A Diva Defends Herself: Gender and Domestic Violence in an Early Twentieth-Century Headline Trial
23 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2012
Date Written: 2011
This short article was presented as part of a symposium on headline criminal trials, organized by St. Louis University School of Law in honor of Lawrence Friedman. It describes and analyzes the self-defense acquittal of opera singer Mae Talbot in Nevada in 1910 on charges of murdering her abusive husband. Based on extensive research into archival trial records and newspaper reports, the article discusses how the press, the court, and trial lawyers on both sides depicted the killing and Mae’s possible defenses. Without discounting the sensationalism and entertainment value, to a scandal-hungry public, of stories about violent marriages, I contend that press coverage of Mae Talbot’s trial and others like it served an important social function. It helped to make intimate-partner violence a public issue and to define men’s brutality toward their wives as improper and unmanly. However, the newspapers did not always get the story right. Despite reporters’ speculation that Mae would plead insanity, her defense team centered its case on the alternative theories of justifiable homicide and accident. The jury instructions given in the case and filed with the Washoe County Court tell an even more interesting story of a judge who supplemented black-letter self-defense law with commentary on gender roles and the decline of men’s right to beat their wives. The newspapers, the defense lawyers, and ultimately the trial judge all seemed to see the case as one in which the deceased’s wrongful behavior — that is, his brutality toward the defendant — played a central role. Mae was acquitted because she killed a man widely perceived to have violated his duties toward her as a husband. Although she was a glamorous entertainer, her case resonated with the acquittal of many ordinary women accused of murdering their batterers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Keywords: domestic violence, intimate partner violence, intimate partner abuse, murder, homicide, trial, prosecution, defense, insanity, self-defense, family, marriage, divorce, gender, masculinity, respectability, newspapers, press, journalism, media
JEL Classification: K1, K18, K14, K48, K41, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation