Female killers have always excited a combination of horror and sympathy, the latter emotion almost never expressed for male killers. In the case of Sarah Jane Whiteling, a 40-year-old American woman who murdered the three members of her family in 1888, sympathy led a local psychiatric doctor to lobby for an insanity-based defense exclusive to women which, though not successful in commuting Whiteling’s sentence, found favor with other doctors and affirmed the many theories of women’s reduced criminal capacity that were common in the nineteenth century and remain common today.
The murders took place over a period of about 2 months—from March 20 to May 22, 1888—with each family member dispatched individually, and Whiteling likely never would have been suspected if she had stopped at two killings. Her husband’s death in March was ruled a suicide, and her daughter’s death, one month later, was considered a case of gastric fever.
But when Whiteling’s baby boy died in the same manner the following month, the suspicions of the family doctor were at last aroused; he contacted the local Coroner, who ordered the bodies exhumed, and all three were found to have died from arsenic poisoning. Whiteling confessed at the Coroner’s Inquest, admitting that the idea to poison her husband had come to her as she was walking home with the rat poison; at the conclusion of her trial, she was sentenced to death by hanging, the first woman to be hanged in Philadelphia in over a century and a half.
During and after the trial, Whiteling’s defense team and supporters attempted to excuse Whiteling with an insanity plea, a common defense for female killers which, as we’ll see in a future essay, was often successful. What is of interest for our purposes is the particular focus on establishing a legal exemption for murder available only to women, an exemption that clearly exceeded the relatively narrow confines of insanity as it was traditionally defined in a court of law.
primary witness for the defence was an influential female doctor
considered an expert in women’s psychiatric illnesses. Dr. Alice
Bennett, who had a medical degree and a PhD from the University of
Pennsylvania, and had been since 1880 the Chief Physician at the
Women’s Division of the State Hospital for the Insane in
Norristown, Pennsylvania, six miles northwest of Philadelphia. In her
own life, she disproved the widely held notion that professional
opportunities were closed to 19th century women or that
their male colleagues discriminated against them; Bennett had been
offered her leadership position by the esteemed Dr. Hiram Corson, who
believed that female patients were best treated by women.
As we will see, Dr. Bennett not only treated women but became a staunch advocate for women, proposing a defense of Whiteling, and of violent women in general, on the basis that women’s physical and mental health was easily unbalanced under conditions of duress, and that especially in cases of seemingly motiveless violence or the killing of family members, juries and medical authorities should be inclined to recommend leniency because the very nature of the violence indicated that the woman could not be morally responsible.
At Whiteling’s trial, Dr. Bennett contended that Whiteling was not intellectually strong and had debilitating heart and other organ diseases, which led to functional derangement particularly at the times when her menstrual periods were due. In Dr. Bennett’s estimation, Sarah Whiteling could not be held responsible for the planning and execution of the three murders despite the fact that the poisonings had been committed not in one episode of alleged derangement but over a 2-month period involving fairly elaborate decision-making, concealment, and lies, and that Whiteling had understood the nature of her crimes well enough to cover up her involvement for months.
Dr. Bennett did not directly address these aspects of the crimes, arguing instead that even if Whiteling’s illness did not entirely excuse her actions—or make her incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, the traditional definition of insanity—her alleged illness should mitigate the harshness of her punishment, and that rather than be condemned to death, Whiteling should be sent to a psychiatric hospital, where she could recover and eventually rejoin society. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury ignored Bennett’s recommendations, voting unanimously to convict Whiteling after only 2 hours of deliberation.
Bennett, however, continued to advocate for Whiteling. While
Whiteling was being held in jail awaiting execution, Bennett
delivered a lengthy paper to the Medico-Legal Society of New York on
March 13, 1889; her purpose being to convince members of the society
to approach the Board of Pardons on Whiteling’s behalf.
Titled “Periodic Insanity as Illustrated in the Case of Sarah J. Whiteling and Others,” the paper was eventually published in the society’s journal, along with responses, both written and oral, by those who heard it. The paper, which is available online, provides a fascinating window onto the response of psychiatric and legal experts, illustrating their widespread inclination to offer leniency to women who commit atrocious crimes.
In the paper, Bennett developed an elaborate feminist defense of female violence, arguing that female killers required special understanding and empathy that male jurors, judges, and lawmakers tended to lack. She began the paper with an appeal to her mostly male peers—though there were a number of female doctors and lawyers present at the Society meeting—that they give credence to a female exemption for heinous crime: “I have come here tonight to appeal to you, and through you, on behalf of woman as criminal: woman, upon whom nature has laid peculiar burdens” (p. 1).
