Author Guest Post: Martin Connolly
Women & Crime in the Victorian Era
The weaker sex, the tender sex, the nurturing sex – these Victorian ideas of women belie a reality that within Victorian society, murder, even violent death, could be at the hand of a woman. Indeed, Mary Pearcey, had brutally murdered her lover’s wife and child. Phoebe Hogg. The description of what the police discovered was gruesome. Phoebe’s skull was shattered with head practically severed and hanging from the corpse. The child’s pram nearby was soaked in blood. The following day the baby’s body was discovered. In Pearcey’s house was found the bloody knife and poker with blood pouring on walls and ceiling, alongside the bloody apron worn by the murderess. It was speculated she might even be the notorious Jack the Ripper. No motherly instinct or sisterly love there shown by Pearcy!
The absence of motherly love was written in large letters by the monster Amelia Dyer, who is reputed to have dispatched over three hundred infants by strangulation. Amelia Sach and Annie Walters were two who operated in London taking in babies for cash. They murdered at least twelve infants, fatally poisoning them with chlorodyne. A Victorian woman even exported the baby murder trade to Australia. Frances Lydia Alice Knorr, farmed babies, charging for taking in unwanted infants. She then tried to sell them on and those didn’t sell were strangled and buried. Minnie Dean followed in Knorr’s footsteps and exported the trade to New Zealand. There, she too carried on the business of accepting money to take in unwanted babies. Those unfortunate children also never survived and eventually Dean was brought to justice in 1895, and was the only woman to have been executed in New Zealand.
Then we could turn to the employee from hell – Kate Webster. In 1879 she first murdered her employer, Julia Martha. She then took the body, dismembered it and boiled the remains. What was left over ended in the Thames and rumour had it that neighbours benefited from a gift of lard from Webster to use in their cooking. No tender sex there then.
Arsenic poisoning was a favourite method that women could use, because it could be hidden behind its use in cleaning and disinfecting. Florence Maybrick, an American in Liverpool, dispatched her husband with the poison. Mary Ann Cotton, of whom I have written about in my book, was alleged to have used it in great quantity to dispatch victims.
The list could go on, and the evidence from Victorian London Police and Court records, certainly suggest we need to reassess the ideas about the gentle sex and realise that monsters come in both the male and female variety.
Mary Ann Cotton – Dark Angel is available to order here.