Intimate Homicide: Gender and Crime Control, 1880-1920

92 Pages Posted: 10 Oct 2005


The received wisdom, among feminists and others, is that historically the criminal justice system tolerated male violence toward women. Drawing on previously unexplored archival material, Intimate Homicide: Gender and Crime Control, 1880-1920 demonstrates that this story is in need of revision. It dramatically revises feminist understanding of the legal history of public responses to intimate homicide by showing that, in both the eastern and the western United States, men accused of killing their intimates often received stern punishment, whereas women charged with similar crimes were treated with leniency. Moreover, men who killed their lovers, spouses, or other family members in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were executed in larger numbers than today.

Although no formal battered woman's defense existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, courts and juries implicitly recognized one - and even extended it to abandoned women who killed their unfaithful partners. In contrast, when men were accused of intimate murder, the provocation doctrine and other defenses were applied narrowly, and men were held to higher standards of self-control. Jury verdicts and appellate opinions thus reveal concern to police masculinity by punishing men who killed their intimates and by excusing, or even justifying, women's lethal reactions to mistreatment from men. Such paternalistic efforts to condemn male abuse of women did not go uncontested; competing norms led to a deplorable failure to prevent domestic violence from occurring. Nevertheless, the research presented here undercuts the common scholarly view that a hegemonic gender ideology tolerant of extreme violence against women controlled public responses to intimate homicide. This article is not simply a matter of interest to legal historians. Rather, it also requires criminal law scholars and feminists, such as the author, to re-examine the underpinnings of their theories.

Keywords: Domestic violence, provocation, heat of passion, infidelity, voluntary manslaughter, insanity, self defense, battered woman, separation assault, jury nullification, death penalty, capital punishment, masculinity, gender norms, paternalism, patriarchy, civility, Victorian

JEL Classification: K14, K42, K19, K39

Suggested Citation

Ramsey, Carolyn B., Intimate Homicide: Gender and Crime Control, 1880-1920. University of Colorado Law Review, Vol. 77, p. 101, 2006, U of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 06-11, Available at SSRN:

Carolyn B. Ramsey (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States
303-735-5028 (Phone)


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