Murder, emotion and women’s bodies in nineteenth-century Ireland

Katie Barclay explores the role of emotion and its bodily presentation on perceptions of women on trial for murder in nineteenth-century Ireland.

Murder of a farmer by his wife, Lee’s Pictorial Weekly Budget, 25 March 1876. Courtesy of State Library Victoria.

Female murderers and their emotional lives fascinated the Victorians, just as they do today as series like Alias Grace and the UK’s Dark Angel attest. Nineteenth-century understandings of femininity constructed women, especially of the middle-class, as sensitive, delicate, ideally innocent of the world, and in need of male protection. Female violence, particularly against adult men, unsettled such archetypes, challenging the reputation of the ‘soft sex’. Domestic violence by such women against husbands or children was especially threatening, both for its disruption of patriarchal order and to an increasingly romantic imagining of the home as a refuge from a harsh world, a haven produced through middle-class women’s labour. Within this context, the trials of women for murdering their husbands filled newspapers and periodicals as the public tried to understand and explain such ‘unnatural behaviour’. In making such judgements, how women displayed emotion in court became important, as it was thought to give access to the ‘inner woman’ or ‘character’ of the person. As a result, how emotion was displayed in court had the potential to shape power dynamics within it, giving women an opportunity to ‘speak’ in a system where they had little voice.

The role of emotions in shaping courtroom narratives has been given some limited attention by historians. That reading the demeanour of defendants and witnesses was important to jury decision-making is well-recognised, even regarded as a key reason for the slow ‘lawyerisation’ of the trial across the eighteenth century in England and Ireland. Given the importance of emotion and the body to trial reporting, historians have not ignored female emotion. To affirm his argument that female offenders were received more sympathetically than men in the nineteenth century, Martin Wiener describes the media response to Ann Barber’s ‘bitter and piercing’ shrieks and ‘heart-rending cries’ at execution, and that Mary Ann Higgins had ‘an appearance of modesty and innocence about her which … excited strong feelings of interest and compassion towards her’. For Wiener, it was these women’s displays of emotion that helps explain the court’s sympathetic treatment of them. Yet, as examples from Ireland suggest, women’s emotions could speak to guilt as well as innocence. Displays of emotions could be used to provide complex evidence of character and were even open to manipulation by individuals.

Attempted murder-suicide in Stephen Street. The Citizen, 9 June 1877. Image courtesy of State Library Victoria.

The prosecution of Eleanor Ryan for her husband’s murder in 1825 provides a useful example of how women’s emotions could shape legal processes, and is particularly notable as she was only one of five people tried for the crime. Despite this, at least as represented in the news reports of the trial, it was Ryan, her body, behaviour and emotions, around which the trial revolved. Most reports of the trial followed a similar structure, beginning with a description of Ryan, her person and general behaviour. Some then gave a brief account of her co-defendant, Cusack, a clear villain in the narrative: ‘a settled melancholy in his face, which was of a very dark and fiendish hue. He appeared quite unmoved during the trial, and when the verdict was announced, a sort of sneer of contempt quivered on his lips’. The reports then gave opening speeches and witness testimony, occasionally interspersed with commentary on the defendants’ emotional responses to events. The judge’s charge was mentioned in one line, before the verdict was given. This was followed by the events that surrounded sentencing, a paragraph on Ryan’s person and emotions, and a final section on the public response to the case. Thus the public narrative of the trial was effectively top and tailed by Ryan, with small interventions about her conduct throughout.

Descriptions of Ryan at the outset of the trial noted that she was ‘middle-aged’, yet ‘well looking, and, indeed, might claim a reasonable share of personal beauty’. She had born nine children, of whom three survived. In court, she dressed neatly in a new blue cloak, lined with silk and edged with fur. It was noted, ‘she bore the trial with a good deal of firmness, yet she was repeatedly overwhelmed in tears’. Her emotions are not mentioned again until her seven-year-old daughter is put on the stand. To avoid the emotional showdowns of other trials, the court ‘contrived, that during her entire evidence she did not once see her mother’. Yet, when she left the stand, ‘the unfortunate mother stretched across the other prisoners, to get a last view of her child, and when gone, she leaned upon the prisoner Hall, and seemed to labour under the deepest suffering’.

The testimony given during the trial primarily revolved around descriptions of the murder itself, with Cusack responsible for the physical violence, and Ryan acting as the decision-maker – she sent various people on errands, others to bed, fetched sheets to hide the body, and prevented Cusack from harming her child and her servant (who later testified against them). The others ‘aided’. It was testimony that tempered Ryan’s humane management of Cusack’s violence with a mastery of the situation that belied any presentation of her as an innocent victim. There was no motive given. As her mastery of the crime scene suggests, witness accounts do not describe her as emotional during the murder itself. If there was an emotional demeanour suggested, it was calm and control, rather than passion.

Frontispiece of An Authentic Report of the Trial of Thomas Lidwell, esq on an Indictment for a Rape committed on the Body of Mrs Sarah Sutton … at Naas, Lent Assizes (Dublin: W. Wilson, 1800).

On sentencing, the judge began with Ryan, noting she ‘required all the repentance in her power, before she appeared at the judgment seat … sending, unprepared, to his last account, him whom she was bound and had sworn to cherish’. He also addressed her emotional state, noting ‘he did not say this to aggravate her sufferings, or add to her miseries’. Ryan fainted on the pronouncement of the sentence and did not regain consciousness until later that night. The account given of Ryan after sentencing was more ambivalent, noting she was about ‘twenty-eight years old… her face bore evident marks of extreme anxiety and depression of mind, which made her look considerably older’. They also reported that she ‘perspired copiously during the trial, and frequently wiped her face with a handkerchief. There was something like resignation to the fate which, she must have been confident, awaited her, in her whole demeanour’. Ryan’s acceptance of her fate was also marked at her execution, two days after her trial. She had acknowledged her guilt and ‘seemed perfectly resigned’ to her fate: ‘she had a high blush and walked with great firmness’, submitting to the execution with ‘calmness’. In contrast, Cusack ‘was composed, but not equally firm’, a representation of his emotion that continued the narrative of his unmanly villainy.

As the surviving account of the trial is an incomplete recording of events, it is problematic to use it as a direct representation of the trial itself. Yet, as the purpose of such accounts was generally to convey to readers the reason why a particular verdict was reached, that the account fills the gaps in the trial evidence with Ryan’s emotions on the stand perhaps reflects similar dynamics within the courtroom. From this, it can be argued that the opening affirmation of Ryan’s composure, ‘she bore the trial with a good deal of firmness’, and its subsequent deterioration, through emotional distress at a daughter’s testimony, to a conclusion that her resignation to her fate had been marked on her body throughout, perhaps tells a story of how Ryan’s emotions – or at least how it was read by others – evolved over the trial in light of testimony. As her composure failed, her anxiety aged her, her sweat demonstrated her concern, and her resignation became evident, so her guilt became apparent. Ryan’s body provided emotional evidence of guilt that helped temper the absence of motive and explanation found in the trial testimony itself. More complexly, her ultimate resignation of her fate and her calm demeanour at execution acted to recuperate her character (suggestive of true repentance and humanity), perhaps easing the anxieties of an era that struggled to accept the possibility of the murderous wife and mother. As violence was more readily associated with men, it was less culturally important for Cusack to show emotional composure. Indeed, his lack of firmness confirmed his unmanly criminality. Whilst the display of emotion on the body was thus interpreted through gendered expectations, women’s emotions could provide complex messages for the court that helped the watching public make sense of inexplicable crimes.

Katie Barclay is a historian at the University of Adelaide and in 2017-18, EURIAS Marie Curie Fellow at the Aarhus Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Aarhus. Her book Men on Trial: Emotion, Embodiment and Identity in Ireland, 1800-1845 is forthcoming with Manchester University Press. For more on this topic see her article.

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