Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press


322 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-7420-0
DDC 364.15'23'082094209034




Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is the trade, scholarly, and reference editor of the
Canadian Book Review Annual.


In this wide-ranging and lucidly written study, Judith Knelman, an
associate professor in the Graduate Program in Journalism at the
University of Western Ontario, explores how representations of the
Victorian murderess in the English press both reflected and contributed
to Victorian conceptions of femininity. She demonstrates that women who
killed were more reviled than their male counterparts because they
challenged the “angel in the house” stereotype. Press depictions of
Victorian murderesses as either insane or demoniacal were a function of
their having perverted, by virtue of their crimes, a feminine nature
that was characterized as submissive, nurturing, passive, and

The book is divided into three parts. The two chapters in Part 1
examine patterns of female homicide and the treatment of the murderess
in Victorian fiction and news reports. Part 2 comprises brief case
histories, with chapters organized by type of murder. The chapters in
Part 3 examine male versus female attitudes toward female criminality,
the Victorian preoccupation with the body of the murderess, and the
psychosexual implications of the public fascination with female
executions in the 19th century.

Knelman’s unspectacular working-class killers are far more typical of
Victorian murderesses than the “respectable” middle-class killers
profiled in Mary Hartman’s classic study Victorian Murderesses (1977).
Poisoning was their preferred method of killing, and the vast majority
of their victims were infants and children. Infanticide, particularly on
the part of unmarried mothers, was generally motivated by poverty and
desperation. The lowly status of children in Victorian society was
reflected in the fact that child murder was more or less tolerated. Far
more threatening to the general public was husband murder—or
mutilation. Thus, while the “two most notorious child murderesses of
nineteenth-century England” escaped the death penalty, a woman who
emasculated her husband а la Lorena Bobbitt was convicted and hanged.
Just as sensational was the case of a servant who after strangling her
mistress was rumored to have cut off the head and boiled it,
“thriftily selling what liquefied as ‘best dripping.’”

In shedding light on the gender and class biases that informed
Victorian attitudes to female criminality, this thoughtful and
refreshingly jargon-free study encourages assessment of the prevailing
assumptions of our own time.


Knelman, Judith., “Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 19, 2024,