domestic violence

The ‘Female Blue Beard’?: Rumour and sensationalism in the case of Sarah Dazley

dazley-aug25-1843-det

This week is the 175 anniversary of the execution of Sarah Dazley at Bedford Gaol, the first and only woman to be hanged in public at the prison. Sarah’s crime was the murder of her second husband (William) and the suspected killing of her previous one (Simeon Mead) and their son Jonas. Dazley may well have been guilty but I rather suspect she was convicted for what she was seen to be rather than for any actual crime she carried out.  Sarah’s story also exposes a early newspaper industry that was far from particular about which ‘facts’ it reported as ‘truth’ and which it allowed to be aired for sensational effect.

Let’s start with what we think we know.

Sarah Reynolds was born in 1819 in Potton in Bedfordshire. Her farther died when she was very young and her mother had a series of relationships with other men following her husband’s death. This seems to be significant as it contributes to the backstory of Sarah’s life that the newspapers later presented to their readers.

When she was 19 Sarah married Simeon Read and they had a son (Jonah) who died within the year.  In October 1840 Simeon died after a short illness. Sarah remarried two years later, but her relationship with William Dazley was apparently fraught. It was suggested that he hit her and that she wasn’t inclined to put up with it (as many wives and partners did in the nineteenth century).

It seems that Simeon Mead had been just as abusive as Dazley was, and the newspapers later revealed a long history of violence against Sarah from both her partners. There were also dark rumours that Sarah had decided to take her revenge on William for his mistreatment of her.

So, when he fell ill and died in October 1842 suspicions began to circulate. When Sarah upped sticks and headed for London to escape from difficult questions a warrant was issued for her arrest and she was picked up and returned to Bedford to face the music.

Now this is where it all gets a little confused and where conjecture and rumour seem to trump facts. Both Jonas and William Dazley were exhumed so that their bodies could be examined for any signs of poisoning. Simeon’s corpse was far too decomposed to be able to be examined but clearly Sarah was suspected of poisoning him as well.

It was alleged at her trial that she’d bought arsenic and mixed it to make pills to use to poison William. On one occasion her step daughter (Ann Mead) had supposedly eaten one of the pills and Sarah had scolded her for it to prevent her taking any more. The Times thought that Jonas was a ‘daughter’ and repeatedly refereed to Sarah as ‘the Female Blue Beard’. A usually sober paper, the ‘thunderer’ was playing this case for every sensational twist it could get.

The papers reported that arsenic was found in the remains of William Dazley but this was also contradicted in some articles so clearly there was some doubt. Forensics was hardly an exact science in the 1840s and Sarah may well have been subjected to the prejudices that surrounded a young woman who had married twice (and was apparently on the verge of marrying again).

Quite simply Sarah Dazely was seen as a promiscuous woman who wanted to control her own life rather than let herself be controlled by men. Having lost her father at seven she’d grown up without that strong paternal figure that all young girls ‘needed’ (or so the rhetoric went). Both her husbands had abused her and while that was hardly unusual in Victorian Britain, her refusal to accept it also spoke to her combative nature.

Sarah was no passive victim, either of domestic abuse or the criminal justice system and a society that had condemned her. She strongly protested her innocence and refused to meekly accept her fate. It did her no good of course and she was hanged at Bedford on the 5 August 1843 in front of thousands of spectators.

The papers reported that 10,000 people watched her last moments:

the signal was given, and the moment the drop fell, and the unhappy wretch, after a few convulsive struggles, ceased to exist in this world’.

Well at least that’s what the papers say happened. Given that they also reported she’d been hanged for the murder of two husbands and her daughter (which was false of course) we might take their reportage with some skepticism at least. In fact nearly all reports of executions are the same: the crowd is quiet at the point the executioner ‘turns off’ the condemned; they ‘struggle’ briefly, ‘expire’, and are cut down. There is no description of the awful trauma that a body can experience in a hanging like this, almost as if no one dared to look upon the person dangling at the end of a rope.

Sarah Dazley fitted the image of the Victorian murderess: she used poison, refused to bow to male authority, and seemingly took control of her own sexuality. In other words she challenged the patriarchy and paid for it with her life.

Drew Gray (August, 2018)

References:

Judith Flanders, The Invention of Murder

Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, Wednesday, August 9, 1843

The Morning Post , Monday, August 07, 1843

 

 

 

Women on trial? Rape and the law in Georgian and Victorian England

This week at the University of Northampton there are a number of events and talks are being held to raise awareness about healthy relationships, consent and sexual harassment. As part of this I decided to include a new lecture and seminar workshop on rape as part of my second year History of Crime module (HIS2010 Crime, Policing & Punishment in England, 1700-1900).

We have been discussing the topic of gender and its impact on crime and the court for the last couple of weeks and so students from History, Criminology and Law have been trying to understand why it was that the courts of 18th and 19th century England treated women in ways that were often quite different than men.

The prevailing social mechanism of patriarchy effectively meant that  most women were excluded from the law. Once married women became the property of their husbands, often before that they were the property of their fathers, and in between they were severely disadvantaged as second-class citizens in a male dominated society.

Students were fairly shocked to see that wife beating was commonly justified by men who felt entitled (under the much trumpeted if not strictly legal ‘rule of thumb’) to discipline their spouses so long as they did not go ‘too far’.

By contrast female thieves that acted under male coercion were sometimes able to escape justice by arguing that they were only ‘obeying orders’. This didn’t always work however but those women that found themselves sentenced to death could always opt to ‘plead the belly’ if they were pregnant (or could persuade a midwife they were).

Patriarchy most obviously disadvantaged women and girls who were subjected to male sexual violence. Survivors (which is as Joanna Bourke says, a much better terms than ‘victims’) were hamstrung by a system which was run entirely by and for the male half of the population.

In court (and most rape charges never got as far as a court, being settled or dismissed beforehand)  survivors were forced to tell their stories in front an audience that was exclusively male. Since a successful prosecution required  graphic detail of the sexual encounter, with evidence of penetration and (until the 1820s) male ejaculation, the court was cleared of any women and children.

The survivor therefore had to face the sneers and leers of her wider male community as she tried to explain what had happened to her. Given that a respectable and chaste young woman was not supposed to know anything about sex until her wedding night most resorted to euphemism and stumbled through their testimony ineffectually.

Cross -examination (by a barrister or their abuser) was routine, brutal and uncompromising. After all, it was said, rape was easy to cry and hard to disprove. A man’s life was literally on the line until capital punishment was removed from the penalty for rape in 1841.

If a survivor had known her attacker, if she had been seen out with him, or if he had been a regular visitor to her home then a conviction was unlikely. If she had placed herself in a vulnerable situation (such as walking out at night or across the fields unaccompanied) conviction was unlikely. If she was a poor domestic servant and her rapist a respectable pillar of society, then conviction was unlikely.

Her reputation would be dragged through the court and exposed to male view, just as her body had been exposed and used by her attacker. Even when men were convicted, as Elizabeth Cureton’s rapist was in 1829, a male dominated society would often bind itself together to  rescue him from the awful punishment his crime had earned him.

Rape or attempted rape epitomises 18th and 19th century attitudes towards women. Society was supposed to protect women, but only so long  as women played the game. If a woman (like Elizabeth Cureton whose case my students will explore through the records that the pardoning process for her abuser generated)  had attempted to live an independent life, had taken lovers, and avoided a marriage of convenience then she was deemed ‘fair game’. Many rape survivors in the past had their right to give consent removed from them by men that believed that their own own rights superseded those of the entire female sex.

Drew Gray