The following article from 1912 is one of the more complete documents of the old established “woman’s license to kill” phenomenon that plagued much of the United States, especially and most notoriously in Chicago, in the early 20th century. It was a time when there was no need for an Elizabeth Sheehy to prompt the naive chivalry of the masses into assisting every spoiled brat princess whose talent for Olympian-scale resentment-hoarding gave her license to act on impulse and expect to use her talent for story-telling, self-pity and flirtatiousness get her off scot-free.
The most notable thing about this article are the quotations collected by its industrious author, who provides us with the defendants’ opinions regarding the desirability, or its reverse, of the institution of female jurists, for the purpose of overriding the chivalrous instincts of the male citizens who, in the vast majority of jurisdictions, provided the only available jury pool from which a prosecutor could select. As you will see, the accused killers had a decided preference for being judged by members of the more malleable and more pro-woman sex — the male. This period — the early 20th century — was one in which the false narrative of ubiquitous victimization of women was not prevalant but who, according to today’s mythology, are always too petite, too frightened and too sensitive to initiate unwarranted violence. Indeed, it was not until the 1970s that the myth began to be promulgated that female serial killers — who had been for the preceding century been featured in newspapers regularly, numbering in the hundreds — “do not exist.”
Following you will find “the mother of all “Chivalry Justice” articles.”
FULL TEXT: State Attorney E. W. Wayman of Chicago says it is next to impossible to convict a woman of murder in Chicago courts. He made this assertion recently after a jury had returned a verdict acquitting Mrs. Minnie Bernstein of the murder of her husband, whom she was accused of having shot in their home while he was asleep.
Mr. Warren says the impossibility of convicting women is due to the fact that men jurors cannot keep sex sentiment out of any case in which a woman is defendant. It will continue to be almost impossible to convict woman of murder he says, as long as men only serve on juries. He advocates a change in the State Constitution which will make women eligible for jury service and plans to take the matter up with the legislature in Springfield next winter. Only women jurors he declares, would view a woman charged with the graver crime with impartial eyes and punish her if she were found guilty.
Thirty-eight women charged with murder have been acquitted in Chicago in the last nine years. Twenty of the women were charged with the murder of men. Only seven women arraigned for killing men have been found guilty in the same period. This in the face of the fact that many of the crimes were as deliberately premeditated as any in Chicago’s history. Mr. Wayman says that if men had been arraigned for the crimes they would have been hanged in every instance.
Man’s sentimental construction of the statutes is a phase of the unwritten law which has been evolved in the last decade or two. Formerly the “unwritten law” as supposed to prevail chiefly in the South. The “unwritten law” of the old South was that sentiment or tradition which held guiltless of crime the man who shot another man in defence of a woman’s honor. But this latest phase of the “unwritten law” which acquits a woman charged with killing a man is as effective in the North, East and West as in the South. In short, the attitude of American men toward a woman in distress leads them everywhere to set sentiment above law.
The written law is supposed to be equal in its application to man and woman. If a man guilty of murder should be handed, a woman guilty of a crime of equal gravity should also go to the gallows. The sentimental attitude of men jurors makes of a theoretically equal law two laws in actual practice, one for man another for woman.
A feature of the modern crime situation is the increase throughout the United States of murders of men by women. scarcely a day goes by but one reads in the parlors of such a crime. The great majority of the women are acquitted. It is perhaps conservative to say that hardly one in fifty is convicted. Why there should be such an increase in crimes of this character presents an interesting psychological problem. Twenty years ago, one rarely heard of a murder committed by a woman. Now they are so common as to pass without notice unless marked by sensational features.
The increase in murders may be due, Mr. Wayman says, to woman’s greater freedom, to her equal footing with man in the industrial world and to the feeling independence due to her gradual endowment with suffrage and the equal rights of citizenship. Yet he admits it may be due to none of these causes. There would seem to be some subtle connection between the increased number of such murders and the apparent immunity of the women who commit them it is logical, he suggests, to that the seeming impossibility of convicting women who kill men has had an effect upon women who have a grievance against men or who are cruelly used or who labor under a delusion of cruelty.Seven women charged with murder are now in the Chicago jail awaiting trial. How women charged with murder view State Attorney Wayman’s idea of having such cases tried by women jurors was learned from these women. They were unanimously and strenuously opposed to women jurors. Here are their views:
Mrs. Louise Vermilya, accused of poisoning nine persons: “I do not believe a jury of women would do me justice. I should insist on being tried by men.” [NOTE: Vermilya was a serial killer.]
Mrs. Antonio Musso, charged with killing her husband: “I was ill treated and abused, yet a jury of women would feel sorry only for my husband. Women are too emotional and sentimental to act as jurors in grave cases.”
Mrs. Harriet Burnham, charged with shooting her husband to death: “Women are spiteful. They would show no mercy to a woman. They would take pleasure in convicting me.”
