Depictions of Women Condemned for Killing Their Husbands in Canada, 1866-1954
In this section41 explore the historical context of the years between 1866 and 1954 by studying the relevant trials and providing an analysis of gender construction in the public narratives of these trials. More than one hundred years after the execution of “La Corriveau,” between 1866 and 1954, twenty-eight Canadian women were found guilty of killing their husbands and were condemned to death. In the end, seven of these women were executed. The archival record, Persons sentenced to death in Canada, 1867-1976 (Gadoury and Lechas – seur 1994), provides a list of convicted women as well as their case reference numbers. These cases were retrieved and analyzed at Archives Canada in Ottawa. The content of the accumulated records included: court transcripts; police reports; correspondence (i. e., letters, telegrams, memorandums); reports made by judges, lawyers, and justice ministers; witness statements; confessions; Tickets of Leave; coroners’ reports; doctors’ evaluations; notices and judgments of appeal; petitions; newspaper clippings; photographs; and fingerprints. A variety of documents from the types mentioned above were found for each case. A search provided a complementary source of information for those cases that did not include sufficient archival newspaper clippings.5
The purpose of the research was to determine how the incident of murder and the women involved were constructed throughout the trial and afterwards. This was primarily achieved by eliciting the different accounts of the major actors who participated in the courtroom proceedings and the subsequent post-trial procedures as well as from recorded comments made by concerned members of the respective communities. Throughout our research we discovered several interesting phenomena that contributed to our analysis of these women’s lives. Of course, these “lives” were constructed within a courtroom; that is, they were constructed within legal discourse, through adversarial means, and within a male dominated arena. The readings of the contents of the trial transcripts, confessions, newspaper clippings, and testimonies evoked a feeling similar to that aroused upon reading a trial drama (see also the Ruth Ellis trial in 1954-55). Dramatic effect was achieved by the use of different rhetorical devices, and some of these “stories” (because they did become stories) are even presented in a detective-story format. This is exemplified in the popular representation of the 1946 trial of Evelyn Dick in Ontario, referred to as the “Torso Murder Case”:6
On March 16,1946, the headless, limbless body of John Dick was discovered by a group of schoolchildren in the lonely outskirts of Hamilton, Ontario. So began the most shocking murder investigation ever undertaken in Canadian history. This is a true-life crime story with all the ingredients of the best detective stories: lurid sex, seething passion, spine-tingling suspense and gruesome murder. And it stars a genuine femme fatale, Mrs Evelyn Dick—a strikingly beautiful woman whose extraordinary sexual proclivities and bizarre testimony shocked the nation. (Campbell 1974, back cover)
The outcome of the trials studied here (acquittal, sentence, execution, commutation of sentence, and sentence reduction), as well as the trials themselves, unfold, in part, according to the dramatic construction of the moral character and history of the women involved. Often, it seems that the actual evidence becomes secondary, being deemed inferior to the prevalent narratives that repeatedly emerged throughout the trial.
In order to explore the construction of these narratives, I consider a number of questions: How is the crime represented in the courtroom? What are the social and legal representations of femininity, sexuality, marriage, fidelity, and motherhood? What is the legal relevance of violence against women? Which factors will affect the trial outcomes? With the support of this empirical material, I attempt to examine some dominant representations of women who kill their partners. These images are gathered through the eyes of different social actors especially “norm definers” (Levesque 1989) such as: legal representatives (police, lawyers, judges); medical professionals (doctors, psychiatrists, coroners); religious leaders and the Church; the press; family members; neighbours; and petitioners. Drawing on the work of Pat Carlen (1983) and others’ work in related areas, I suggest that, as with fictional representations of women-who-kill, the trial narratives indicate that women are punished for having stepped out of their social norms as women, wives, and mothers. As the Poulin case (in 1874)7 and the Smith case (in 1946)8 put it, murder by women is a “transgression to the Law of God and the law of man.”