Femininity on Trial
During the trials the femininity of the accused was put into sharp focus and questioned by emphasizing appearance, behaviour, feminine attitude, and mental instability. The physical appearance of the accused women was also central to press coverage. The most striking example of this is found in the media attention given to Evelyn Dick in Ontario (1946). The Hamilton Spectator (8 October 1946) describes Dick as follows: “Shiny black curls beneath her sequin-studded skull cap; a beauty spot on her right cheek; finely-shaped nose, large dark eyes. Her dress: black, sleeveless, perhaps revealing her gain in weight; toeless, heel-less shoes; matching lipstick and nail polish.” More descriptions of Dick follow. The magazine New World (December 1946) sold, at ten cents an issue, a six-page story with photographs that consecrate Dick as the most murderous and sordid femme fatale in Canada. In the documentary The Notorious Mrs. Dick (2001), one comment linked her beauty to her evilness: “Of course, she was as evil as she was beautiful.”
Other women condemned for killing their husbands also see their appearance take a prominent position in the courtroom and in the media. As early as 1871 Phoebe Campbell’s appearance was scrutinized, as these newspapers clippings indicate:
She appears to be somewhat thinner than she was when arraigned; her hair is dressed in the same ringlet fashion as it was at the trial. (Globe and Mail, 20 June 1872)
Her face still has the ruddy and healthful glow which it bore at the time of her trial. (Adviser, 19 June 1872)
She was dressed in a black gown, without ornament, and her hair was done up in a plain manner after the fashion she has followed since her incarceration. (Adviser, 20 June 1872)
Women’s behaviour was also an object of fascination, especially if it deviated from the expected, naturalized gender roles of the period. In 1897 Cordelia Viau, who lived in a small village in Quebec, was deemed to be an inappro-
priate woman because she was independent and did not adopt a conventional lifestyle.13 She was also seen as the man in her marriage, as this question from
the Crown illustrates:
Q. Who appears to have been in charge among these two, the husband or the wife?
A. It was Mrs. Poirer.14
In certain trials the judges urged members of the jury (which were always all-male) to examine the facts in light of what a “reasonable man” would do and think, and not to take into account that they were judging a woman. For example, in the 1935 trial of Mary Cowan (Ontario) Judge Keiller asserted that: “In this case a woman is on trial. She must receive exactly the same treatment as if a man were on trial. The law applies equally to women and men.”15 In the 1922 trial of Irene May Christensen in Alberta, Judge MacCarthy addressed the jury in a similar way: “We have got to face this situation boldly.. .there should be no sympathy for her by reason of the fact that she is a woman and broken down in health.. .we must face the issue boldly.”16
In the 1923 trial of Catherine Tratch in Saskatchewan, Judge Embury asserted that her crime was “dastardly” because she had poisoned her husband at the family table in front of his children:
This woman administered to him strychnine, he not knowing it, taking it from her hand, at his own table, with his own children, in his own home…it is one of the most dastardly crimes that have ever been known in this country. And so, gentlemen of the jury, while this is a woman, you and I are faced with an undoubted responsibility….We are faced with a moral responsibility of not being afraid to do our duty.17
Another instance in which men (read: the law) construct a woman’s character is in their consideration of the appropriateness, legitimacy, and authenticity of her reaction to the crime. Certain ideals regarding women’s sensitivity and emotional nature are reaffirmed in the courtroom drama: if she did not cry (or did not cry sufficiently), then she was seen as guilty. The 1946 trial of Elizabeth McLean in Manitoba provides an example of this. Two police officers testified as witnesses for the Crown. Officer Nicholson described her weeping: “She wept some… .She wept a little on occasions… .She didn’t weep, it wasn’t hysterical weeping… .She would burst out and cry, and then compose herself almost immediately….In my experience a person who is hysterical carries on for some considerable time. They don’t break down for a short period and then compose themselves.”18 However, if the woman cried too much, this was not necessarily considered to be a sign of her innocence. In the 1917 trial of Carmello Marablito in Nova Scotia, the trial judge commented:
The evidence is that the woman was crying, no doubt she would easily cry, whether she was guilty or not guilty: I would not wonder at her being found in tears, for it is only women of the firmness of Lady Macbeth that could carry out a project like that without some time or other giving way and showing signs of a woman’s weakness. She was not Lady Macbeth, but only an ordinary, commonplace human being, and it is not at all unnatural that she would be found in tears after she realized the enormity of the crime that had been committed.19
The moral character of the women on trial is constructed around dichotomous notions of good and evil. For example, in Ontario Olive Sternaman (1896) and Elizabeth Tilford (1935) were tried differently from one another, even though the circumstances surrounding the murders were very similar: both women were accused of single-handedly poisoning their husbands with arsenic; neither had a lover; rumours circulated to the effect they had both killed their first husbands; their alleged motive was insurance money; there was no issue of domestic violence; and both claimed their innocence. Sterna – man was portrayed as being very pious and religious. According to the Globe (1 January 1898): “The explanation is that she is a simple, emotional, deeply spiritual and religious unworldly woman.”20 Another newspaper article stated: “She has not a high nervous organization, and she has the deepest religious trust that I have ever seen in a human being” (unknown source, 22 December 1897). The Toronto World (9 December 1897) described Sternaman’s reaction after hearing the guilty verdict: “She threw herself to the floor as if her heart would break.” After the public outcry around her conviction, she was finally acquitted.
In contrast, Tilford is portrayed as a bad woman, a witch. On 6 December 1935 Margret Sim wrote that the death penalty was inappropriate, even for such evil creatures: “That a woman so sick a mind as that woman has, should be kept under restraint so that she may work no more evil, we verily believe, but to perpetuate a lust for blood will work ourselves harm.”21 The chilling headline of the Daily Mirror (8 December 1935) indicates that Tilford was publicly perceived as cold and cruel: “Icy Wife Sees Rise of Gibbet.” This woman was hanged.
In other cases, physical and emotional disturbances attributed to femininity were highlighted in order to shed light on the killing. In the cases of Napoli – tano (1911), Shulman (1918), and Pogmore (1936), their instability was believed to rest on their being pregnant. Shulman had a miscarriage two days before the crime, and this came to be seen as the precipitating factor. Menopause was seen as a contributing factor in the cases of Tilford (1935) and Harrop (1940). In the case of Tilford, a letter sent by Mr. Fraser on 6 December 1936 to the minister of justice recommends the commutation of the death penalty on those specific grounds:
From her age given in the papers, [we] realize that she must have passed through the menopause quite recently, or that she is not yet passed that trying period… .A woman may be absolutely sane, and yet, because of weakness and functional disturbances, may be unable to control certain tendencies—tendencies entirely foreign to her under normal conditions.22
The coroner in the Harrop case evoked mental weakness as the cause of the woman’s emotional break:
This is a very unusual and a very sad case of a prolonged quarrel between husband and wife; when you have a case like that you have a domestic volcano which may erupt at any moment, and the result depends on which one of the parties has the most intense mental obsession, and there was probably in her mind that she was going to be killed by her husband. People like that have what the French called “the fixed idea.”23
Hysteria was seen as a form of mental instability and was believed to have contributed to the commission of the crime in the trials of Jackson (1920) and Dranchuk (1934).