Tag Archives: victorian

Coverture points in a cause célèbre

As I have been mentioning (rather a lot!) in recent posts, I am currently pulling together a few thoughts on coverture for what one might generously describe as ‘a paper’, for a conference on that topic.[i] The content will be mostly medieval, with a few links to the law and legal history of the present.[ii] I do enjoy delving into a bit of 19th and early 20th C ‘public awareness’ stuff too though,[iii] and the thing which really strikes me about discussions of coverture in that period is the level of opposition based not on ideas about oppression and limitation of women’s lives, but about the ill effects coverture might have on men, or the ways in which women might use it to their advantage (unfairly, of course …) to escape some liability. I have touched upon this sort of thing in a previous post concerning the deployment  of coverture as a (sneaky) way of escaping debts. Another implication of coverture, which seems to have caused exaggerated fear amongst Victorian newspaper readers and writers, arose in a more felonious context: there was concern that women might take advantage of ‘marital coercion’ to weasel out of the consequences of serious crime.

Since well before the Norman conquest, English law has had some idea of taking into account the possibility that a wife might participate in offending conduct not because she chooses to do so, and is generally a bad lot, but because her husband forces her to offend, or to join in his misconduct in one way or another.[iv] Early accounts are focused upon theft, and to suggest that there was ever a broad ‘doctrine of marital coercion’, such as might be used to avoid the consequences of homicide, would be a fairly large exaggeration. This spectre was, however, raised in the 19th C press. We can definitely see it in accounts of ‘The Bermondsey Murder’ and its aftermath in newspapers of 1849.

The story of this much-discussed homicide was as follows:[v] a man called Patrick O’Connor had been shot with a pistol, and bashed over the head for good measure, in Bermondsey. Result: death. His ‘mutilated remains’ were found in August 1849, (and the corpse’s false teeth seem to have played some part in identification). Suspicion fell upon a married couple, the Mannings.[vi] Mrs (Maria) Manning was caught in Edinburgh and Mr (Frederick Charles) Manning was caught in Jersey.[vii] He then said that Mrs Manning had instigated the whole thing and fired the shot to the head of O’Connor (as he went down some stairs).  Amongst the general enjoyment of a horrible crime, and the potential of a bit of scandal, there was, apparently, some concern that ‘the law of coverture’ would let Mrs Manning off the hook (or the gallows …). That people might be concerned about this was implied by a letter to the Times by one ‘W.E.K.’ of Lincoln’s Inn Fields.[viii] Was this a response to genuine concern or a gratuitous display of having read a bit of obscure law? I am not sure. In any case, W.E.K., plonking down the authority of Hale, reassured Times readers that ‘the plea of “coverture” being urged as a shield over the acts of Mrs Manning’ would not actually work in this context. As he put it, ‘The public may rest satisfied that the plea of coverture will not shield Mrs Manning from the sword of offended justice.’  Phew – so that was all right.  The pair, having sold a lot of newspapers, were convicted and executed.[ix]

The ’marital coercion’ point was not the only ‘coverture’ point relating to this case. We also have discussion of property and allegiance aspects. The property point arose once both the Mannings had been apprehended, when there was something of a dispute as to how to deal with the money found on Mrs Manning at her arrest. Could Mr Manning have it (at least, some of the money not obviously pinched from Mr O’Connor) for his defence, because … coverture and all …[x] That whole ‘man gets all the personal property’ part of coverture could certainly be a bit of a problem in the situation in which spouses were both accused of a crime and were going a bit ‘cut throat’ in their defence, with separate representation to fund … The allegiance point related to jury composition.  ‘Coverture’ meant Mrs Manning was unable to secure a trial by a jury made up half of aliens, as she wished, because she had married an Englishman.

Finally, and more of a ‘women in general’ point than a coverture point as such, there is endless fascination in the gendered nature of reporting of criminal defendants. Far more attention is paid to the clothes and appearance of Maria Manning than is the case in relation to her husband. It also seems very important to know how attractive she was (woman accused of murder: hot or not?). The authoritative view given in the Times of 24th August, 1849 was that, while she was ‘very neatly dressed’, and had ‘easy and graceful manners’, she was not ‘by any means what may be styled beautiful, as some of the papers have asserted’. Ah, glad we cleared that up. Obviously deserved to hang then.




