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56e Congrès de la SAES: Confluence(s)

Female Offenders at the Confluence of Medical and Penal Discourses: Towards a Gender-Specific Criminology (1860s-1920s)

Protéger et guérir : la mission du gouvernement et des associations d’aide aux détenues en Angleterre (des années 1860 aux années 1920)
Alice Bonzom


La période victorienne se caractérise par une véritable fascination pour l’esprit des criminels, dont témoigne la popularité des romans policiers et des penny dreadfuls. À la fin des années 1860, on assiste à une fusion entre cet intérêt pour la psyché des criminels et les avancées scientifiques et médicales qui marquent cette époque. Ainsi naît un champ d’études ayant pour objet non pas seulement d’étudier le criminel, mais également de le comprendre : la criminologie. Ce discours hybride, à la confluence de nombreuses disciplines telles que la biologie, la psychiatrie, l’anthropologie et les sciences sociales, peut être considéré comme fondé sur une différence de genre entre hommes et femmes. Les criminelles victoriennes et édouardiennes étaient en effet considérées comme particulièrement dangereuses et susceptibles de contaminer le reste de la société. Elles avaient enfreint la loi mais aussi un code moral tacite qui associait féminité et douceur. Tandis que l’eugénisme gagnait en popularité à la fin du dix-neuvième siècle, s’installa une peur croissante de voir ces femmes déviantes transmettre à leurs enfants leurs tares, vues comme héréditaires. Le récidivisme en particulier commençait à être conçu comme le symptôme d’une pathologie caractérisée par l’atavisme. Les criminologues de l’époque s’emparèrent de cette idée, bien qu’au Royaume Uni une certaine circonspection resta de mise. Les alcooliques invétérées et les « déficientes mentales » devinrent l’objet de débats au sein du corps médical et pénal. Des experts en criminologie, psychiatrie et même gynécologie cherchèrent de concert à examiner, guérir, ou du moins contenir ces femmes déviantes. Même si ces discours médicaux n’annihilèrent pas l’approche moraliste traditionnelle qui caractérisait le traitement des criminelles, ils affectèrent tout de même le quotidien des détenues, notamment via la création d’asiles et de maisons de redressement pour alcooliques ainsi qu’un débat autour de la stérilisation des déviantes.

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1The Victorian era was marked by a fascination with the darkest corners of the criminal’s psyche, reflected in the popularity of detective stories and penny dreadfuls. Social reform, scientific breakthroughs and medical progress merged with this keen interest in the criminal mind. The 1860s witnessed the birth of a hybrid, cross-disciplinary field intended not only to describe criminals, but also understand them: criminology. This polyphonic discourse encompasses many disciplines, such as biology, psychiatry, anthropology, social science as well as general medicine.

  • 1 The Director of Convict Prisons between 1850 and 1863, Sir Joshua Jebb (1793-1863), stressed that r (...)
  • 2 It is nevertheless worth noting that Victorian women in the second half of the nineteenth century m (...)

2This convergence of intellectual fields could be seen as gender-based. Before the late 1880s, female criminals were conspicuous by their absence from the scene of criminology. And yet, they were not seen as interchangeable with male criminals. They had infringed the law as well as gender norms, which made them akin to wild animals in the minds of many contemporaries. F. W. Robinson, a novelist who published an account of prison routine as a ‘prison matron’, asserted that some female prisoners were even ‘less easy to tame than the creatures of the jungle’ (Robinson 48). If in the 1860s and 50s the stress was put on reforming those ‘deviants’,1 in the 70s and 80s deterrence and punishment were the watchwords of the administration. Even though women made up a minority of the prison population,2 they did not go unnoticed, and were the object of heated debates amongst penal administrators, philanthropists and, towards the end of the nineteenth century, scientists. As the eugenics movement started to gain sway, a fear that the most degenerate of these women, labelled as ‘inebriate’ or ‘weak-minded’, were breeding generations of atavistic deviants responsible for the decline of the ‘British stock’ started to permeate society. The interest of criminologists was piqued. Female habitual crime was increasingly seen as a sign of mental defectiveness, a hereditary pathology. Scientific discourses revolving around the concept of feeble-mindedness pervaded the penal sphere. In the case of women, psychiatry was intertwined with gynaecology. 

