Historically, the criminal justice system’s treatment of women who have killed violent husbands has been harsh. The violence endured by these women and by women in general was, in fact, condoned by society, as is suggested by the so-called “rule of thumb.” This alluded to the fact that it was legal for a man to beat his wife with a stick so long as it was not thicker than his thumb. This violence was also epitomized in femicide or uxoricide (the killing of a wife by a husband). Interestingly, there is no term for the killing of a husband by a wife.

Between 1351 and 1828, under English law, women who killed their hus­bands could be charged with “Petit Treason” and could be executed. Until 1790, if found guilty of this crime, women could be burned at the stake (Gav – igan 1989). The 1763 case of Marie-Josephte Corriveau in Lower Canada (Que­bec) illustrates this situation. “La Corriveau” admitted to killing her husband, Louis-Helene Dodier; however, she held that his death was the result of his

Iconographies of Women Who Kill and Theorizing Female Conjugal Homicide within a Historical ContextFigure 2

“La Corriveau,” cartoon depicting the public exhibition of Madame Corriveau by Henri Julien in La Cage, Beauchemin Press, 1916.

violent treatment of her. The sentence was justified by Lieutenant Colonel Morris as follows: “The sentence must be strong enough to prevent other crimes in the years coming [note the political instability]. If all wives, unhappy with their lives, killed their husbands there would be no more men left in the colony” (Lebel 1981,180; translation mine). As was the practice at the time, Marie-Josephte Corriveau was executed and publicly exposed for a month in an iron cage at a crossroad in Lauzon, Quebec. After more than 200 years, the public fascination with the story of “La Corriveau” (as she will be referred to hereafter) has become a part of Quebec mythology. Her story has been re­enacted repeatedly in ballads, books, poetry, songs, visual art, and plays.