Mentioning two other Philadelphia cases she was personally familiar with, in which violent women had been found not guilty by reason of insanity (see pp. 16-19)—one a case in which a woman had cut her baby’s throat, the other in which a woman had attacked the woman she worked for and her baby—Bennett argued that reproductive forces operated on women in a way that they did not operate on men, and that women therefore deserved to be judged less harshly. She emphasized also the hardship of women’s lives, including “frequent child-bearing, with the never-ending wear and tear of body and mind, which men so seldom understand” as well as the “cares of a household” (p. 5). These cares, she went on to observe, were often of such intensity and duration, and so often unlightened by any kind words, that it was a wonder any woman stayed sane.
“When I consider how often is lacking in [a woman’s] [life] the kind words and sympathy which alone make such a stupendous drain upon her vital forces possible, safely possible, then I wonder, not that women become insane, but that they do not more often become so” (p. 5).Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr. Bennett did not consider that working men labored under equal or greater strain on body and mind, that the reproductive urge was in some respects even more intense in men, or that men ever had unpitied cares and burdens that might weaken their resilience or moral restraint. Such an argument would not likely have been well received.
Dr. Bennett’s analysis was a typical feminist balancing act that drew back from claiming that menstruation or menopause caused mental illness outright, but insisted that “There lies in every woman a potential liability to explosive nervous phenomena at this period” (p. 3). When combined with other life stressors—poverty, abuse, emotional distress—this female physical weaknesses could cause behavioral aberrations beyond the woman’s control. The very unnaturalness of deeds such as Whiteling’s, she observed “should plead for the doer.”
In other words, the more repulsive and cruel a woman’s behavior—such as watching her husband and children suffering in agony—the more it deserved to be excused as a type of insanity. Such reasoning worked on the assumption that women were naturally not prone to violence, and that therefore violence, when committed, was evidence of unnatural derangement.
Dr. Bennett’s document demonstrates her sympathetic projection of exculpatory victimhood onto Whiteling and her deliberate suppression of any evidence showing Whiteling to have been merely indifferent to her victims’ suffering, or even coldly calculating for her own benefit. Bennett was happy to blacken the name of Whiteling’s dead husband merely on Whiteling’s word, paraphrasing Whiteling in saying that “While not positively unkind he was a drinking man, indisposed to work, and allowed her to wash, scrub, etc. for the support of the family” (p. 7). Note how the admitted fact that Whiteling’s husband had never been abusive is reinterpreted as “not positively unkind.” The weaselly phrase “indisposed to work” is used to suggest that Whiteling’s husband did not work, though that is not what was said (and in fact the family doctor had noted that Whiteling’s husband had worked regularly, see Weiss, p. 384). The fact that the husband was poor is made to speak against him in that he did not prevent his wife from contributing to the support of the family household.
Bennett accepted without skepticism Whiteling’s after-the-fact claims that she had not intended to murder any of her family members, but had merely wanted to “quiet” her victims rather than kill them. Whiteling had actually confessed to the Coroner that “she wanted to get rid of them all because they were an encumbrance,” but Bennett dismissed the statement as “inconsistent with all my knowledge of her” (p. 8). Having adopted a sympathetic ideal of Whiteling as an innocent victim, Bennett simply ruled out of order any details that did not fit it.
In describing the acts of murder themselves, Bennett made no mention of the agony of the victims over the hours or days while they lay dying, though the agony of the husband, at least, had been witnessed by a neighbor and reported at the Coroner’s inquest (quoted in Weiss, p. 385). Whereas Whiteling’s stress, headaches, and dizziness were dwelt upon at length in exoneration of her acts, the victims’ agonizing pain, frequent vomiting, diarrhea, and death convulsions—horrific features of arsenic poisoning—are entirely omitted from Bennett’s discussion.
Of the death of Whiteling’s nine-year-old daughter, we are told only that “The child lived four days” (p. 8) after being dosed with rat poison, a poison allegedly administered to make her “a better girl” in the mother’s incredible words. Then “On May the 22d, she gave some of the same powder to her son Willie, aged 2 years, and he also died after a sickness of four days” (p. 8). Bennett accepted Whiteling’s assurance that she had given only one dose of poison, not several, to her children.
Any statements by Whiteling seeming to indicate lack of remorse or the desire to collect on insurance money (the lives even of the children having been insured, a common practice of the time) were dismissed by Bennett as inaccurate or unfair, while convenient expressions of sadness and piety were seized upon to palliate Whiteling’s wrongdoing. Bennett reported that after her killing spree, Whiteling had decided to commit suicide in order to be with her family members in heaven though conveniently had not done so; Bennett quoted Whiteling that “Several times she tried to take the poison, but ‘something seemed to prevent her lifting the glass,’ and she gradually came to believe that she was forgiven [by God], and went to church, resolved to live a better life” (p. 9). The notion that living a better life would necessarily involving taking responsibility for her crimes seems not to have occurred either to Whiteling or her sympathetic defender, who went so far as to state of Whiteling that “Her nature is kind and affectionate; never vicious, ill-tempered, or resentful” (p. 11).