3This criminological discourse targeting women led to a convergence of experts working towards solutions to cure, probe, and neutralise the specific threat women posed. Rather than annihilate traditional moral explanations of crime promoted by some reformers and civil servants, scientific theories merged with them and gave birth to institutional projects such as inebriate reformatories and asylums for the mentally deficient. Criminology and penology were, in the case of women, hybrid disciplines combining psychiatry, biology and gynaecology. Why were female criminals on the edge of a double confluence; that of a hybrid scientific endeavour and of a diffracted gender-based discipline? How did this blend of experts’ opinions on crime affect the penal treatment of women prisoners?

4To get an insight into these issues, it is worth focusing on the birth of criminology, a blend of scientific disciplines focused on understanding the criminal mind. This male criminology can be contrasted with the birth of female criminology and its emphasis on eugenics and sexuality. If these areas of study were largely theoretical, it does not mean that they did not have far-reaching consequences on criminal women empirically. Dissecting intellectual discourses coming together to understand the criminal mind can help us determine the extent to which criminology was shaped as a gender-based field of study that influenced the treatment of female criminals.

Criminology, a ‘hodgepodge of numerous other disciplines’3 (1860s-1890s)

  • 3 The phrase is borrowed from Martine Kaluszynski’s 2006 paper on International Congresses of Crimina (...)
  • 4 This quote is taken from an article published in 1895 in Forum, a magazine which targeted American (...)

5The craze for systematic measurement, classification and depictions of scientific phenomena is a typically Victorian penchant. Throughout late nineteenth century Europe, the prestige of science grew, especially with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. Scientific principles were applied to the study of criminality and, more specifically, the criminal mind, in sharp contrast with religious explanations of crime associated to sin. That is not to say that there wasn’t a proto-criminological discourse before the 1860s. However, it was extremely diverse and eclectic. Members of the police, experts in penal policy, priests as well as psychiatrists and prison administrators all presented theories to explain crime and deviance. Historian Nicole Hahn Rafter highlights the seminal role played by late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century psychiatrists, presenting alienists as forefathers of the discipline. While investigating the concept of ‘moral insanity’, these physicians looked at a particular category of criminals, the recidivists, and explained their inability to abide by the law in terms of ‘mental abnormality’. Physiognomy, the reading of character from facial features, was later popularised by Lavater. Frantz Joseph Gall’s phrenology, which involved head-reading and examination of the shape of the skull, also played a part in the development of criminal anthropology. Both physiognomy and phrenology reached their heyday in the 1820s and 30s and were later spurned by the scientific community and relegated to the status of pseudo-sciences. Their focus was on normality versus deviance, and not on criminals per se. The most influential figure of late Victorian criminology is Cesare Lombroso, the father of the positivist school of criminal anthropology. Whether scientists agreed with his born criminal theory or not, his work was a landmark. It sparked debates all over Europe. International congresses sprouted up as a clear sign of the ebullience of ideas launched by the Italian school – there were seven congresses between 1885 and 1911. With L’Uomo Delinquente, in 1876, he shifted the focus of criminological discourse from moral principles to physical observation. The body of the criminal became a focal point. He dedicated much of his time to the collection of empirical data in Italian prisons. For Lombroso, ‘the criminal and not the crime must be studied’ (Lombroso 1895-96, 34).4

6The French school of the Milieu Social scorned his theories. The reaction of the scientific community in Britain was lukewarm. However, it is worth mentioning that some doctors had actually advocated biological determinism early on. In 1869, Dr Bruce Thomson, a British prison surgeon, published an article in the Journal of Mental Science entitled ‘The Hereditary Nature of Crime’. Asserting that ‘the treatment of crime is a branch of psychology’ (Thomson 487), he concluded that in most instances, there was a hereditary disposition to crime. He expounded on the particular physical and mental characteristics of the criminal class whose ‘hordes prey upon society’ (Thomson 489). The degenerate criminals are conspicuous because ‘they have all a set of coarse, angular, clumsy, stupid set of features and dirty complexion’ (Thomson 490). Crime was presented as a congenital, mental and chronic disease, passed on from generation to generation. Another prison doctor, David Nicolson, propounded the same conclusions in the Journal of Mental Science, which led the Home Office to back a research project conducted by anthropologist, sociologist and statistician Francis Galton. He created a technique he labelled ‘composite photography’ which consisted in superimposing portraits of criminals to produce a template of the typical criminal face. This endeavour was prompted by a desire to lay bare a possible means of spotting habitual criminals before they infringed the law, thereby creating what historian Neil Davie calls a ‘department of precrime’ (Davie 2002). Nonetheless, Galton was forced to give up in 1878 due to lack of evidence that there was a criminal face.