Mrs. Louise Lindloff, indicted for seven deaths by poison: “I want justice and women have been pretty successful in getting justice from juries composed of men. I want no women to sit on the jury that tries me.” [NOTE: Lindloff was a serial killer.]
Lulu Blackwell, charged with killing Charles Vaughn: “It would be foolish to consent to have a jury of women try me. I want a man’s jury to sit on my case.”
Margaret McCabe, charged with killing Edward Lee: “No women for me. If the State’s Attorney wants women juries, that is reason enough why I should not want them.”
Elizabeth Buchanan, charged with the killing of Josephine Rice: “I would never consent to be tried by women, I should say not. I feel that I could only get justice from men.”
“It is practically impossible to convict a woman of the murder of a man nowadays in Chicago,” said State Attorney Wayman. “The Bernstein murder was one of the ugliest cases that ever came under my knowledge as a lawyer.”
“Mrs. Bernstein shot and killed her husband while he lay asleep in bed. The evidence was that she had planned the murder for several day. She previously had been separated from her husband.”
“The motive for the killing was not definitely established. The theory of the State was that she shot him to prevent him from leaving her again, as he had threatened to do. It may have been that she shot him out of revenge for his having left her and because she hated him. There was evidently much bitter hatred behind the killing.”
“The defence did not deny that she shot her husband while he was asleep. The fact of the actual killing under such cowardly and atrocious circumstances was at no time controverted. The defence pleaded in extenuation what is called furore transitoria, which is another term for temporary insanity. It declared that the insanity and the killing grew out the fact that Bernstein was cruel to his wife and planned to make a ‘white slave’ of her and live upon the earnings.” [NOTE: This is virtually identical to the “battered-wife syndrome” defense, invented in the 1980s.]
“There was really no ground for believing that he had planned anything of the sort. He was a quiet, mild, inoffensive man. Moreover, the State knocked out the insanity plea altogether and the trial Judge omitted giving any instructions on the point. The entire evidence of marked the murder as a carefully premeditated crime without palliating circumstances. If ever a murder deserved to be expiated on the gallows this was one. If a man had committed the crime any jury in the world would have sentenced him to death.”
“Yet the jury acquitted Mrs. Bernstein and in discussing the verdict declared that it was based on the belief that the woman was insane when she killed her husband. The jury had a right to do this, and it is the judge of the facts, but there was absolutely no evidence to bolster the theory of insanity and the theory was purely an idea of the jury’s.”
“In acquitting Mrs. Bernstein the jury gave a typical illustration of the attitude of Chicago juries toward women charged with murder. Mrs. Bernstein is not pretty, yet in her widow’s weeds there was much in her appearance, much that would appeal to any man of susceptible and sensitive nature and tender heart.”
“She was a sufficiently clever actress, too, to make the most of her looks and dramatic possibilities of her situation. With her pallid face and dark eyes she looked wistful, helpless and appealing. At times she wept into a dainty lace handkerchief – this is a fetching trick of women defendants – and again she bowed her head upon her arms upon the table while her shoulders shook with sobs.”
“Sitting there in her neat black clothes and her trim bonnet, she looked so like ordinary women, so like sisters and wives of the jurors, that the jury found it to believe this woman had committed murder. The jurymen knew many women and best of all the women of their own home. These women they knew as good, kind hearted, sympathetic, ministering to their men folks, bearing domestic burdens patiently, making their homes cheerful and happy.”
None of the women the jurors knew, none who ever had come within their personal experience, knew anything of crime. And, as I say, in all outward appearance this woman who had shot her husband while he lay asleep was exactly like these good women whom the jurors had known all their lives. A consequent association of ideas was inevitable.”
“The ordinary man such as a juror finds it difficult to differentiate between an exceptional and abnormal woman, as most murderesses are, and the everyday woman he has known since he was a boy. When a woman appears for trial before him, straightway in his own mind he manufactures some extenuating circumstances, some excuse to account for her of the murder.”
“He feels sure that this woman who looks so much like the women of his own family must have been abused and hounded and driven insane by the cruelty of the man she killed. So in almost all cases the juror, unsophisticated in the subtle psychology of the woman criminal, has made up his mind long before he retires to the jury room that the woman on trial committed her crime during some violent brain storm that rendered her irresponsible.”
“Is it necessary for a woman to be pretty to insure a verdict of not guilty? Mr. Wayman was asked.
“Not at all,” he answered. “More homely women are freed of murder charges than pretty women. This is due to the fact that more homely ones are placed on trial. But there have been some extremely pretty women tried for murder in Chicago, and some of the prettiest of them were charged with the most fiendish murders.”
“One of the women, who, I am convinced was guilty of an atrocious crime, was a beauty of the type that suggests innocence and purity. Her eyes were a baby blue, her brow was as smooth as a Madonna’s, her mouth was a Cupid’s bow curved in a perpetual smile, while her skin was as soft and delicately tinted as a healthy child’s.
