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Women Who Kill Men

California Courts, Gender, and the Press

Gordon Morris Bakken

Publication Year: 2009

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a revolutionary period in the lives of women, and the shifting perceptions of women and their role in society were equally apparent in the courtroom. Women Who Kill Men examines eighteen sensational cases of women on trial for murder from 1870 to 1958.
The fascinating details of these murder trials, documented in court records and embellished newspaper coverage, mirrored the changing public image of women. Although murder was clearly outside the norm for standard female behavior, most women and their attorneys relied on gendered stereotypes and language to create their defense and sometimes to leverage their status in a patriarchal system. Those who could successfully dress and act the part of the victim were most often able to win the sympathies of the jury. Gender mattered. And though the norms shifted over time, the press, attorneys, and juries were all informed by contemporary gender stereotypes.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Series: Law in the American West


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

We owe a great deal to Keith Pacholl of the University of West Georgia. Keith read the entire manuscript and made invaluable suggestions. Karen Lystra of California State University, Fullerton, read the manuscript with an eye to the meaning of love letters in trials and American culture...

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Introduction: The Feminine Side of Women on Trial

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pp. 1-15

This study of women on trial for homicide examines newspaper coverage of these proceedings and the constructions of their attorneys in California cases, 1870–1958. Our focus is on the representations of women, case by case, in the newspapers and in trial-court settings, and the rhetoric of attorneys. We make...

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1. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who Is the Sanest of Them All?: The Insanity Defense in Court and in the Press

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pp. 16-54

Postbellum California put the gold rush, the Mexican War, and the Civil War experiences behind to build a new image of maturing economic life, bucolic agricultural enterprise, and cultural sophistication. California in the nineteenth century boasted two major cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In southern...

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2. Good Riddance: Justifiable Homicides of Enemy Deviants

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pp. 55-80

California’s nineteenth century featured several cases in which women, like Katie Cook, found themselves driven to rid their households, if not civilization, of enemy deviants. In 1901, for example, Clara A. Wellman shot her husband through the heart with a rifle, ending three years of terror. Clara...

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3. Toward the New Woman: Feminine Wiles on Trial

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pp. 81-112

The Victorianism of the long nineteenth century gave way to the “new woman” of the 1920s. Fashion, although arguably frivolous, clearly documents this change. The stylish turn-of-the-century Victorian woman’s hourglass figure required a tightly laced whalebone corset exerting twenty-five pounds of pressure per square inch on her ribcage. To prevent fainting...

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4. The Haves and the Have Nots: Women on Trial during the Great Depression

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pp. 113-135

The Great Depression of the 1930s endangered the material dreams of many Californians living outside the prosperity of Hollywood’s movie industry and the corporate factories in the fields of California agribusiness. It was a period characterized by labor unrest with agricultural strikes in the Imperial Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, and other centers of corporate farming. Longshoremen successfully orchestrated a general...

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5. War Women of the 1940s: Evolutionary Women in Revolutionary Times

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pp. 136-160

World War II pulled the United States out of the Great Depression, created new employment opportunities for women, and made the country a world power. Women went to work in defense industries, joined the armed services, and flew military aircraft as Women Airforce Service Pilots. They helped...

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6. Celebrity on Trial: Tinseltown Tarnished

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pp. 161-185

American spectators love a good show, and the trial of a celebrity is the best spectacle. Thane Rosenbaum argues, “The courtroom as theater is as old as ‘Oedipus Rex.’ We have come to organize our lives around the law, and our cultural consumption is overwhelmingly fed by the calories of courtrooms.”1 In 1955 Broadway...

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pp. 186-198

The newspaper stories, editorials, and statements of counsel reveal much about the image of women caught up in California’s criminal justice administration system. The trials involving middle- and upper-class deceased men and their alleged slayers highlighted dominant cultural norms of the times. This culture reflected the signs and practices of journalists and lawyers...


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pp. 199-248


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pp. 249-262


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pp. 263-272

E-ISBN-13: 9780803226579
E-ISBN-10: 0803226578

Illustrations: 11 b/w illus
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Law in the American West