7In the 1870s, interest in the research led by these British forefathers of Lombroso waned, so much so that in the 1890s, British criminologists upheld different views from the rest of Europe. Dr Nicolson, and other earlier spokesmen of criminal anthropology such as psychiatrist Henry Maudsley, now rejected sweeping generalisations and promoted a case-by-case approach. The majority of British officials insisted on considering criminals as responsible for their actions. This position was supported by Charles Mercier, who regularly wrote for British Medical Journal: ‘crime . . . is not a disease to be treated, but a vice to be punished’ (Mercier 958). He derided the treatment convicts received at Elmira Reformatory, New York:

In one word, you are a Degenerate, and, since your crimes are no fault of yours, you shall not be punished for them. On the contrary, you shall be entertained, amused and instructed. You shall be treated with Turkish baths and massage, until your criminality departs from you. You shall exercise in a gymnasium, to the strains of a band of music . . . . You are of weak mind; and therefore you shall be aesthetically cultured by a course of lectures on Chaucer, and Shakespeare, and Emerson, and Browning. (Mercier 957)

8As a whole, British experts–doctors, psychiatrists and civil servants–endorsed a more nuanced approach combining classical explanations of crime revolving around responsibility, and scientific explanations only in the case of the weak-minded and habitual criminal, for whom hereditary factors were still seen as key.

9At the heart of the controversy was the criminal man. The criminal woman was largely overlooked. Female inmates were often seen as difficult to handle; they were known for ‘breaking out’, and doctors feared that they might fake illness to break the monotony of their humdrum lives, a practice known as malingering. Yet, the female carceral population remained small in comparison to the male population, hence a certain lack of interest. What’s more, for medical officers, positions located in female establishments were not sought after. Doctors were reluctant to examine women lest they be taxed with lack of morality or lustfulness. Lombroso did investigate the question of the female offender in La Donna Delinquente, la Prostitua e la Donna Normale (1893). Yet, his theories were not published in English until 1895, and passages considered risqué were blue-pencilled. In Britain, there were a few references to the troublesome nature of female inmates, and their physical features. Dr Thomson asserted that ‘the women are all ugly in form, and face, and action, without the beauty of colour, or grace, or regularity of features’ (Thomson 490).

Criminology and Women: Eugenics and Sexuality, 1890s-1914

  • 5 If control groups are now used frequently in scientific research, at the time of Lombroso’s experim (...)

10For almost a century, no new translation of Lombroso and Ferrero’s work was published. It was only a decade ago that Nicole Hahn Rafter and Mary Gibson provided readers with a proper English version of the Donna Delinquente. In their introduction, the authors state that ‘The dominance of The Female Offender led to the long-term emphasis on female crime as biological in nature’ with ‘a particularly heavy stress on sexual and psychological factors’ (Lombroso 2004, 4) in explaining female crime. Lombroso famously asserted in his 1895 version that ‘as a double exception, the criminal woman consequently is a monster’ (Lombroso 1895, 152)–because criminals are exceptions amongst civilised men, and women are exceptions amongst criminals. Lombroso set out to prove scientifically that women’s inferiority was the reason for their low criminal rates. He used a control group5 of ‘normal women’ to compare it to criminal women and prostitutes–although the term ‘prostitute’ is imprecise and he often shifts from one control group to another. Lombroso emphasised physical features, claiming that ‘the hair of criminals and prostitutes is darker than among normals’ (Lombroso 1895, 70), as well as biological and psychological faults.

