Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Bessie Done Cut Her Old Man": Race, Common-Law Marriage, and Homicide in New Orleans, 1925-1945

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

"Bessie Done Cut Her Old Man": Race, Common-Law Marriage, and Homicide in New Orleans, 1925-1945

Article excerpt

At 8:45 p.m., on Thursday, January 13, 1938, Bessie Walker fatally stabbed Rogers Matthews, her common-law husband. The seven-year union between the thirty-five-year-old Walker and the forty-six-year-old Matthews, both of whom were African American, had been tumultuous and violent. According to one neighbor, Matthews had frequently "beat Bessie and run her and the [four] Children out in the street." (1) Another neighbor noted that "they have been having these fights three or four times a Month for the longest [sic] and I know Rogers to be a mean man to his wife." (2) On the evening of their final battle, Matthews, a day laborer, had returned from work drunk and belligerent. As the couple sat by the fire grate in the interior room of their small Poydras Street home and tried to stay warm, "he started to fight and fuss," Walker later explained to the police. "Then he started to fuss about me sending my Daughter Dorothy to the grocery store to pay the bill." In the ensuing argument, Matthews announced that he "didn't like Dorothy and didn't want her going around paying bills for me." When Walker responded "if you don't like Dorothy, it's best that you and me part," Matthews exploded in anger. (3) Thirteen-year-old Dorothy, her ten-year-old sister, Rosemary, and their younger brother, Joseph, scooped up "the little baby" of the family and fled in fear, running to a neighbor's house, where Joseph Walker told Anna Bates that "My Papa is beating my Mamma, and said he was going to kill all of us." (4) Meanwhile, according to Bessie Walker, Matthews was becoming increasingly violent; he "started to curse me and then struck me on my shoulder, with his fist and then he struck me again." This was not the first time that Matthews had beaten Walker, and she had had enough. "I run [sic] to the armoire and got a large knife and when he came to hit me again I stabbed him two or three times." (5) Walker plunged the blade into Matthews twice, striking him once in the neck and once close to his ear. Bleeding profusely from the two stab wounds, Matthews staggered out of the house and collapsed on the sidewalk. Just after midnight, he died "from hemorrhage and shock following multiple stab wounds of the right side of the neck." (6) Martha English, who lived nearby, returned from church two hours after the stabbing and found the neighborhood abuzz. "People told me that Bessie done cut her old man." (7)

In many ways, this was not a typical early twentieth-century New Orleans homicide. Most local murders involved a man killing another man and occurred during the weekend. Furthermore, more New Orleans killers used guns than knives, and homicidal violence erupted on local streets more frequently than in homes. Walker and Matthews were also older than most killers and victims.

But Bessie Walker's actions on January 13, 1938, were hardly unusual. Between 1925 and 1945 hundreds of New Orleanians killed their domestic partners, and spousal violence accounted for more homicides than any other single source of lethal violence in the city--more than drunken brawls and robbery-murders combined. (8) In addition, partner killings (or "mariticides") occurred more frequently in common-law unions than in legal marriages or in any other domestic or romantic arrangement.

The homicide of Rogers Matthews illustrates three powerful and intertwined trends in early twentieth-century New Orleans violence. First, this case sheds light on the relationship between race and homicide in the city, for African-American residents died from criminal violence at more than five times the rate of white residents. (9) Second, the "cutting" of Matthews reveals many of the social pressures than contributed to remarkably high rates of African-American partner homicide during this era, which were nearly eight times that of white residents. And third, Matthews's attack on Walker and her response reflected the kinds of tensions that fueled homicidal violence by African-American women in early twentieth-century New Orleans. …

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