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Women and Crime in the 18th Century

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Published: Tue, 19 Dec 2017

‘When women commit crimes, they do so in a manner appropriate to their sex.’ (Carol Smart)

Discuss the accuracy of this statement with reference to the Eighteenth Century period.

Criminologists agree that the gender gap in crime is universal: Women are always and everywhere less likely than men to commit criminal acts.

Throughout the ages and with very few exceptions, crime, and especially the more unspeakably vicious and violent acts, have always been seen to be, in the most part, the domain of the male. Rapes, murders and brutal assault were seen as ‘masculine’ misdemeanours, and much evidence is available to show that the more serious crimes were mainly undertaken by males, ‘The majority of British convicts marked for transportation were native Englishmen sentenced in English courts,’ and women only really topped crime figures when it came to prostitution. Women as a gender were widely considered not to be capable of the ferocity or deep-seated evil of men. After all, in eighteenth century patriarchal society, they were widely seen as demure, submissive creatures. True, some had fallen on the wrong side of the tracks and had become petty thieves or whores, but a common contemporary conception seemed to exist that women were pretty much incapable of malice.

Indeed, there is a strong argument to suggest such views were based on classical ideologies. Men and women were perceived to have totally different physical make-ups and possess fundamentally different positive and negative qualities, and in general have a more direct and physical outlook on life. ‘Men were prone to violence, obstinacy, and selfishness, while women’s sins were viewed as the result of their tendency to be ruled by their bodies and their emotions, notably lust.’ This was also perceived when it came to women within crime. Female deviance was seen as primarily one of sexual immorality and as such, a blight on the moral fabric of society rather than direct malice against one individual. They were sent to be involved in shameful, dirty pursuits rather than direct violent crimes, and so the statistics seemed to prove. Women accounted for only 27% of the defendants tried between 1674 and 1834. Indeed, they were generally seen by society as by far the less threatening of the sexes.

However, it is not really surprising that this is the case, and in my view, reflected on the actual position of women in eighteenth century society as well as the perceptions that went with them. After all, women were much less likely to be involved in manual labour, and so generally were not involved with the testosterone fuelled atmosphere of workplaces and alehouses, and had no easy access to blunt ‘weapons’ such as axes, spades and picks which could be escalated to a fatal purpose very easily if a spontaneous fight or argument was to break out amongst the labourers. Coupled with this, the female sphere of society, as the section of society statistically involved in less serious crimes, were only rarely dragged through the court as at this time as only a small fraction of crimes were actually prosecuted.

In fact, court proceedings in the eighteenth century were somewhat biased towards females, in that ‘juries may have been more reluctant to convict women since female crime was perceived as less threatening than that committed by men.’ Indeed, instances of courts going to great lengths to try to and cover up the fact that women could also be morally abhorrent, seem to be in evidence. For example, during the trial of Mary Price in 1718, although the woman in question pleaded guilty to strangling a young girl with a leather strap, a surprised court advised her that it ‘would permit her to withdraw her Plea‘ but she still persisted to plead Guilty. The Court then told her ‘she would do well to consider what she did, for perhaps if she pleaded Not Guilty, [the crime] might not be prov’d upon her.

As it turned out, she stuck with her initial answer, kept her plea guilty and eventually received sentence of death, but this case seems to show a clear attitude of a court who found it extremely difficult to see the viability of violent women. Despite her plea of guilt, frankly terrible crime of strangling a girl and willingness to pay the price of it, it almost seems that she was attempted to be talked round a hanging. Indeed, as well as this, there was even a legal principle called ‘feme covert’, which, although historically not called upon particularly often, was sometimes used to exonerate married women who committed crimes in the presence of their husbands, the rationale being that the ladies were presumed to be following their ‘superior’ spouses commands

However, whatever the statistics may say, the notion that women were guilty only of petty theft and prostitution suffers not only with some particularly bloodthirsty anomalies, but also a number of instances of infanticide and total neglect of young children that goes someway to prove the eighteenth century view of ‘non malicious women’ as quite outdated. ‘Infanticide was seen as the most common form of murder early in the seventeenth century and even upto the early nineteenth century, writers continued to believe that it was a common occurrence‘ and there seems little doubt of its prevalence in the Eighteenth Century. For example, the following case of incredible cruelty took place, and despite the fact that the record seems to suggest guilt, the defendant was exonerated.

‘Mary Tudor, of the Parish of Saint Andrews Holborn,

was indicted for the Murther of her Female Infant Bastard,

on the 18th of January last, by throwing the same into a

House of Office, whereby it was choaked and strangled.

She called a Witness to prove that she was Married, and

that the Child was no Bastard.’

Indeed, infanticide coroners tended only to reach a guilty verdict only in the most obvious cases of infanticide and overlaying (the smothering of children), poisoning and general fatal neglect rarely led to a conviction, being very hard to prove. For example, another case in point, that of Elizabeth Cole, displayed an extremely heartless destruction of a child but, due to extenuating circumstances (including the fact that she danced about the room!) led to her being pronounced ‘not guilty’.