11Is it because of Lombroso’s work that women suddenly entered the stage of criminology? While there appears to be a criminological gap between the 1870s and the 1890s, female criminals slowly appeared in anthropological discussions. Women were less likely to break the law than men, but once convicted, the recidivism rates for females were higher. Women accounted for 61% of those convicted twenty times or more at the end of the nineteenth century, outnumbering male hardened criminals, even though they made up only 24% of those convicted only once (Report of the Commissioners of Prisons, 71). In 1895, Mr Tallack, the Secretary for the Howard Association, asserts that ‘there was a woman, [he thinks], at Tottenham the other day who had been committed for between 200 and 300 times’ (Report from the Departmental Committee on Prisons, q.7068, 242). It was widely believed that they corrupted society by the very nature of their offences: drunkenness, prostitution, inebriety… They were seen as a threat to public order and patriarchal values, as if they embodied a ‘super’ deviance. Amongst fears of racial degeneracy spreading like gunpowder in a country that had seen its national confidence shaken after two difficult imperial conflicts, the high rates of reoffending in women were a cause for alarm. They can explain the interest in biological determinism and female criminals at the turn of the century. So can the sense of dread regarding the deleterious effects of the New Woman on society. These factors contributed significantly to women becoming an object of interest, perhaps more so than Lombroso’s theories.

  • 6 The original letter can be found at the Bodleian Library (Asquith Papers, MS. Asquith 12, Folios 22 (...)
  • 7 Pearson goes on to illustrate his point, referring to ‘a good variation appearing in a certain bad (...)

12British criminologists criticised the idea that some people are destined to become criminals because they favoured an individual, inductive approach and took environmental factors into account. Yet, the eugenics movement started to gain sway in Britain at the turn of the century. Even Winston Churchill warned against the ‘multiplication of the unfit’, a ‘very terrible danger to the race’ in a 1910 letter to Prime Minister Asquith6 (quoted in King 69). Galton, Darwin’s cousin, coined the word ‘eugenics’ as early as 1883 as he set out to study heredity in order to protect the biological fitness of the race. British eugenics revolved around the improvement of the genetic features of the ‘best’ British stock by encouraging breeding of the elites. Some scientists like Professor Karl Pearson, mathematician and statistician, endorsed the movement: ‘You cannot change the leopard’s spots, and you cannot change bad stock into good; you may dilute it, possibly spread it over a wider area, spoiling good stock, but until it ceases to multiply it will not cease to be’ (Pearson 19).7 The foundation of the Eugenics Education Society in 1907 mirrors the growing scientific popularity of eugenics.

  • 8 Dr Rentoul first produced his Proposed Sterilization of Certain Mental and Physical Degenerates in (...)

13Women in particular were of interest to eugenicists. Sexuality, deviance and criminality were intertwined. Frances Heidensohn argues in Women and Crime that ‘their hormones, their reproductive role, inexorably determine their emotionality, unreliability, childishness, deviousness, etc.’ (Heidensohn 112). From a medical standpoint, some physicians assumed that women’s psyche was closely linked to their periods. Havelock Ellis, a physician, called for the systematic comparison of the dates of women’s periods with the dates of offences committed: ‘whenever a woman commits a deed of criminal violence it is extremely probable that she is at her monthly period’ (Ellis 292). Atavistic women were more likely to pass on their degenerate genes to their children. For Dr Norman Kerr (1834-99), a member of the British Medical Association, ‘the female parent [was] the more general transmitter of the hereditary alcoholic taint’ (Kerr 196). It was also believed that they reproduced at a more rapid rate than ‘normal’ women. Dr Tredgold, a proponent of eugenics, declared in 1911 that degenerates propagated with ‘unabated and unrestricted vigour’ (Tredgold 111). This led a minority of doctors to promote sterilisation. Robert Rentoul, a Liverpool doctor, called for the sterilisation of those he saw as unfit.8 Killing the children of degenerates was not an option as he did regard the babies as innocent. However, sterilisation never garnered real support, if only because eugenicists feared it would lead to promiscuity and unchecked sexuality without the fear of pregnancy to curb deviant women’s abnormal sexual appetite. These medical theories prompted the emergence of policies meant to replace penal responses with scientific, medically influenced responses. Women found themselves at the confluence of a psychiatric, eugenic, medical and anthropological discourse.

