One of the ways that I am endeavouring to develop archaeological studies of domestic violence is to examine the grave memorials of women murdered by their husbands; of men who murdered their wives; and of men murdered by their wives, in the 17th – early 20th centuries. For the time being, I’m concentrating upon Derbyshire burials (as this area forms the primary geographical focus for PSP work), although I will expand into the East Midlands region, and probably beyond to Adderbury (Oxfordshire), Ancaster (Lincolnshire), and perhaps London and Bristol.[i]
The main aim of this exercise is to consider whether, and if so, how, the memorials (or other aspects of burial, such as placement of grave within burial grounds) of victims and perpetrators of homicide in the home may have differed as a group to those of men and women who died of ‘natural causes’. Where possible (as when studying other aspects of violence in the home for PSP), I’ll use the range of historical and archaeological sources together to investigate the social and cultural backgrounds of those involved.
Although I’ve only just begun this research, and will need to analyse a substantial number of cases before even tentative conclusions might be made, some interesting patterns of behaviour that might shed light on attitudes to violence are evident. I began by trawling the press for reports of ‘wife murder’ within the PSP study areas (beginning with Derbyshire), and by consulting court records. Before embarking on this task, I anticipated that I would encounter perpetrators of this crime through reports of their imprisonment and capital punishment. And, as for much of the 19th century the county gaol (like other large prisons) incorporated a graveyard within which its felons were buried after their death, I expected that few murderers would have been buried within community graveyards.[ii]
However, in the cases that I have so far found reported within local and regional newspapers, a high proportion of husbands committed suicide either immediately after murdering their wives, or when imprisoned. The sample is at this stage small, confined to a particular period (as I work my way through the archives), and of course this combination of crimes may have attracted greater attention in the press, in seeking to appeal to a readership greedy for sensational and macabre incidents. But, these initial examples suggest that it may be profitable to explore the frequency, and temporal and spatial extent, of such a practice, and to consider how it might relate to broader attitudes regarding power and shame, religious belief, and to the ways in which gender was structured.
After discovering murder cases within the newspapers, I use the census and BMD data to find out more about those involved, so that I might determine when and where perpetrators and victims may be buried. Where possible, I’ll examine existing graveyard plans and surveys to see whereabouts within burial grounds their graves might be, and any information on gravestones or other markers – the most efficient approach. But while I’m arranging to access such information (which may take a while), I’m visiting the various graveyards that might be of significance to these cases. (As part of other research, I often visit graveyards to consider burial and memorial practices, so at this stage merely keep my eyes open for the graves of any individuals associated with each case, such as family members, employers, etc.: I’ve uploaded photos of the ongoing graveyard ‘reccies’ I’ve been doing for other research on Flickr, here.)
The drawback is that most of the murders recorded in the press are by and of lower status individuals, the graves of many of which, for much of the period, were not commonly marked by memorials.[iii] But finding gravestones of other family members (of comparable economic standing) may provoke interesting questions regarding memory, family and community, and violent death. I’ll provide an overview of these field-trips, and of other information I might discover, as and when possible, here (tagged ‘Death and Burial’).
[i] Although these locations are (due to financial constraints) determined more by family ties, than the systematic selection of sites for comparison outside the study area, their spread is fortuitous, enabling contrasts to be made between urban and rural, coastal and interior, large and small villages, towns, and cities, and agricultural and industrial local economies.
[ii] Derby County Gaol was located on South Street, facing the end of Vernon Street (both off Friar Gate); I have written a little about the prison on another blog, not only due to my interests in crime and punishment (see ‘Death Comes to Pemberley: Crime and Punishment in 19th Century Derby’), but because it was (and still is) an important site with regard to my family (and own) history (see ‘Researching Communities of Crime and Punishment in 19th – early 20th century Derby’ ).
The situation differed before the 1832 Anatomy Act, which transferred the supply of cadavers for dissection by anatomy schools, hospitals, surgeons, and artists from the remains of murderers punished by hanging for their crime, to those who died within workhouses, and whose relatives either did or could not claim their remains and pay for their burial (see e.g. Ruth Richardson 1988 Death, Dissection and the Destitute; Louise Fowler & Natasha Powers (eds.) 2012 Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection).
[iii] See e.g. Ruth Richardson 1987 Death, Dissection and the Destitute; Sarah Tarlow 1999 Bereavement and commemoration: an archaeology of mortality; Julian Litten 2002 The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral Since 1450; Julie-Marie Strange 2005 Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, 1870-1914.