“It goes without saying she was acquitted. A jury probably could not have been found in the entire nation that would have convicted this beautiful creature. But it is not necessary for a woman to be pretty. All that is necessary is for her to be a woman. A jury of men will do the rest.”
“A woman’s crime as a rule exhibits a far greater degree of moral turpitude than a man’s. Few murders by women are the result of impulse. They are marked by premeditation, cunning, cruelty and cold blooded diablerie. For the most part the crimes of women have these characteristics in common.”
“Women usually take their victim unawares. Many of their victims are killed while asleep. The saving clause for the woman in most cases is that the murder is committed without eye witnesses. Usually the woman and her victim are alone when the murder occurs. This invariably is the result of the woman’s cunning plan. It enables her in court to tell whatever story she chooses and there is no one to contradict her. The charge of murder stands on purely circumstantial grounds.”
“In cases in which there have been no eye witnesses it is not difficult to formulate an effective defence [sic]. Even if there are grave reasons for disbelieving the woman when she goes upon the witness stand and with affectively sad countenance and crocodile tears tells the jury her carefully concocted tale with all a woman’s natural histrionic art – and they are all actresses – the jury will believe her in nine cases out of ten, no matter how strong the evidence introduced by the State.
“Here is another point to be noted in woman murderers. Having killed a man in cold blood they never hesitate to blacken their victim’s reputation to clear themselves, and to do this they lie without scruple. The man may have been a square and honorable fellow. He may never have laid his hands upon her. Yet she invariably accuses him after he laid in his grave of revolting conduct or savage cruelty.
“Always when she does not deny the killing or make it out a suicide or accident she tells a story of having been driven temporarily crazy by the man’s inhuman treatment. When a woman, sometimes fragile, always weak and always helpless looking, tells between heart-broken throbs a story of abuse so cruel that it wrecked her reason where is the jury that will not believe her?”
“Jurors, being ordinary men, read a woman’s character through their eyes. If she looks like an ordinary woman they rate her as an ordinary woman. If she is pretty they are sure she is not guilty. If she has a certain motherliness they know her to be innocent. The most eloquent prosecuting attorney – and the prosecutor in such cases is usually as popular as the villain in a play – could not make them believe that the face of a saint sometimes hides the heart of a fiend.
“The long and short of the proposition is that man to-day no more understands a woman’s mental processes than he did in the dim days when he dwelt in a cave. A man does not understand a normal woman’s processes. When it comes to dealing with the mental processes of an abnormal woman he is a rudderless bark on an uncharted sea drifting helplessly and hopelessly. The criminal woman may have all soft and feminine graces and yet be hard, cold, treacherous, unscrupulous, merciless and a genius in deceit. Yet it is always difficult if not impossible to give a jury an adequate idea of her true character.”
“There is but one remedy, flint is, to give women the right to serve on juries. Only a woman can understand a woman. Only a woman would be uninfluenced by sentiment. Only a woman would punish n woman guilty or murder. Only a woman would vote to send such a woman to the penitentiary or the gallows. Only a woman would construe the law impartially where a woman was concerned. A jury of women would look upon a woman criminal with cold, sexless, unsentimental eyes and return a verdict in accordance with the merits of the case.”
“The Bernstein verdict, which was one of the most flagrant miscarriages of justice I ever knew, determined me to go before the next Illinois Legislature and endeavor to have the Constitution of the State amended so that a proposition providing for woman suffrage will be put at once before the people. Only by making women citizens and giving them the right to vote can they be made eligible for jury service. I hope to see the day when women will serve on juries. Then only can we expect to obtain justice against criminal and murderous women in our courts.”
Some of the cases in Chicago in which women have been charged with the murder of men have been the most sensational in the criminal history of the city. Mrs. Rena B. Morrow, a poetess and writer, was acquitted only a few weeks ago of the murder of her husband in their home in the fashionable Hyde Park district.
Mr. Morrow, an inventor and business man, was found dead on a back porch with two bullets through his body, one of which had gone into the floor, proving that it had been fired after he had fallen. Either bullet, the doctors said, would have proved fatal instantly, which eliminated the idea that Mr. Morrow had committed suicide, because if he had fired the first shot he could not have fired the second.
The State showed that the couple were estranged and had been heard in a violent quarrel on the night or Mr. Morrow’s death. Its evidence was considered unusually strong. The defence was that Morrow had killed himself or had been by burglars. Mrs. Morrow, who was very pretty, was acquitted.
The killing of Webster Guerin by Mrs. Dora McDonald was another celebrated case. Mrs. McDonald was the handsome wife of Michael McDonald, who had made a large fortune as a gambler in Chicago’s early days. McDonald was an old man and an indulgent husband. Mrs. McDonald and Guerin, a handsome young fellow, little more than a boy, had long carried a clandestine love affair. It was brought out that Mrs. McDonald had given the boy much money.
