The Victorian belief that women were the ‘weaker sex’ who were expected to devote themselves entirely to family life, made it almost inconceivable that they could ever be capable of committing murder. What drove a woman to murder her husband, lover or even her own child? Were they tragic, mad or just plain evil?
Using various sources including court records, newspaper accounts and letters, this book explores some of the most notorious murder cases committed by seven women in nineteenth century Britain and America. It delves into each of the women’s lives, the circumstances that led to their crimes, their committal and trial and the various reasons why they resorted to murder: the fear of destitution led Mary Ann Brough to murder her own children; desperation to keep her job drove Sarah Drake to her crime. Money was the motive in the case of Mary Ann Cotton, who is believed to have poisoned as many as twenty-one people. Kate Bender lured her unsuspecting victims to their death in ‘The Slaughter Pen’ before stripping them of their valuables; Kate Webster’s temper got the better of her when she brutally murdered and decapitated her employer; nurse Jane Toppan admitted she derived sexual pleasure from watching her victims die slowly and Lizzie Borden was suspected of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe, so that she could live on the affluent area known as ‘the hill’ in Fall River, Massachusetts.
Disclaimer: Although I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, the opinions below are my own.
When the category of true crime comes up at trivia nights, my team automatically gives me the answer sheet. Should I get the majority correct, especially the ones about murder, other teams tend to laugh and tell my husband to “Watch out!”
Why I have this interest, I’m not sure. It might be because of something that took place when I was a child living in England, something connected with one of the subjects in this book: Kate Webster. One hot May afternoon, my family had taken a walk past the house where Webster had killed her employer. My mother had come across her in a book she was reading, and she shared the story with us. That night, there was a thunderstorm and, at approximately 4 am, there was a knock at the front door. My mother would later say she had dreamed the knock was Webster “coming to get her.” Instead, it was the police there to notify my father of his mother’s death. Over 25 years later, we’d learn that the skull of Webster’s victim had still been buried in the immediate vicinity, and we’d walked past it that day.
Webster’s story is described in detail in Victorian Murderesses, along with the tales of six other women. Some will be very familiar to even non-true crime fans, such as Lizzie Borden who gave her mother “forty whacks.” I was vaguely familiar with Kate Bender and her murdering family, whose victims never saw justice. I didn’t know about the other women until reading this title. The book begins with the tale of Sarah Drake, a woman found not guilty of murdering her child on the grounds of insanity. Her chapter ends in stunning fashion, in a way I definitely didn’t expect. Did Drake get away with murder? Decide for yourself.
No two stories are the same, although they all present a chronology of events and extensive details of the court proceedings. Some murders were bizarre, while others almost made you have empathy for the woman involved. Some of the women were executed, some disappeared, and others either weren’t charged or were found not guilty. There isn’t an introduction, but there is a small bibliography and index. It probably wouldn’t be the correct thing to say Victorian Murderesses is an easy read when the subject matter is anything but. Perhaps it would be better to say that it isn’t overwhelming in technicality or grim detail. Does it ultimately explain why these women carried out their notorious acts? It depends on whether or not you believe what they had to say. That’s if they had anything to say at all.
Disclaimer: Although I received a copy of this book from the publisher, the opinions above are my own.
Publisher: Pen & Sword
Publication Date: 30 November 2022 (UK) / 31 December 2022 (USA)
Debbie Blake is a freelance writer whose historical articles have been published in various publications in the UK, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. She has written articles for the internet and runs two blogs Women’s History Bites and The Wee History Blog. She is the author of Daughters of Ireland: Pioneering Irish Women and The Little Book of Tipperary, published by The History Press.