With so many true crime shows and podcasts in the world you would think that the history of crime has been completely uncovered, but for the women who committed crime throughout history that is not the case. This rich field of research is the focus of Lucy Williams and Barry Godfrey in their book Criminal Women 1850-1920 Researching the Lives of Britain’s Female Offenders. While male criminals are slightly more easy to pin down, women are able to slip through the cracks for a variety of reasons, which makes their history as offenders something remarkably interesting. If you are a history buff or a true crime fanatic this book not only shares the crimes of women who might not know about, but also how you can become a researcher yourself.
The book is broken down into three different sections, which are noted in the chapter titles. Williams and Godfrey begin by discussing the the background of women and the world of crime in relationship to them. This includes discussing why it is more difficult to track female criminals over time and then the types of crimes and the sort of punishment was directly connected to them. They then move their focus to examining specific women through case studies. The final portion of the book shares resources and ways that you can research this area of history yourself. As someone who spent time researching a connected field in graduate school I was immediately intrigued. For two years I spent a tremendous amount of time delving into Victorian London and the crimes that occurred there. Due to the limitations of my own research materials I primarily examined the types of crimes committed overall and how the city of London itself was represented in connection to crimes. This research did not hinge of an examination of gender, though I did notice fewer women were brought before the courts and that they were rarely tied to violence based crimes. Criminal Women 1850-1920 opened up a new avenue for me to learn more about a period I was already invested in.
What I found fascinating at the start of the book was the fact that while women are more likely to commit lower level crimes, when violent actions were taken, such as murder, the media latched onto these cases and they became exceptionally well known by the public. This included both crimes of infanticide and homicide, the first of which would lead to exceptional outrage if the person committing the act was not the mother of the child. There were also some interesting discussions of what happened with women prior to their prison time, which could include supervision for a period of time to try and keep them from re-offending. In case study section one of my favorites was Violet Watson, who continuously managed to escape from a reformatory school, which was an institution designed to help women move away from criminal behavior. Ultimately all of her escape attempts led her to serve time in prison, but her escalating behavior sounds like something out of a work of fiction. Throughout this section they discuss habitual offenders, women who were at multiple institutions, cases that led to execution, and a plethora of other women brought in for a variety of crimes. This diversity allows readers to see just how broad the topic of criminal women can be. You can pick up your own copy of Criminal Women 1850-1920 Researching the Lives of Britain’s Female Offenders from Pen & Sword today.