"Justifiable Provocation": Violence against Women in Essex County, New York, 1799-1860

Article excerpt

Four months after brutally murdering his wife, James Bishop mounted the newly-constructed wooden platform in the center of the Elizabethtown prison yard in Essex County. Displaying all the attributes of the repentant sinner, he climbed the four short steps to the gallows. Nervous and trembling and flanked by the sheriff and two clergymen, Bishop attempted to read a passage from the Bible. (1) Almost fainting and unable to gain his composure, he directed a clergyman to read the sixth chapter of Proverbs warning against the evils of folly and adultery. With the conclusion of the scriptural readings, Bishop regained his poise and spoke in a calm, clear voice to the audience of county officials, clergymen, and newspaper reporters. A local newspaper recounted Bishop's scaffold speech delivered in the shadow of the fourteen-foot-high cross beams. "He cautioned young men setting out into the world to 'shun bad company and vile associations.' He further 'advised and urged all men to be governed by principles of honor and integrity, and ladies to be true to their vows.'" As a final request, Bishop asked that his two-year old daughter Polly be "taught the principles of virtue and Christianity, and directed honestly and guided safely through all the winding passages of the world." With these final words Bishop "took a last leave of the Sheriff, the Clergymen, and Physicians, kissing them all in a very affectionate manner." At exactly one minute past three o'clock in the afternoon on the seventeenth day of March 1843, the executioner chopped the rope holding the two hundred pounds of counterweights and Bishop, with a handkerchief clutched in his hand, was propelled swiftly into the air. Within a minute and a half Bishop let go of the handkerchief as his body violently convulsed in a hopeless struggle with the hangman's noose. In the space of three minutes, his body hung lifeless and motionless in the cool Adirondack afternoon air. The Essex County Times And Westport Herald regretfully noted that James Bishop was the first pe rson executed in Essex County, New York, since its formation in 1799, stating "God grant it may be the last. (2)

In the past fifteen years the study of violence, and specifically violence against women, has provided a wealth of new information on gender relations, law, and society. The most comprehensive studies of violence against women have used divorce petitions and the case files of anti-cruelty societies to examine domestic violence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These authors focus on one type of crime such as wife beating or violence against wives and children. (3) Studies of gendered violence before 1870 which do use criminal court records tend to concentrate on one class of crime such as rape. (4) Other scholars have made violence against women one of many categories in studies of gender systems in Puritan New England or nineteenth-century New York, without giving it full attention. (5) Another approach is to reconstruct women's lives through microstudies of famous criminal cases such as the Helen Jewett murder sensation of the 1830s. (6) Similarly, other historians have focused on a single aspect of nineteenth-century law relating to domestic violence such as the unwritten law, the marital-rape exemption, and the doctrine of mental cruelty. (7)

Historians have pointed variously to failed husbands, men traumatized by the radical new conditions of freedom, young men on the psycho-margins of society, the ideal of male citizenship, and the impenetrable barrier of the "Family Ideal" as central to understanding the social and legal aspects of the murder, rape, and assault of women in nineteenth century America. (8) Despite this creative use of sources, historians have not formulated connections between domestic and community violence or between these categories of crime.

Unlike James Bishop, many men were not prosecuted to the full extent of the law, if at all, for murder, rape, or assault of women in Essex County. …