The Impact of Criminological Thought on Women’s Penal Experiences

14British criminology discounted biological explanations of crime for the bulk of offenders, but eugenic theories held sway well into the Edwardian period in the case of habitual criminals. The female carceral population consisted of many repeat offenders: how were they affected by this convergence of medical and penal discourses? The bulk of female recidivists were seen as either mentally diminished or suffering from inebriety, hence a different treatment for each of these categories.

  • 9 In The Female Malady, Elaine Showalter stresses the Victorian and Edwardian tendency to associate w (...)
  • 10 Dr Brown published his findings in an 1866 book. He lists his cases, always concluding with the ext (...)

15Courts and penal administrators were reluctant to abolish the boundary between criminality and mental illness, as it would put an end to the line between badness and madness. Women, regarded as inherently more prone to mental derangement and susceptible to deleterious influences, needed more than men to be diverted from the general carceral population. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the term ‘feeble-mindedness’, characterised by an absence of clear meaning, enabled the authorities to use this catchall concept to describe many offenders, females in particular. It was a hypernym used for various deviant manifestations; a cause, rather than a consequence. Mental inadequacy was the key to explaining inebriety, sexual promiscuity and public disorder. So-called incorrigible women were redefined as ‘helpless defectives rather than as deliberate sinners’ (Zedner 264). But why were women more likely to be labelled as feeble-minded? Probably because of the reluctance of doctors to section men, who often were the main breadwinners of their families and because of tight links between psychiatry and female sexuality.9 A campaign for the segregation of the feeble-minded was launched, both to protect them and protect others from them. Homes proliferated, but were separate from the carceral sphere. The Aylesbury Prison for Women, in 1907, was the first penal establishment to open a separate wing for its feeble-minded inmates. The 1913 Mental Deficiency Act made provisions to separate the mentally deficient, classified in four categories, from the rest of the population. The criminals who were deemed feeble-minded could be sectioned in institutional care facilities for one year, renewable for five-year periods. If the official purpose was to ‘care’ for them, it offered a solution to the disruption many caused in prisons. Their weaker mental abilities called for a flexible regime. However, even if the most dangerous feeble-minded women were decriminalized, they remained deviants. Symptoms of sexual mania in particular were found in women. They could lead to surgical interventions. Between 1859 and 1866, a London doctor, Isaac Baker Brown, performed a number of clitoridectomies to prevent women from masturbating and thereby descending into madness and crime.10

16Mental deficiency was also found to be the probable cause of female drunkenness. But alcohol abuse was not the prerogative of women. Why were women associated with inebriety convictions and reformatories? Female criminal records show that women were more likely to be convicted of habitual drunkenness than men. In 1904, women made up 91% of admissions to certified reformatories while they only accounted for 20% of police apprehensions for drunkenness (Morrison 145).

17Female inebriates were more often convicted because they were seen as a corrupting influence over their children and their husbands, who were given every reason to abandon the household: children were neglected, women had betrayed their maternal instinct. Female habitual drunkenness was not just seen as a sign of weak willpower, as it was for men; it was the result of a sick mind and it jeopardized the future of the race. Therefore, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, acts passed between 1879 and 1898 created an alternative system of inebriate institutions. Between 1879 and 1923 more than 3,500 people were confined there. The Inebriates Act passed in 1898 created institutions where confinement of criminal inebriates would be compulsory for up to three years. The London County Council decided to open its own certified reformatory in 1900. Yet in 1912, out of the first 600 cases detained there, only 19% were said to be doing well. The records of the reformatory reveal assumptions regarding the women’s reasons for drinking: in some case, heredity is held responsible, with for instance a woman said to have ‘inherited the tendency from her father’ (LCC/PH/MENT/4/37, Reg. No. 563). Other women are said to have been ‘born and brought up in drunkenness and crime’ (LCC/PH/MENT/4/34, Reg. No. 15). The main reasons seem to spring from environmental factors: grief in the case of Mary Nichols, Reg. No. 587, who lost her husband and her eleven children (LCC/PH/MENT/4/37), ‘bad company’ with Florence Leslie, Reg. No. 737 who ‘became acquainted with a Frenchwoman’ and was waylaid (LCC/PH/MENT/4/37). In one instance, the explanation given is as simple as ‘she gave way to drink because she liked it’ (Reg. No. 570, LCC/PH/MENT/4/37). In 1901, the government also decided to set up its own state reformatory for women, in Aylesbury prison. But although the inebriates were decriminalised, they remained subject to a prison-like discipline. The reformatory project has often been analysed as a humane way of treating criminality. Yet, inmates could be kept in isolation cells for almost a week for offences like petty behavioural misconduct, for instance using bad language. The treatment they received was often unscientific, for instance a vegetarian regime to pacify their mercurial nature.

