Hanging A Woman

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Hanging A Woman

Book excerpt

By: Karl Heinzen

Date: July 29, 1855

Source: Heinzen, Karl. The Rights of Women and the Sexual Relations. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1898.

About the Author: Karl Heinzen, (1809–1880), represented part of the radical German immigrant community in the United States in the latter nineteenth century. These German radicals fled Germany for political reasons in 1848, and even though they never represented a large part of the immigrant population, they took on the name Forty-Eighters. Their writings and works, like Heinzen"s, adamantly called for the removal of slavery and the expansion of religious and civil rights in the United States.


When Henrietta Robinson sat trail in 1853 for poisoning Timothy Langan and the attempted poisoning of another woman, she sat solemn with a heavy veil covering her face. Throughout the locally sensationalized trial, her identity remained hidden, and the press dubbed her the Veiled Murderess. The story of her crime was sensational for the 1850s because a woman on trial for murder seemed preposterous. Victorian Ideals of women held them to be pious and pure, and Robinson"s crime of murder shook the foundations of that belief. Robinson murdered Langan by poisoning his beer, and at trail, her lawyers pled a case for insanity. On May 27, 1854, the jury found her guilty, and the following year, the judge sentenced her to death by hanging. On 27 July 1855, however, New York Governor Myron H. Clark commuted her sentence to life imprisonment, at Sing Sing Prison. Eventually, Robinson was transferred to a state mental hospital for mentally insane criminals. Yet, the foundations of her case from Troy, New York shocked her community, and her case represented events occurring on the larger political framework.

The 1850s marked an escalating point in pre-Civil War political debates. The Compromise of 1850 (also called the Pearce Act) admitted California as a free state, slave trade was abolished in Washington D.C., New Mexico, and Utah organized themselves under the guidelines of popular sovereignty, the Fugitive Slave Act went into force, and Texas was required to give up claims to western land. These highly debated legislative decisions came on the heels of a society that was bracing for and revisiting modernity. The Industrial Revolution, and new technologies like Eli Whitney's cotton gin, increased production. As products were made by cheaper and more rapid processes, consumers had more options of products to buy. Technology also boosted transportation, as steam engines and railroads allowed individuals to travel across states and regions in a few days rather than weeks. As politics collided with private life, particularly in the case of slavery, the rights of states to be slaveholding states or free states, and technological advances made mobility and accessibility easier the daily lives of individuals changed.

Women, who had always had networks of support through charity and church groups, began to advocate for more causes of social reform. Their words quickly turned into political activism, and in 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention laid the framework for the twentieth century's women's movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton led the program, and its culminating moment was the signing and release of the Declaration of Women's Rights and Grievances. Here, women asked for the rights to property ownership, the right to vote, and other basic rights within civil society. These grievances did not become laws until the next century, but female activists did not stand alone in society. Instead, much like the political divisions in the U.S. Congress (and the brawls that occurred on the Congressional floor) mirrored the actions of mainstream society, the Seneca Falls Convention showed dissolving gendered barriers.

News accounts of husbands murdering their wives increased, and in New York the number of female homicides increased from seven to fifteen in the years of 1841 to 1860. These were killings where women committed the act of murder, and these New York statistics reflected a nationwide trend. Violent crime and acts of aggression increased, and men and women discussed their unhappy marriages with friends and persons outside their immediate family. More so, the fate of the unhappy marriage lay on the woman. Social mandates required her to keep the home happy and healthy, and when she could not do so she was often judged. Women who did not or could not provide the image of a happy and healthy family were deemed unfit, even sometimes sent to mental institutions. Women's magazines and news stories continually reminded women to separate their passions from their intellect so that they could keep an ordered and happy life. Women that deviated from the social norms of piety and purity were deemed to be passion-driven and without sound moral judgment. After all, women were thought to be delicate and weak. Hence, when women committed crimes, their actions were shocking to the public's mind. Critics against women rights used cases like Robinson to rebuke a woman's potentially productive role outside the home, and proponents for women's rights used female crimes as reasons why women should be treated equally. In the case of Robinson, German writer Karl Heinzen discussed how a cruel and unjust society could turn a woman into a murderer. His discussion of her commuted sentence reflected social expectations of women and of society's maltreatment of the female.


