The Penalty Is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women's Executions

The Penalty Is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women's Executions

The Penalty Is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women's Executions

The Penalty Is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women's Executions


In 1872 Susan Eberhart was convicted of murder for helping her lover to kill his wife. The Atlanta Constitution ran a story about her hanging in Georgia that covered slightly more than four full columns of text. In an editorial sermon about her, the Constitution said that Miss Eberhart not only committed murder, but also committed adultery and "violated the sanctity of marriage." An 1890 article in the Elko Independent said of Elizabeth Potts, who was hanged for murder, "To her we look for everything that is gentle and kind and tender; and we can scarcely conceive her capable of committing the highest crime known to the law." Indeed, at the time, this attitude was also applied to women in general.

By 1998 the press's and society's attitudes had changed dramatically. A columnist from Texas wrote that convicted murderess Karla Faye Tucker should not be spared just because she was a woman. The author went on to say that women could be just as violent and aggressive as men; the idea that women are defenseless,and need men's protection "is probably the last vestige of institutionalized sexism that need to be rubbed out."

In "The Penalty Is Death, " Marlin Shipman examines the shifts in press coverage of women's executions over the past one hundred and fifty years. Since the colonies' first execution of a woman in 1632, about 560 more women have had to face the death penalty. Newspaper responses to these executions have ranged from massive national coverage to limited regional and even local coverage. Throughout the years the press has been guilty of sensationalism, stereotyping, and marginalizing of female convicts, making prejudicial remarks, trying these women in the media, andvirtually ignoring or simply demeaning African American women convicts. This thoroughly researched book studies countless episodes that serve to illustrate these points.

Shipman's use of reconstructed stories, gleaned from hundre


Marie Beck was overweight. New York Times readers who overlooked that the first time the newspaper published her weight had plenty more opportunities. In staff-written and wire stories, she was called a “200-pound mistress, ” a “200-pound sweetheart, ” a “200-pound thrice-divorced aide, ” a “plump defendant, ” a “plump suspect, ” “stocky, ” “bulky” and “the corpulent Mrs. Beck.” When the Times first published a story about Beck's arrest in connection with three murders, it called her a “200-pound divorcee.” One might wonder if her greatest fault was being fat or being a killer. She was executed for her part in what the press termed “lonely hearts” murders.

Near the end of her trial, the New York Times called her “the 180-pound divorcee.” Previous and subsequent references always had her weight at 200 pounds, and the Times never explained the rapid weight loss, or how quickly she regained it. But, then, the Times never really indicated why her weight made any difference at all.

The New York Times did practice equal-opportunity stereotyping, tagging Beck's cohort, Raymond Fernandez, as a “smooth operator, ” the “smooth-talking Fernandez, ” “dark, ” and “swarthy.” The Times termed Fernandez either Hawaiian or Spanish, not seeming to notice the obvious cultural difference. Fernandez's “Latin suavity was the chief stock in trade of the couple.”

Martha Jule Beck made the New York Times's news agenda in 1949; she went off the agenda in 1951 when the State of New York electrocuted her. Between 2 March 1949 and 9 March 1951, the Times ran eighty-one stories about Beck and her lover, Fernandez; the story about their arrests was on page 1 under a two-column headline, but the story about their executions ran on page 52 under a one-column headline.

According to news stories, either Beck abandoned her two children or . . .

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