18Criminology, itself at the confluence of a scientific and penal discourse, largely ignored women until the 1890s, when fears of degeneracy swept across the country. Female offenders found themselves in the spotlight of eugenic discourses targeting their transmittable feeble-mindedness and degeneracy. Pathological explanations of crime were more plausible in the case of female offenders, victims of their biology from a deterministic point of view, or from their susceptibility to evil influences from an environmentalist standpoint. The penal sphere and medical sphere overlapped, offering an answer to the question: how can gentle creatures such as women commit crimes? Classical, moralistic, religious explanations of crime were combined with this scientific, secular understanding of female criminality. Female recidivists in particular were in between badness and madness. Criminal deviancy was the manifestation of a disease, whether inherited or not. Women were poised between penal sentences and semi-penal forms of custody, at the confluence of various nets that controlled deviance, seen more and more as pathological and atavistic. Recidivism rates showed that the reformatory failed to cure and reform the majority of female inebriates. However, one could question whether this was in fact the reason for its creation. The strict discipline seems to suggest there was never any real hope of reform, and that deviants were meant to merely be contained in what was virtually an extension of the prison. The image of female criminals might have shifted slightly, but women hardly benefitted from an improved treatment.

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Brown, Isaac B. On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females. London: Hardwicke, 1866.

Davie, Neil. « Identifier les tueurs-nés ». Le Monde Diplomatique (Décembre 2002): 31.

Ellis, Havelock. Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters, 4th ed. London: Walter Scott Pub. Co, 1904.

Heidensohn, Frances. Women and Crime, 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1996.

Kaluszynski, Martine. ‘The International Congresses of Criminal Anthropology: Shaping the French and International Criminological Movement, 1886-1914’. Ed. Peter Becker & Richard F. Wetzell. Criminals and Their Scientists. The History of Criminology in International Perspective. Cambridge: CUP, 2006. 30116.

Kerr, Norman. Inebriety or Narcomania: Its Etiology, Pathology, Treatment and Jurisprudence, 3rd ed. London: H. K. Lewis, 1894.

King, Desmond S. In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Social Policy in the USA and Britain. Oxford: OUP, 1999.

Lombroso, Cesare. ‘Criminal Anthropology. Its origins and application’. Forum 20 (1895-6): 3349.

Lombroso, Cesare, & Guglielmo Ferrero. Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman. Ed. Nicole H. Rafter & Mary Gibson. Durham: Duke UP, 2004.

Lombroso, Cesare, & Guglielmo Ferrero. The Female Offender. Ed. William D. Morrison. New York: D. Appleton, 1895.

Mercier, Charles. ‘Criminal Responsibility’. The British Medical Journal (Oct. 15, 1904): 95762.

Morrison, Bronwyn. ‘Controlling the “Hopeless”: Re-Visioning the History of 135 Female Inebriate Institutions c. 1870–1920’. Ed. Helen, JohnstonPunishment and Control in Historical Perspective. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2008.

Pearson, K. National Life from the Standpoint of Science, 2nd ed. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1905.

Rentoul, Robert R. ‘Proposed Sterilization of Certain Mental Degenerates’. American Journal of Sociology 12.13 (November 1906): 31927.

Report from the Departmental Committee on Prisons. London: H.M. Stationery Off., 1895.

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Unpublished material

LCC/PH/MENT/4/34. Farmfield Reformatory for Female Inebriates - Case History Book – Vol. 1 (Nos 1-181) - Patients admitted. London Metropolitain Archives.

LCC/PH/MENT/4/37. Farmfield Reformatory for Female Inebriates - Case History Book – Vol. 4 (Nos 556-756) - Patients admitted. London Metropolitan Archives.