Image: Maria Manning, from this.  Officially not beautiful, right?

[i] Still looks more like a collection of individual points as opposed to a coherent whole – hey, a bit like coverture itself … and I have in no way just gone in my head from the idea of a paper on coverture to the fact that, in ‘rock, paper, scissors’, paper covers rock ….

[ii] Sorry, early modernists, once again your period is being treated as ‘the flyover centuries’ … love you really …

[iii] i.e. doing lazy online searches of old newspapers …

[iv] Shameless self-citation – see c.6 of my Women in the Medieval Common Law. Other accounts are available.

[v] Times, 18th August, 1849  onwards: there seem to be daily reports,

[vi] Mrs Manning, nee Maria Rue/ de Roux,  was ‘a native of Geneva’, or of Lausanne, though I am sure that her foreignness had nothing to do with the negative attitude of the press …The suggestion was that O’Connor and she were ‘at it’.

[vii] Lots of detail on detectives, police co-operation etc., for those who like that sort of thing; also note that Mr Manning, on the run,  was tucked up in bed by 9.30 – a slightly incongruous touch?

[viii] Times, 29th August, 1849.

[ix] Times, 14th November, 1849. I am, no doubt, sounding rather flippant, but, as well as acknowledging that this is all grim beyond words, I do have a serious academic concern relating to this material, It is this – I note that a fair amount of modern scholarship on coverture takes the line that women (implicitly a fair number of them), rather than being ‘helpless victims’ of coverture rules, managed to use their artificial relegation from full personhood to their own benefit. We should, I think, at least pause to note that this idea of flipping an oppressive doctrine to one’s own advantage was present in the minds of those deeply invested in maintaining discriminatory structures.

[x] Times 5th September, 1849.

Law and love in the local papers

Here’s one for those with a high tolerance for Victorian humour – a ‘gem’ I turned up while on the hunt for coverture references (there is a brief one, but so much … more). I have had it in my file for a while, under the heading ‘Putrid lawyer love note’, which may give the game away slightly …

It is to be found in that essential publication, the Glamorgan, Monmouth and Brecon Gazette and Merthyr Guardian for 30th December 1843, and you can see it via Welsh Newspapers, courtesy of the National Library of Wales, here.

The letters pages of these papers demonstrate just how much time some people had on their hands – here, the correspondent is one ‘Lycurgus’ (how they did like their classical references … are we not impressed?) makes up a ‘funny’ story about having picked up a piece of paper dropped by a buzy attorney at unidentified assizes, which – how amusing – turns out to be a love letter, pressing the lawyer’s case with the woman he wants to marry. Even more amusingly, the attorney has stuffed it full of legal language, e.g. ‘Cupid … has taken my heart into custody and will not accept of bail’. There are tipstaffs, green wax, affidavits, nonsuits, rejoinders, demurrers, enfeoffments (though the printer struggled with that one), Ca. sa., , essoins, and all manner of other legal terms and things. And the killer argument in favour of acceptance? ‘‘How vastly preferable the title of a feme covert to that of a feme sole’. I can only say Hmmm!

Once the queasiness dies down, it is quite an interesting little piece of whimsy, suggesting wide recognition of the sorts of technical terms lawyers might use – procedure and pleading terms are to the fore. And although it is mocking lawyers, it is doing so quite gently – so, an interesing snippet on the reputation of the profession, I suppose.

(The letter goes on to greater depths, with an abysmal poem about a husband and wife arguing … I do so hope that there was no Mrs Lycurgus …).



Image – suggesting love and suchlike. Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

Swooning and sexual offences: recent article

Thoughts on Victoria Bates (2016): ‘Under Cross-Examination She Fainted’: Sexual Crime and Swooning in the Victorian Courtroom’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2016)

As an openly medievalist legal historian, I am not a regular reader of this journal, but am glad that I was put on the trail of this very interesting study of the fascinating but frustrating world of the Victorian trial. There is so much information, in comparison with the trials of earlier eras (and – hurrah – no Latin), and yet it often feels as if the most important things remain annoyingly opaque.