One day she visited Guerin in his office in a downtown skyscraper. While they were together Guerin was shot an instantly killed. The defence was that he had shot himself in a scuffle while attempting to pistol Mrs. McDonald. The State showed that Guerin was about to break off relations with the woman and went upon the theory that she killed him because of his prospective desertion. Mrs. McDonald was acquitted. Her husband later died of what was called a broken heart. There is no doubt that the tragedy in which his wife had figured hastened his end.
Lucille McLeod, a girl still in her teens, killed William Nieman, Jr., in a downtown hotel. The two had been sweethearts and it was said that the young man had refused keep a promise of marrying and was about to marry another woman. When the door to the hotel apartment was broken open the man was dead and the girl lay seriously wounded beside him. After a long illness she recovered. At her trial she declared the man had done the shooting. There were no witnesses to the tragedy. The jury believed her story and set her free.
Mrs. Minnie Williams was the wife of a street car motorman. The couple lived in a second story flat on the North Side. Williams had an insurance of several thousand dollars on his life and his wife, who was fifteen years his junior, had a lover. While Mrs. Williams was working away from home as a nurse her husband was found dead in his bed in a gas filled room off the kitchen. The Coroner returned a verdict of suicide.
The dead man’s brother had the case reopened. It was shown that Williams was a born optimist and had no motive for killing himself. When he retired on the fatal night he left his clothes hanging by the base burner to dry and had set the kitchen table as if in preparation for a hasty breakfast the next morning. An alarm clock set to ring at his usual hour of rising was on a chair beside his pillow.
In addition to these evidences to disprove suicide, the gas jet over his bed was not turned on. The gas which had suffocated him had poured from the hanging kitchen jet and the jets of the cooking range, all of which were on full. Williams evidently had been murdered by some one who had slipped into the flat and turned on the gas of the kitchen, allowing it to flow into the adjoining sleeping room. The murderer evidently had been afraid to enter the room where Williams slept to turn on the gas there for fear of waking him.
The State proved that on the fatal night Mrs. Williams had been seen within few doors of the flat and going toward it and a little later had been seen going away from it. But no evidence was obtainable to show that any one had seen her enter the flat or leave it. There was missing link in the evidence that could not be supplied.
The defence admitted that Williams’ death was murder, but did not attempt to explain it. It merely denied that Mrs. William had had anything to do with it. Mrs. Williams was acquitted.
Mrs. Jane Quinn was arraigned a few weeks ago for killing her third husband. Two former husbands, heavily insured, had died under mysterious circumstances. The third Mr. Quinn was shot while he was asleep in his bed. The revolver with which he was killed was found hidden under the bathtub. It had been stolen from one of Mrs. Quinn’s boarders. Mrs. Quinn said her husband had been killed by a burglar. His life was insured. Mrs. Quinn was found not guilty.
Mrs. Louise Vermilya was charged with committing a series of nine murders by poison. If the charge were true, they would indicate that the woman poisoned for the love of poisoning, though in some of the deaths, insurance might have supplied a motive.
The death that brought the hand of the law upon her was that of Policeman Arthur Bisonette, who roomed at her home. Her arraignment for the Bisonette murder resulted in a mistrial, the jury being unable to agree. She is to be tried a second time for the murder of Richard T. Smith.
Estelle Stout, a girl of eighteen, shot and killed Henry Hornberger, an agent for a picture frame concern. He had brought a picture frame to the young woman’s flat. There was a dispute over the pay and Miss Stout shot him. It was not denied in court that she killed the man. Her defence was that he had acted in a threatening way. The jury was out only a short time and brought in a verdict of acquittal.
In every instance in Chicago courts in which women charged with murder were acquitted strong cases of circumstantial evidence were made out by the State. In every instance the defence rested chiefly on the woman’s own story. This was often weak and sometimes flimsy. Several times the presiding Judge scored the jury for its verdict. Frequently the acquittal of the woman was plainly a miscarriage of justice. An illuminating fact is that one young woman tried for murder became afterward addicted to drink and was known to boast that she was guilty of the crime of which a chivalrous jury found her innocent.
[“Women Jurors Needed To Try Women For Murder – Men Too Chivalrous to Convict Even in Cases of Guilt, Says State Attorney Wayman of Chicago – Thirty-Eight Women Accused of murder Acquitted There in the Last Nine Years and Only Seven Found Guilty,” The Sun (New York, N.Y.), Sep. 8, 1912, Magazine section (Sec. 4), p. 13; Note: The spelling “defence” appears in the original source.]
Featured image: Edvard Munch, “The Murderess,” 1906, The Munch Museum, Oslo, wikipaintings.org