The Sacrosanctity of Marriage
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women were not legal persons in the eyes of the law. A woman had to be submissive and to obey her husband, and those who deviated from the norm paid dearly. Of course, women who were thought to have lovers and who were also condemned for having killed their husbands were condemned for their infidelity as well. Eighteen of the twenty-eight women convicted of murder were presumed to have had lovers. The trial judge of Angele Poulin in 1874 in New Brunswick emphasized her “sexual appetite.” Women in Quebec (Cordelia Viau, Marie Beaulne, Emily Sprague, Marie-Louise Cloutier, and Tommasina Teolis) were the most harshly punished—presumably for their alleged infidelity as they lived in a society where religious beliefs about sexual propriety were paramount and any deviation was inexcusable (Bernier and Cellard 1996,38). We have already seen how the infidelity of Poulin (1874) and Smith (1946) was described as a transgression against the laws of God and man. The trial of Angelina Napolitano is instructive because, even though her husband was known to have had many mistresses, her infidelity removed any credibility she might have had in the eyes of the judge.
The execution of Cordelia Viau in the film Cordelia (1976) features a double hanging: Cordelia and Samuel Parslow, hired help and presumed lover and accomplice. The sexually active, immoral woman, the seductress, is punished before our eyes. The supposed lover is presented as being not particularly bright, and the ensuing public reaction to him is not on the same register as is that for Cordelia. He is presented as having fallen for the woman’s charms. We, as movie-goers, look at the crowd looking at the double hanging and share in the spectacle, especially during the very long take of Cordelia ascending the gallows.24
Women who were presumed to have had lovers were seen as temptresses and manipulative seductresses. Their lovers were often seen as puppets in the hands of these crafty, sexual women. Examples of the murderous woman as temptress are found in the cases of Carmello Marablito, who was forty-three years old, and Mary Cowan, who was twenty-seven years old. Both of these women allegedly had younger lovers. According to the judge, Neri, who was twenty-two years old and was Marablito’s lover, “was a victim, in a sense, of the woman, and…she got possessing the young fellow’s mind and soul [sic], and brought it about that he was hardly a free agent.”25 A letter from the Crown’s counsel to the minister of justice concerning eighteen-year-old Allan Cowan, who was Mary Cowan’s lover, suggests the same: “This boy has appeared to me all through as a submissive easily led type and it is not surpris
ing to me that Mary Cowan, 27 years old, a moron, but much more aggressive, a woman who has been gratifying his sexual appetite, has had such control over him.”26
The 1954 infidelity of Lina Thibodeau (New Brunswick) is perceived differently from that of Cowan and Marablito, but to the same effect. Although she is perceived as being excessively sexual, this is represented and excused by the trial judge as a freak of feminine nature and as something of which her male lover took advantage: “Furthermore, she was gratified by Nature with nice features, and I am inclined to believe, with a sexual urge which her husband could not possibly fully satisfy. She met a wolf who took advantage of her weakness.”27 The murder trial as representation of gender extremes, but not of gender deviation, effectively reifies the norm.