The author makes a good point about the various meanings and readings of fainting/loss of consciousness in women, in connection with sexual offences and sexual offences trials. The volume of court records studies is such as to impress the most train-spottingly completist legal historian (guilty), and the material brought in here is a valuable addition to the burgeoning literature on sexual offences, and attitudes to them, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The whole thing got me thinking about whether the use of the swoon in descriptions of sexual offences was something of a compromising device – getting a jury on the side of the prosecutrix in a trial for an offence less than rape (most of the cases covered here are ‘lesser offences’), whilst perhaps making the facts as presented less of a ‘fit’ for rape (even if the act was in fact completed) because there would be a problem in relation to lack of demonstrated absence of consent.

Anyway – a good piece of work and worth a look.

Prisons and aliens: new articles of legal-historical interest, January 2016

Prisons and aliens: new articles of Legal Historical interest, January 2016

Two to note on ‘early release’ from Historical Researchhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1468-2281/earlyview

J.M. Moore, ‘Reformative rhetoric and the exercise of corporal power: Alexander Maconochie’s regime at Birmingham prison 1849-51’, explores the wide gap between what was said and what was actually done by this former Australian penal settlement gaoler in the new prison at Birmingham, and provides an important correction to  the former positive view of his practices. Maconochie’s ‘mark system’ ideas of task-based sentences leading to mental submission are quite well known. The lack of political approval of a trial of the mark system in the domestic context is interesting, however, and the evidence on actual practice in Birmingham given here is, however, illuminating (in a dark way). Unable to link tasks/behaviour and length of sentence, Maconochie linked these things to food and conditions in a very harsh way, and was rather keen on flogging boys and imposing lengthy physical restraints on women. A lack of respect for the need to record such punishments, and the use of his family members in various unofficial roles in the prison combine to give the impression of an arrogant man who did not respond well to frustration, and was determined to try and push through his theories, despite opposition. (I would like to hear more about his wife’s attempts to use mesmerism and homeopathy in the reform of prisoners though).

B. Lambert and W.M. Ormrod, ‘A matter of trust: the regulation of England’s French residents during wartime, 1294-1377’ looks at the treatment of suspect aliens during periods of uncomfortable relations with France, under the first three Edwards. The article notes the flexible response of government at various levels to the ‘problem’ of aliens. ‘Nationality’ was not regarded as a simple or conclusive matter at this point, before the late-14th C introduction of the formal process of ‘denization’ became established. Important differences between the treatment of ‘alien priories’, nobles and those of lower social rank are noted here, with the suggestion of a move from heavy to more flexible regulation in the case of the last group which may be at odds with expectations from earlier research on alien priories and nobles. The central argument is well made and there is much hard-won and useful detail on practice. From a local point of view, it is interesting to see the lack of desire to aggravate foreigners evident in the report of a mayor of Bristol, asked in 1337 to assess and identify the property in the city which was held by Frenchmen, for purposes of confiscation, who chose to say that there just wasn’t any (which was surely untrue) (p.12). Thinking more widely, this article provides very useful ideas and material to include in historical (and current political) work on the nature of nationality and allegiance, and on immigration, beyond the medieval period.

GS 16/1/2016

Worth a look: Raffles

Worth a look: R.W. Ireland, ‘Criminology, class and cricket: Raffles and real life’. Legal Studies article

Legal Studies has not always been known for its articles on Legal History, but there is a good one in the current issue – Richard Ireland’s consideration of the Raffles stories in their historical context. These stories, once extraordinarily popular, deal with the adventures of a cricket-playing gentleman burglar. I have never been a fan of them (cricket, gentlemanly caddishness – enough said) but they certainly were a striking success, and this article is an original exploration of their relevance to ideas of crime, ‘criminal classes’ and professionalism, past and present.

I am even less of a fan of Foucault than I am of cricket, and it is unfortunate that anyone looking at the history and theories of criminology and penology feels obliged to mention Foucault. Although Ireland does not reject Foucault, it is good to see him gently pointing out that those who have actually looked at prison history are less likely to be enamoured with his work than some social scientists. Give me Maitland any day.