In Troy, N.Y., a Mrs. Robinson, who has poisoned her husband, has been sentenced to be hanged on the third of August. Now the governor is besieged from all sides with petitions for pardon, because the feelings revolt at the thought of having a woman hanged. What delicacy of feeling in a country where hanging partly takes the place of national holidays! Would not the hanging and dangling of a female prisoner, especially if she were pretty, afford a moist piquant excitement for the savage taste of the criminal mob?

What real motive dictates this petition to the governor? Is it American gallantry? Hardly, for this is usually practised where something is to be gained thereby, were it only the approval of fashion. Is it the disgrace fro the feminine sex which is to witness on of its highly honored members ending on the gallows? Possibly; although at other times we are not so zealous in warding off disgrace from the sex. But the chief motive is presumably a natural aversion towards hanging, which has come into consciousness and reached such a degree of intensity that it at last had to vent itself in petitions for pardon when the spectacle of a feminine delinquent presented itself. And since at the same time the consciousness arose that this aversion had not made itself felt on occasions of the hanging of men, its manifestation is now brought forward under the pretext that it is inhuman or unmanly to hang a woman. If a woman had not suffice to disgust our republican gentlemen with a hanging, a beautiful maiden, or perhaps a child, would have been required to at last universally awaken the consciousness that capital punishment, especially hanging, is a barbarity, nay, even a bestiality. That this recognition could be held in abeyance until a woman became the means of bringing it to light; that the gallows adorned with a male corpse could hitherto be considered as a show, or at least as an interesting spectacle, and was advanced to the dignity of a tragedy only at the thought of a hanged female, proves only how vulgar and unrepublican our popular consciousness still is; for capital punishment, especially hanging, is as great an anomaly in a republic as, for instance, torture for the "religion of love" Perhaps Mrs. Robinson will have the honor of involuntarily having given the impulse towards the abolition of capital punishment in the chief State of the Union. To be sure, it is no flattering testimony for our worthy law-givers that it required the instruction of a poison-mixer to teach them to become humane!

But apart from this point, and assuming that capital punishment were generally justifiable and ought to be upheld, there is still another ground for protest against the hanging of Mrs. Robinson. This ground lies in the criminal irresponsibility of women as against men. I do not want to make the statement that everything is permissible for a woman to do against a man, but I do want to maintain what holds for women as well as for slaves, that the criminal can be held responsible only to such a degree as he is free. Therefore, whoever wants bondage must be contented to take crime into the bargain; whoever wants the right to punish crime must first concede liberty.

Strictly considered, no member of a political community is responsible before the criminal court, for the moral standard of every individual is only a product of the general standard, so that the responsibility really always falls back upon the community. This reason alone already suffices to stamp everything that we call punishment and the right to punish as nonsense and barbarity.

But if this doubt is thrown in general upon the responsibility of the individual, how much more must this be the case where the ruling portion takes away the responsibility from a class or a sex by disenfranchisement, by limitation, or by neglect! Whoever rules is responsible, for whoever rules is free. But women are ruled, and whoever is ruled is not only not free, but is always the suffering party, and is therefore always thrown back upon the revolution. Woman and the revolution are the most natural confederates. Probably that is the reason why the revolution is always represented as a woman. But ruling man would make woman as well as the slave responsible, although he will not grant them the conditions which make responsibility possible, and thus he punishes in them really himself, i.e., his own wrongdoing. In how far the actions of the suffering party are a necessary reaction against oppression, justifiable acts of defence against inflicted injustice, natural attempts at compensation for rights withheld, a forcibly sought outlet for a nature perverted by force, unavoidable outbreaks of inclinations falsely directed by binding circumstances,—this our present courts of justice shrink from investigating, because such an investigation would overthrow our entire barbaric justice, together with its barbaric foundation. But what the administration of justice neglects to do, the critic, the publicist must at least strive to make good.

Unbiased justice must always be predisposed to take the side of the weaker party, because in a conflict of rights the presumption must generally be that the weaker party has suffered a wrong or has been incited to do a wrong. Women are almost always in that case. For all the wrong that is done by women the men as a rule ought to bear the blame, be it directly on account of their treatment or indirectly through their education of, and the position they impose upon, women. I am not acquainted with Mrs. Robinson"s history, and do not remember the proceedings concerning the circumstances and motive of her deed. But so much I do know, that a woman is not by nature designed for a criminal, and that her heart must be wounded or hardened by very peculiar inducements or influences if she can resolve to commit a murder….".