Indicted for the Murder of her Female Infant aged

3 Years, by throwing of her into the River of Thames,

on the 9th of January last. It was prov’d plainly

that the Prisoner had such a Child but in her Defence

it appear’d plain that she had for a considerable

time been under a great trouble of Mind, and particularly

when she lay In three Months ago, would rise out of

her Bed and Dance about the Room

Of course, it must be considered that these women may have been under tremendous social, financial or peer group pressure to somehow dispose of these children, but despite the 18th Century Not Guilty verdict, it is hard, despite the hugely different social contexts of contemporary morals and those of the 1700’s, to find these acts anything other than terrible admissions of cold blooded human murder. Indeed, although these are merely two examples, it seems that many other such acts did take place, and really must encourage the Historian to question the idea that women were as innocent of violent crimes as popular belief and statistics of the time suggested them to be. Hundreds of surviving records of infanticide are testament to some of the outrageous cruelty that took place the hands of eighteenth century women who slaughtered their own flesh and blood.

However, infanticide was not the only form of cruelty that took place, and as well as the rather shocking examples of murdering ones own children that perpetuated the legal catalogue of the eighteenth century, other direct murderous crimes were also attached to certain infamous women of crime in this period, proving them to be very much as vicious and bloodthirsty as their men folk. One such example was the case of Catherine Hayes who, in 1726, was reported to have orchestrated the gruesome murder of her husband through two accomplices.

Billins broke his scull as he lay on the bed with an ax, and

knock’d out his brains, which causing a great effusion of blood,

the good woman advis’d to cut the head off, which was done accordingly;

she afterwards brought them a box to put the body in.

She was later hung and burnt and caused somewhat of an uproar, one newspaper interestingly describing the incident as an ‘unheard-of murder of her husband,’ suggestingthat the presence of a woman in such an incident really was a distinct shock to English society of the time. Indeed, no one can dispute that murders by women were distinctly less than those of males, as this shock would suggest, but records of malicious ladies seem to be easy to find.

Indeed, Catherine Hayes’s misadventure was certainly not an isolated incident. Another case talks of a Mistress severely whipping, burning (with a red-hot poker) and beating her maidservant with a hammer for allegedly stealing a shilling, while another lady was burnt at the stake for stabbing her husband in the groin with a particularly large carving knife. Still worse was the case of the two Sarah Metyard’s (mother and daughter) who beat, locked away and eventually starved to death a thirteen year old girl, seemingly through nothing more than sadistic reasoning, as the following testament from another girl in the mothers service seems to testify.

The mother was present, and she held the girl by the head while

the daughter beat her; the mother was in bed, and the girl upon it:

then she was carried up stairs, and tied to a two pair of stairs

back room door, by the daughter, the string went round her waist,

and her hands were tied behind her; she could neither sit nor lie down.’

But despite all these obvious cases, and indeed, there are many more, why was such a popular view of woman as occasional sexual/petty thief criminals but nothing more, held as such a society definite? Rates of murderous infanticide seemed be relatively high and although criminals seem to have been in the majority male, how can Carol Smarts statement at all be credited when it seems to be flying in the face of such compelling evidence, as even in this brief essay cases of violence, torture, and outlandish cruelty have been discussed. Perhaps these really are isolated cases, but the answer I find more satisfactory is that, especially in the eighteenth century, society demanded that its gender roles dictated that women could be guilty of sexual disgraces and often petty theft (with which to pay for their children’s upkeep or fashions) and that nasty, violent acts were either covered up, treated as madness, or perceived by society as very much a ‘freak’ case.

Of course, coupled with this, the Eighteenth Centuries most famous female criminals were involved in prostitution; Moll Harvey, Moll Freeman and the notorious Mother Needham all received reasonable press coverage and mild infamy when they were caught and presumably ‘set the acceptable tone’ for the extent of female crime in the age. ‘The house lately inhabited by Elizabeth Needham, commony call’d Mother Needham, a notorious lewd prostitute and procuress.’ Although, the fact that these women dominated popular concept of women’s crime cannot justify the short-sighted view that ‘when women commit crimes they do so in a manner to their sex.’

Indeed, in conclusion, I would state that Carol Smart’s statement, while containing a modicum of truth and having statistic advantage on its side, is however hopelessly over generalized and cannot be credited in terms of true historic accuracy. Yes, in terms of eighteenth century’s general moral conciseness, women were far more likely to commit crimes like prostitution and petty theft, but I would argue that this was down primarily to their social position and role in society rather than any particular difference in character as she seems to suggest. As the many cases of infanticide and the chilling acts of murder and torture in this essay suggest, women were certainly capable of anger, cruelty and malice and the eighteenth century view of the female gender as a somehow weaker, submissive sex who could not rise to murderous anger is simply outmoded and very much a product of the time that could not be justified by the actual evidence.

Of course, as my initial quote shows, males statistically are involved in more crime than females. But this does not mean that the female gender is without malice.


Darrell Steffensmeier; Emilie Allan – Gender and Crime: Toward a GenderedTheory of Female Offending (Annual Review of Sociology : 1996)

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