"You can't get a jury to convict a good-looking woman" | Bleader

Monday, December 21, 2009

"You can't get a jury to convict a good-looking woman"

Posted By on 12.21.09 at 09:30 AM

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Chicago Tribune, March 7, 1914. Women weren't eligible for jury service in Illinois until 1939, but that was arguably a small price to pay for the privilege of whacking their husbands with virtual impunity.

You probably didn't learn this in your Womyn's History seminar, but it's true. And contrary to this cartoon by John McCutcheon, attractiveness didn't really enter into it. Historian Michael Lesy comments on the phenomenon in his Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties: “The number of murders committed by women in Chicago between 1875 and 1920 increased by 420 percent. Men did most of the killing in the city: murders committed by women . . . accounted for only 6.6 percent of the total. But: very, very few of the women who killed their husbands during that time ever went to jail. Every white woman who killed her husband between August 1905 and October 1918 was exonerated or acquitted, totaling 35 consecutive cases. Thirty-five consecutive cases. . . . Every lawyer who defended a woman who’d killed a man, whether married to him or just having an affair with him, argued—true or not—that their client was innocent, either because she’d acted in self-defense or because she’d been overwhelmed: emotions and intoxicants had impaired her judgment. The jurors who heard such arguments agreed with them because they believed two things. First: women—especially white women—were innocent and not responsible, by reason of their gender. Second: men, white or black, rich or poor, native born or immigrant, were, by their very nature, brutes. The jurors were usually right about the men. ”

Prima facie this seems like a pretty stunning structure of gender bias. But: there are some interesting contextual complications missing from Lesy's account. As I'll demonstrate in subsequent posts, white women in Chicago scarcely had a monopoly on getting away with murder. The fact is that most killers in Chicago and (and, to slightly lesser extent, nationwide) got a walk regardless of gender and no matter how strong the case against them was. The four exceptions to this rule, as we'll see, were wife-killers, cop-killers, homicidal robbers, and (surprise!) African-Americans.

McCutcheon's cartoon generated an interesting echo in the city's legal system. The guy had clout, no doubt.

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The above-mentioned "unwritten law" is a whole other kettle of worms. I'll come back to that later too.

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