When the men have become so depraved that they must stop to think to which species of beast they belong, it is always the woman who still represents the human species and who still upholds human feelings. When the father has become a beast, the mother saves him again by the birth of a human being.

I do not want to use the moral expression that the woman is "better" than the man, but she certainly is more humanely organized, and in the retirement to which she is condemned she is less exposed to the hardening and demoralizing influences of the vulgar atmosphere in which the male sex at present still disports itself. A crime committed by a woman will, therefore, generally have more cogent and deeper motives than the same crime committed by a man. How often we hear in this country of men who have murdered their wives; and how rare is the opposite case! But who is there to maintain that men have to suffer more at the hands of the women than the women at the hands of the men? This juxtaposition alone proves the weaker disposition of the feminine nature towards criminal deeds; consequently the necessity of applying a different standard in the judging or condemning of a Mrs. Robinson than of a Mr. Whiskeyson or of any wife-murderer by whatsoever name he may be called. A husband may perhaps slay his wife for some pat rejoinder; the wife poisons her husband only after her feelings, her love, her pride, tortured perhaps through all grades of despair, has killed all womanliness within her, and has left nothing of it except the feeling of revenge….".


The sensationalism of women committing acts of murder, and other crimes, continued to shock the American public. By the 1890s, increasing numbers of middle-class women were being arrested for shop-lifting, even though they could afford the items they stole. These women, labeled as kleptomaniacs, confused the public because middle and upper class women were supposed to have a stronger sense of morality and shame than the working class and poor. Psychiatrics argued that these women needed medical treatment, and they said that the abundance of consumer goods forced people into a sense of hysteria. Of course, the hysteria syndrome stuck to the female gender because it reflected unstable and weak emotions.

In August 1892, Lizzie Borden discovered her father and stepmother murdered in their home. She stood trial for the murders in June 1893, but an all male jury acquitted her after little more than an hour of deliberations. Her trial became a sensational news story covered in many national newspapers, a first for crime stories. Even though she was found not guilty, a large amount of doubt surrounded her. Many members of society found it difficult to believe a woman would kill two people with an axe. While Borden remained in prison, she held special privileges. Borden was allowed to bring her own furniture into her cell, and there are accounts of her wandering through the jail unaccompanied. In contrast to the Robinson defense of insanity, Borden's lawyers painted her as a devout daughter who had remained unmarried to care for her parents. This statement helped ease questions about her spinsterhood, and it helped eradicate skepticism that she could have been a weak and immoral woman. Nonetheless, the Borden trial put key questions into the American legal and social framework. Questions of a woman's legal standing, her ability to commit a crime, and punishment played heavily on the public's mind.

The rise in women's crimes and their fight for political equality saw excessive measures taken to quell their unusual behavior. Women were given hysterectomies to calm them and cure mental ailments like depression, and females who did not fit social orders received electrical shock, water treatments, and large doses of medications. As criminal behavior increased, with men and women, state and local courts slowly began treating a woman the same as a man. As of May 2006, forty-nine women remain on death row in the United States, and the last execution of a female prisoner occurred in October 2002 in Georgia.



Abelson, Elaine S. When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Edwards, Susan S. M. Women on Trial: A Study of the Female Suspect, Defendant and Offender in the Criminal Law and Criminal Justice System. Dover, NH: Manchester University Press, 1984.


Ritter, Gretchen. "Jury Service and Women's Citizenship Before and After the Nineteenth Amendment." Law and History Review. 20.3 (Autumn 2002): 479-515.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. "In the Nation's Image: The Gendered Limits of Social Citizenship in the Depression." The Journal of American History. 86.3 (December 1999): 1251-1279.

Web sites

Sean T. Moore and SUNY at Plattsburgh. "Husband Murder, Seduction, and Female Violence in New York State, 1790–1860." 2004. 〈http://faculty.plattsburgh.edu/sean.moore/Chapter%204-Extract%20from%20dissertation.htm〉 (accessed May 7, 2006).