The “Gentle Sex” – Women convicted of Murder
VPRS 264 and VPRS 1100 consist of files compiled to assist the Governor in deciding whether the royal prerogative of mercy should be applied to persons convicted of a capital offence and given the mandatory death sentence (although some offenders, notably those under 21 years of age were sentenced to the Governor’s pleasure). VPRS 516 comprises registers created by the Penal and Gaols Branch to record the registration number, name and personal details of female prisoners in custody in Victorian gaols.
These records intrigued me as they show a sadder, seedier and more desperate side of life than the one that most of us experience. They reflect the standards and hardships of life in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
What drove these women (and in some cases, girls) to an act of desperation? In some cases, such as infanticide or deaths through abortion, it is a reflection on the social mores of the time – pregnancy outside marriage is a falling from grace and “sinful” – or perhaps an attempt to limit the size of the family. Sometimes, it appears that the acts of infanticide may have occurred as a result of post-natal depression. In other cases, the murderess sees the death of another – usually her husband – as a means to protect her family from drunken rages and physical, verbal and sometimes sexual abuse. In yet other instances, acts of murder are committed for revenge and, in one very interesting case, I discovered a case of “unrequited love”, stalking, poetry, unbridled rage and insanity culminating in the death of an innocent woman.
Information on this topic is found in VPRS 516 Central Register of Female Prisoners, VPRS 264 Capital Case Files and VPRS 1100 Capital Sentences Files. Further information can be obtained through research in VPRS 30 Criminal Trial Briefs and VPRS 521 Register of Names, Particulars and Person Description of Prisoners Received.
- VA 4147 Melbourne Gaol
- VA 863 His Majesty’s Gaol, Pentridge
- VA 2825 Attorney-General’s Department (previously Law Department)
- VA 466 Governor (including Lieutenant Governor and Governor’s Office)
- VA 667 Office of the Victorian Government Solicitor (previously known as the Office of the Crown Solicitor)
Christine O’Donnell, Access Services Officer