Death Row Women: Murder, Justice, and the New York Press

Article excerpt

Gado, Mark. Death Row Women: Murder, Justice, and the New York Press. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2008. 240 pp. $49.95.

Through this book, readers learn that the Oxygen network television program "Snapped," which sensationalizes murders committed by women today, is nothing new when examined against the tales told by early twentieth-century New York City newspapers of death-row women. It turns out that the interest in a woman who kills has long captured attention, each time creating a new expression of surprise by journalists, who seem to suddenly discover that a woman is capable of violence. Consider the media's shock in 2004 that Private Lynndie England could contribute to the torture and prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. It was as if women were above this kind of nastiness. Of course women who had lived through their own Mean Girls high school years knew better.

In Death Row Women: Murder, Justice, and the New York Press, Mark Gado shows that the media's obsession with women who murder has a long history. A New York police detective for twenty-five years and a DEA agent from 1999 to 2001 , as well as the author of two other books, he writes about crime and the criminal justice system for truTV (previously Court TV) Crime Library. The book examines the crimes and trials of six women who were executed at New York's Sing Sing prison from the mid- 1920s through the late 1940s. From 1900 to 1963, the prison executed more inmates than any other facility in the United States. For example, during one twelve-month period in the 1930s, twentyone men were executed at Sing Sing, an average of one prisoner every eighteen days. According to Gado, these stories "describe an age when the electric chair was a real threat to criminals and some trials evolved into extended soap operas."

The author tells the story of these women and their trials through the many New York newspapers of the time. The women were quoted from inside their cells, during their walk to the death chambers, and sometimes in the electric chair. He also examined lengthy court transcripts and police reports - in one case, he studied a 600-page police file - and what he found was a regular tendency by journalists to report negatively on the women who were convicted of murder. Thus, the book demonstrates how well case studies can contribute to developing the historical record, especially as Gado checked the accuracy of the news accounts by comparing the coverage to primary documents. …