After speaking with Whiteling in her cell during her final visit, Dr. Bennett concluded with pathos that, “As I left her in her prison cell, I could not help wondering what possible end was to be served; in how much was society to be the safer, the majesty of the law to be vindicated, by killing this simple, ignorant, unfortunate victim of forces which had proved too strong for her feeble powers of resistance” (p. 16). The fact that Whiteling’s death might save future husbands and children from an agonizing death did not seem to strike Bennett as worth considering.
its clear partiality, Dr. Bennett’s analysis found favor with many
of the male doctors who heard or read her paper, many of whom
concurred that Whiteling’s sanity was seriously in doubt. Dr. Peter
Bryce of the Alabama Insane Hospital was particularly commendatory,
heartily agreeing with Dr. Bennett’s diagnosis: “I have met with
many cases in my thirty years’ care of the insane of the homicidal
in women at the climacteric period of life. A few years ago,
a lady of superior culture and refinement aged twenty-eight,
developed a species of homicidal mania two weeks after her marriage
to her second husband. She attempted the life of this husband, and
succeeded in destroying with poison her two children by a former
husband. She was sent here [to the Asylum], and in three months was
returned home perfectly restored, and has since made a good wife and
mother.” He ended, “I trust that your efforts in behalf of Mrs.
Whiteling will prove successful and that we shall hear no more in
this humane and enlightened age of the barbarous and disgraceful
practice of condemning the insane to death” (p. 22).
Dr. C.A. Rice from the East Mississippi Insane Asylum concurred that it was the duty of the Medico-Legal Society to interpose for mercy (p. 23) while J.J. Elwell, a Cleveland lawyer, was “inclined to believe the defendant not responsible for her act—the victim of disease, and not able to discriminate between right and wrong” (p. 24).
Many were generally of the opinion that, as Mrs. M Louise Thomas phrased it, “I do not believe any woman in her right mind will destroy her child” (p. 30). The belief in female purity and maternal love was so strong that, even with clear evidence to the contrary, many authorities simply asserted that the woman killer MUST be insane.
all those in attendance were convinced, and a few raised issues that
remain pertinent today, including, as we’ll see, some women who
were present. A.P. Reid of the Nova Scotia Hospital for Insane found
that “Dr. Bennett’s article is well written, but she tries to
prove too much. Her plea is that a menstrual woman, especially if a
little light-headed, can be guilty of no crime—even murder. Of all
the objections I have heard against women practicing as doctors, I
have never seen the objection so forcibly, and I believe accurately,
put as she has done” (p. 25).
A. P. Reid
Lucy M. Hall was also skeptical of the exemption for women on the
basis of reproductive weakness. Though acknowledging that in her
experience as chief physician at the State Reformatory for Women in
Massachusetts, menstruation did often coincide with times of
agitation and violence in women, she did not consider these women
insane but merely lacking in self-control. Moreover, she was uneasy
with the general tenor of the argument that women who became agitated
for some cause were to be excused for murderous acts. “I have known
women whose shoes were too tight to become nervous and excited, and
commit offences, and there are a thousand things that will make
persons nervous and make them lose their balance, besides the one
under consideration. I must say that I do not admire the tendency of
scientific people, who are invariably finding scientific reasons,
such as heredity, inebriety, and the subject under discussion, for
all sorts of disorderly conduct, and we are in danger of arriving at
a state where we will hold no one responsible for their misdeeds”
Lucy M. Hall
Dr. Elizabeth Bradley went to the heart of the matter in stating that “I do not think there should be a separate law for women and one for men” (p. 31). And Mr. Moritz Ellinger emphasized the larger question raised by asking, “Are we to recognize as a fact that women are so constituted organically that they cannot occupy the same positions that require the same force and strength that man must give in order to carry out his destiny?” (p. 32).
This question about women’s “equality” was not answered by Dr. Bennett, and we know the general feminist answer then and now. Only when women commit crimes are they to be regarded as weaker and less responsible than men.
In the end, Sarah Jane Whiteling was not pardoned by the Philadelphia Board of Pardons. Her hanging took place on June 25, 1889.
But the arguments made by Dr. Alice Bennett about the reduced capacity of women, and the readiness of many of the persons present, both male and female, to accept them, offer compelling evidence of the general unwillingness of 19th century authorities to hold women responsible for evil acts. Then as now, experts reached for mitigating causes, portraying women, unlike men, as innately good and prone to bad acts only when victims themselves.
The deep unwillingness to punish women or even to believe them conscious wrongdoers made it possible for significant numbers of women in the 19th century to literally get away with murder.
Account of Sarah Jane Whiteling’s crime and attempted insanity defense: http://jaapl.org/content/jaapl/48/3/384.full.pdf
Dr. Alice Bennett’s presentation to the Medico-Legal Society of New York: https://ia600901.us.archive.org/28/items/101613088.nlm.nih.gov/101613088.pdf
Biography of Dr. Alice Bennett: https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15030275
Biography of Dr. Alice Bennett: https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_32.html
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