Although a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, Victoria M Nagy researched female criminality during the mid-nineteenth century in Essex for her PhD which she graduated with in 2012 from Monash University. She is currently an Honorary Associate with La Trobe University and is working on a new project focusing on female criminality in the colony of Victoria from 1860 to 1900. Her book Nineteenth-Century Female Poisoners: Three English Women Who Used Arsenic to Kill is now available from Palgrave MacMillan. Her research interests include crime, violence and gender in popular culture, film and video games, as well as crime in nineteenth-century Australia and England. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @vicnagy83.
It was good news for the BBC’s Sherlock fans when it was announced that a Christmas special episode would be on its way in early 2016 that would have Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson not only return to the screens but to the Victorian period. It soon became apparent that the case would be focusing on a murderous woman, the abominable bride, who was seemingly a spectre and Sherlock’s latest adversary. The merits and detractions of the episode are not what the focus is here; whatever faults the show’s creators/ writers have or have not presented in this (or any previous) episode of Sherlock, there was something that they were incredibly correct about in this special- the Victorians were very afraid of criminal women, especially women who decided to kill men.
Here be spoilers
As a quick recap, we meet Sherlock back in the late 19th century, the action being set in 1895 in the midst of the suffrage movement. Lestrade has brought Sherlock the terrifying case of a woman, Emilia Ricoletti, shooting at men in the street while wearing her wedding dress. Up high on a balcony, after everyone’s attention is on her and men are cowering to avoid being hit, Ricoletti shoots herself in the head. Her body is delivered to the morgue, but later that day her husband is shot dead by a woman, identified by a cab driver and the husband as Ricoletti herself. There does not appear to be a solution to this strange set of events when Ricoletti’s body is clearly in the morgue, and we rejoin Sherlock five months later when an agitated Lestrade is again at Baker Street demanding that Holmes help him solve the cases of at least 5 more men “murdered in their own homes” killed by “the Bride”. Sherlock says he’s solved the crime, and that these were “dull little murders”, copycat killings based on what had been “widely reported in the popular press”.
As Mycroft points out to Sherlock and John later on “our way of life is under threat from an invisible enemy. One that hovers at our elbow on a daily basis. These enemies are everywhere, undetected, and unstoppable”. Naturally, this is considered frightening for both the detective and his biographer; Watson asks whether it is the socialists, anarchists, the French, Suffragists, or the Scots who are the threat to their way of life, and in one (of the many) moments of levity it becomes apparent that Watson is quite afraid of almost anyone who isn’t an Englishman:
Mycroft: Are you aware of recent theories concerning what is known as paranoia?
John: Ooh, sounds Serbian.
But Mycroft isn’t seeking help to stop this invisible enemy, rather as he states “we must certainly lose to them…because they are right and we are wrong”. This invisible enemy, it turns out is not only suffragettes (including John’s wife, Mary) but all women. The abominable bride therefore was created by one (according to the show’s creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat) purple cloak and hood wearing band of women who decided to create, in Sherlock’s words,
The avenging ghost, a legend to strike terror at the heart of any man with malicious intent. The spectre to stalk those unpunished brutes whose reckoning is long overdue. A league of furies awakened. The women I, we, have lied to, betrayed, the women we have ignored, and disparaged. … Once the idea exists, it cannot be killed.
Gatiss and Moffat were tapping into two fears of the period- women’s suffrage on the one hand, but also a longer held fear, a fear all throughout the nineteenth-century of what happened when a woman decided to kill. In the minds of Victorians, women did not kill alone, and there was a fear that the publication of information about women who killed would have an effect on all women, leading to copycat killings where husbands would be the victims.
Women killing together
No matter how thrilling a thought, women banding together to kill husbands in order to avenge longsuffering wives did not exist in Victorian England, or if it did it is yet to be uncovered. Most commonly associated with the crime of poisoning, the idea of women banding together to poison husbands was a popular belief during the mid- and late nineteenth-century, but an idea which has not been borne out by archival sources (Robb, 1997; Nagy, 2015). It has been argued by Dolan that in Victorian representations of domestic crime the threat was seen to be the intimate insider rather than an invader or intruder, and that this insider was more often than not depicted as a woman (1994, p. 4). James Tunstall, a pharmacist from Bath who was a campaigner for the regulation of arsenic, published a pamphlet in which the threat of the domestic killer is clearly outlined. Tunstall is adamant that the innocent in the domestic scene are not women (who were often considered the innocent and naïve in other walks of life due to their gender) but men. As he writes, it was time for the legislators to step in and protect
The innocent, confiding and unsuspecting victims of domestic and family murder, where, in many cases, the horrid drug is administered in the cooling fever draught with which the dying husband…quenches the dreadful thirst, produced by the very hand which smoothes his deathbed pillow! (1849, p.5).
While the image of this domestic murderer is distinctly middle-class, part of the fear of women who were violent was how they could transgress not only gender expectations but also cause discontent and disarray amongst the working-class. Victorians held a fear of those that were disenfranchised socially and economically, which many women who killed were. That many poisonings happened ostensibly under the noses of almost everyone in a village or other small community, has previously led to the belief that women from the lower classes must have been either accepting of the murder of husbands, or accomplices to and colluding with these transgressions of the law (Knelman, 1998; Brabin, 2009). This solidified the belief that rural, working-class women were a danger to the stability of a civil society. That some women could choose to act in such a transgressive manner on their own, without external interference, and without resorting to joining a sisterhood of murderers was incomprehensible for Victorians, and in some ways is still an incomprehensible idea when discussing women who kill in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Bell and Fox, 1996; Morrissey, 2003).