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1 The Director of Convict Prisons between 1850 and 1863, Sir Joshua Jebb (1793-1863), stressed that reform was of paramount importance. However, the Chairman of Board of Directors of Convict Prisons between 1869 and 1805, Sir Edmund Du Cane (1830-1903), put the emphasis on deterrence and punishment.

2 It is nevertheless worth noting that Victorian women in the second half of the nineteenth century made up more than a fifth of those convicted of crime. In 2013, according to a report published by the Ministry of Justice in 2014, women accounted for only 25% of convictions, and only 8% of those were sent to immediate custody. The penal system was divided into two types of institutions: convict prisons, for criminals sentenced to two years or more, and local prisons, for petty crime, where the bulk of women sentenced to custody were sent by the courts.

3 The phrase is borrowed from Martine Kaluszynski’s 2006 paper on International Congresses of Criminal Anthropology (Kaluszynski 301). Her analysis stresses the seminal role played by congresses in spreading the tenets of criminal anthropology.

4 This quote is taken from an article published in 1895 in Forum, a magazine which targeted American audiences. The conclusion of his paper draws attention to his frustration with European reactions to his theories, as he refers to North America as the place where ‘the great thinkers of Europe may draw new force for work, and whither they may direct their last glance, finding consolation for a life misunderstood and disdained’ (Lombroso 189596, 49).

5 If control groups are now used frequently in scientific research, at the time of Lombroso’s experiment, this was a relatively new methodological tool. It may have been one of the first times control groups were put in place to carry out research.

6 The original letter can be found at the Bodleian Library (Asquith Papers, MS. Asquith 12, Folios 224-8). For more information on Churchill and eugenics, see Martin Gilbert, ‘Leading Churchill Myths: Churchill's campaign against the feeble-minded was deliberately omitted by his biographers’. Finest Hour 152: 2011. Gilbert insists on the urgency that Churchill tried to convey in his letter, quoting this passage: ‘I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed’.

7 Pearson goes on to illustrate his point, referring to ‘a good variation appearing in a certain bad stock as far back as 1680’. He argues that for 150 years, ‘cases of drunkenness, insanity and physical breakdown’ kept plaguing this family, leading him to conclude that ‘the law of inheritance is as inevitable as the law of gravity’ (Pearson 1920). The use of science for eugenic ends is encapsulated in the parallel between biological determinism and gravity.

8 Dr Rentoul first produced his Proposed Sterilization of Certain Mental and Physical Degenerates in 1903. In 1906, he published an article in the American Journal of Sociology, stating that ‘in an old country like England the pioneer thinker runs the grave risk of being denounced as a “crank” or a “disturber of the minds of the people”’ (Rentoul 323). We can infer from this that public opinion in Britain did not widely share his beliefs.

9 In The Female Malady, Elaine Showalter stresses the Victorian and Edwardian tendency to associate women with madness: her title refers to the association between madness and women.

10 Dr Brown published his findings in an 1866 book. He lists his cases, always concluding with the extent of the improvement that followed the surgical procedure. For instance, he refers to his thirteenth case, a thirty-two year-old woman suffering from ‘extreme hysteria, verging on insanity’, described by her husband as a ‘tigress’, who, post-surgery, ‘became in every respect a good wife’ (Brown 30).

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Alice Bonzom

Alice Bonzom, a former ENS student, got the agrégation in 2010, after spending three years in London teaching French in two universities, King’s College and Royal Holloway. She teaches British civilisation in Lyon 2. Her thesis, directed by Professor Neil Davie, revolves around penal responses to female criminality in London between 1877 and 1914, which leads her to address issues of gender, marginality, criminology and medical sciences in Victorian and Edwardian society.
Alice Bonzom est normalienne, agrégée d’anglais et ATER à l’université Lyon 2. Elle a enseigné le français pendant trois ans à Londres, à King’s College et Royal Holloway. Elle fait son doctorat sous la direction du Professeur Neil Davie. Sa thèse a pour objet le parcours criminel des femmes victoriennes et édouardiennes à Londres de 1877 à 1914, ce qui l’amène à s’intéresser à la criminalité, au genre, à la criminologie et à la médicalisation des criminelles.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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