Culture  /  Journal Article

How “Female Fiends” Challenged Victorian Ideals

At a time when questions about women's rights in marriage roiled society, women readers took to the pages of cheap books about husband-murdering wives.

Antebellum literature was all retiring women and timorous love, right? Wrong. In the 1840s and 1850s, two little-remembered publishers created a new genre about husband- or lover-murdering “female fiends.” The ghastly trend pushed against the romantic stereotypes of the nineteenth century—and, writes literary scholar Dawn Keetley, even anticipated future arguments about women’s rights, marriage, and love.

The “relatively unknown literary form” was mostly the work of publishers Erastsus Elmer Barclay and Arthur Orton, writes Keetley. Packed with sensational illustrations of beautiful women poised to kill, the books gripped readers in exchange for just a few pennies. Their titles, like Narrative and Confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon … Containing an Account of Some of the Most Horrible and Shocking Murders and Life and Confession of Ann Walters, the Female Murderess! promised thrills, chills, and plenty of drama.

It’s a genre with conventions of its own: a beautiful white heroine who murders her man, then embarks on a crime spree, “indulging in everything from sexual promiscuity, drinking, gambling, and dressing as a man to counterfeiting, robbery, infanticide, and serial murder.” Dime novels weren’t a thing yet—the stories were printed in pamphlets and sold by traveling salesmen. Keetley thinks they were mainly read by middle-class women. Since the stories masqueraded as morality plays, they were seen as appropriate for women readers.

But inside their cheap covers, these fiendish tales challenged conventional morality and even marriage. Their often-married heroines rained down horror on their “generally worthless” husbands, and contributed to a nascent debate about the nature of antebellum marriage. At the time, women could not obtain divorces in most states. If they married a man who was violent or intemperate, their only option was to grit their teeth and bear it. The stories explore what Keetley calls “an intense anxiety about the eruption of violence within marriage”—a circumstance women simply could not escape.

The fictional fiends, however, did. The heroine of Isabella Narvaez, for example, tries to reform her alcoholic, gambling-addicted husband. So she poisons him, tricking him into taking the poison himself. Like other fiends of the genre, Isabella has what Keetley calls “a core lust for unfettered freedom”—a desire likely shared by the socially corseted women who read her story.