Although a larger number of women were charged with and found guilty of poisoning during the years between 1846 and 1851 than at any time previously, it was still impossible to find any poisoning rings in England. Although Sarah Chesham, Mary May and Hannah Southgate of Essex were accused of being co-conspirators in the poisoning of their husbands, and in May’s case brother, this was only done by the newspapers intent on selling copy. May and Southgate did know each other and were on very friendly terms, but outside of reporters’ conjecture, there was no evidence that they were supplying one another with arsenic to kill unwanted husbands and brothers.
That is not to say that women never worked together to kill. Sisters Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins did work together in the 1880s to kill numerous people, with arsenic, in the locale between Great Homer Street and Vauxhall Road in Liverpool. But their motive was less about avenging themselves on the men in their lives, and more about financial incentive through getting their hands on burial fees. Eight of their sixteen victims were women, who were either daughters, nieces, or neighbours. The eight men killed by these “black widows of Liverpool” included husbands, sons, step-sons and a father-in-law. The government of the day was worried that “crimes like these are far from rare” (Brabin, 2009, p. 1) but the concern was less the women themselves than the manner in which burial clubs were being used as motive to kill family members. This motive, financial gain, was more often than not the driving force of most women who killed and ended up on the gallows between 1843 and 1890, closely followed by women killing their children out of compassion due to a fear of not being able to provide for them (Hartman, 1985, p.5-6). In the 20th and 21st centuries this has changed little with the majority of murders that women commit against their own children, often due to post-partum depression, mental illness or a belief that they cannot care for their child correctly (McKee & Keegan, 2013). Men are still not the main victims of women’s murderous behaviour.
The fear of women using what they had learned about murder on their menfolk appears to have stemmed from the fear that women had a taste for crime, based on what they read in newspapers, and their appearance in the courtroom as members of the public listening in to the proceedings. Brabin argues that women’s increased involvement with the criminal process, interfering through letter writing, petition signing, and going to court, could lead these otherwise “good” women to begin to identify with the women on trial (2009, p. 64) and potentially take this identification to the next level by committing a murder themselves. One novel, Eliza Stephenson’s Janita’s Cross (1864), discusses how women could get excited by discussions of death and capital punishment:
Women who have been brought up in refined society, women who pride themselves upon the delicacy of their sensibilities, who would faint at the sight of a cut finger and go into hysterics if the drowning of a litter of kittens were mentioned in their hearing- such women can sit for hours listening to the details of cold-blooded murder.
However, as Hartman notes, and contemporaries of these women also understood, women’s involvement in these trials as bystanders and writers about the women on trial allowed them the chance to “voice their concerns and discontents” (1985, p. 268). Male judges knew that women’s interest in these cases was about “showing a supportive identification with women accused of … murder. …Female onlookers were sympathizing with the plights of the accused” (Hartman, 1985, p. 269). When the accused was a middle-class woman disposing of a husband or lover, that was when there was a palpable fear in the newspaper reports, judges’ remarks and social commentary about what women were learning from each other. But the overt manifestation of this remained low. Copycat killings by women against husbands didn’t eventuate, and the power of men in English society was tested via calls for suffrage and equal rights not murder.
Gatiss and Moffat’s creation of the cabal of women in Sherlock who use the supernatural “Bride” to strike fear in the hearts of bad husbands who would find themselves murdered wasn’t far off the mark. Victorians were worried about women’s involvement in crime, especially in crimes against men and mostly where poison was involved. Women of the period were interested in criminal trials and regularly involved themselves in proceedings, and men were concerned about the ramifications of this. But Victorian men did not become the victims of suffragette women seeking to murder brutish husbands. The avenging wife, working in cahoots with her female friends to murder her husband, was a supernatural threat created by men, much like the fictional bride Emilia Ricoletti. However, the Victorian fear of women in poisoning or other criminal rings was not used by contemporaries in order to teach men how to treat women as equals (as they were in Sherlock) but rather to cement the belief that women were dangerous and monstrous to society and therefore had to be kept in check.
Bell, C. & M. Fox (1996). Telling Stories of Women Who Kill, Social & Legal Studies, 5(4), 471-94.
Brabin, A. (2009). The Black Widows of Liverpool: A Chilling Account of Cold-Blooded Murder in the Victorian Era. Lancaster: Carnegie Publishing.
Hartman, M.S. (1985). Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French & English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes. London: Robson Books.
McKee, A. & V. Egan. (2013). A Case Series of Twenty-One Maternal Filicides in the UK, Child Abuse & Neglect, 37(10), 753-761.
Morrissey, B. (2003). When Women Kill: Patterns of Agency and Subjectivity. London: Routledge.
Nagy, V. (2015). Nineteenth-Century Female Poisoners: Three English Women who Used Arsenic to Kill. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Robb, G. (1997). Circe in Crinoline: Domestic Poisonings in Victorian England. Journal of Family History, 22 (2), 176-90.
Stephenson, E. (1864). Janita’s Cross. London: Hurst and Blackett.