The headline spread across the front page of the July 6 Bangor Daily News: “Madison gunman kills 3, injures 1.” Many people immediately suspected wife-murder, domestic violence and suicide. A similar shooting in California in April prompted a New York Times editorial about intimate partner violence. Close to 10 women a week are shot to death by husbands, boyfriends or “exes,” hence the title, “ The One-Sided Gun War of the Sexes.”
The Times editorial would have been more effective if it had provided an historical context, easily accessible through the rich resources of the Times’ archives. A search for “wife murder” between 1851 and 1899 produces more than 10,000 hits. “Wife murder suicide” produces more than 2,000. Then, take note of the headlines: “ ANOTHER WIFE-MURDER AND SUICIDE IN ST. LOUIS,” from Feb. 9, 1883, was typical.
The BDN could flesh out its fine coverage of present-day wife-murder with historical material. The Bangor Whig & Courier reported on May 26, 1893, about a divorce-seeking Wisconsin woman killed by her husband who then killed himself. Seven years later, the Bangor Weekly Commercial reported on Nov. 9, 1900, about a wife-murder in Portland. A wife fled to her mother’s; when she refused her husband’s demands that she return, he murdered her, and then he tried to kill himself. The next week, the same paper told about an Ohio man whose wife had filed for divorce. He shot her, and then he cut his own throat.
The number of such cases seems endless, the stories repetitive. They detail frequent abuse, drunkenness, fleeing wives and pursuing husbands. Their ownership of their wives challenged, husbands delivered a clear message: “If I can’t have you, nobody can.”
It is impossible to estimate the number of murdered wives, but there are many frightening comments about how great the tally must be. No one, Anson Bingham, a New York state legislator and early supporter of women’s suffrage, said before the Civil War, would know how many wives had been murdered “until the earth and the sea give up their dead.” Even then, one would be at a loss. As the Times pointed out in 1879: “Bodies are daily and weekly discovered in the rivers. They may represent deaths by accident, by suicide, or by murder.” In her 1878 appeal for the protection of women to the Connecticut Legislature, Lucy Allen referred to the “mysterious death of so many wives.”
To read a newspaper was to see the connection between marriage and murder that Maine-born writer Elizabeth Oakes Smith saw: “to be murdered was one of the possible contingencies of marriage.” Virginian George Fitzhugh’s unsparing criticism of the North came from its newspapers, “filled with … the murders of wives by their husbands.” Suffragist Lillie Devereaux Blake noted the telling spare language often used: “So common are such events that the papers carelessly chronicle even the darkest of them under ‘Minor Items,’ or as ‘Another Wife Murder.’” She went on to ask: “Did any one ever hear of ‘Another Husband Murder’?”
Yes, one could hope that an acute awareness of intimate partner violence would be enough to prompt state legislatures to act. But it is likely that something else is needed, an awareness of how long people have been fighting to guarantee all married women the right to live.
A sense of history is crucial for reform. But history is also an alarm bell, a warning about ingrained attitudes, men dragging their feet, and progress and backsliding. For example, some city councils have adopted nuisance laws that encourage landlords to evict tenants who call 911 too often. Fearing homelessness some victims of repeated vicious abuse are silenced and rendered helpless. At the same time, fewer 911 calls are seen as progress in the war against domestic violence.
History also provides us with closing quotations, like this one from the long-lived activist Mary Livermore. “The public life,” she wrote in her 1897 memoir, “is only the public expression of the private life of people,” a reminder that a war against women is a war against all of us.
Jerome Nadelhaft is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Maine in Orono. He is the author of the ebook “O Lord, How Long: Wife Torture in American History.”