisons even practised segregation or held prisoners in isolation
in order to keep them silent so that they could reflect their actions. As a
consequence of the harsh treatment many prisoners went mad under this system.
Even though the huge consequences of long internment Victorian convict prisons made very
little provision to deal with mental illness, or to protect the mental health
of any of the prisoners.
Another reason for the
harsh treatment was that by the 1850s it was believed that many criminals were
habitual criminals and thus that they would commit crimes over and over again
and that nothing would change or stop them. Therefor they had to be scared
enough by prison in hope to never offend again. Political leaders of that time,
such as Sir Edmund du Cane, promised the public that prisoners would get “Hard
Labour, Hard Fare and Hard Board” when serving their time in prison.
Although life in prison was harsh and supposed to dissuade people from
committing crimes, many women saw it as an improvement on life in the
workhouse. As one inmate put it, ‘I can have a room to myself, and what with
three meals a day, and the doctor whenever I want him, I’m better off here.’
Women prisoners referred to a sentence of a few days as ‘a wash and brush up’.
6. Reactions to women committing crimes
The media hype and furore surrounding the cases of women who committed
crimes remind us of the extreme cultural anxieties evoked by women who kill.
Convictions of women for violent crimes may be rare events; they invite,
however, disproportionate comment and attention because of the perversions of
“natural” womanhood that their actions are understood to represent,
raising concerns about women’s role, marriage and the domestic sphere.
The local community, therefore, was directly implicated in the unfolding
drama of criminal cases; they were also involved, in a wider sense, as
consumers of media and literary representations. The very organised and
controlled response to murder in the reporting of the newspapers asserted and
implied the beliefs of those who produced and consumed them, beliefs which were
‘part of a popular and public explanation of ordinary and everyday experience
Women who committed murders were called words such as ‘tigress’ and ‘vampire’
suggest an animal and supernatural strength and ferocity; ‘taper fingers’ are
evocative of witch-like characteristics.
The New Newgate Calendar was one of the most important publishers of
criminal fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries. They
published stories of women who kill. Very often it had an erotic dimension.