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Detroit News, March 17, 1931. This is a perennial tabloid drama in the 1920s and ’30s: Wife whacks husband; wife goes free. You probably won’t have heard about it in your Gender Studies seminar, but wives in this period could pretty much kill their husbands with impunity.

Historian Michael Lesy* comments on the phenomenon in his Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties: “The number of murders committed by women in Chicago between 1875 and 1920 increased by 420 per cent. Men did most of the killing in the city: murders committed by women during the period the stories in this book begin accounted for only 6.6 percent of the total. But: very, very few of the women who killed their husbands during that time ever went to jail. ‘Every white woman who killed her husband between August, 1905 and October, 1918, was exonerated or acquitted, totaling 35 consecutive cases.’ Thirty-five consecutive cases. . . . Every lawyer who defended a woman who’d killed a man, married to him or just having an affair with him, argued—true or not—that their client was innocent, either because she’s acted in self-defense or because she’s been overwhelmed: emotions and intoxicants had impaired her judgment. The jurors who heard such arguments agreed with them because they believed two things. First: women—especially white women—were innocent and not responsible, by reason of their gender. Second: Men, white or black, rich or poor, native born or immigrant, were, by their very nature, brutes. The jurors were usually right about the men. ”

Fair comment, I suppose, but the acquittal of Myrtle Bennett is still pretty staggering when you contrast the ballistic particulars of the case to the defense version of events. For starters, the accidental shooting resulted in three rounds fired into Mr. Bennett’s body. Who was in any case running away from the armed Mrs. Bennett at the time of his demise, judging from forensic evidence reported during the trial:
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The all-male jury’s decision to acquit in the face of such gaping inconsistencies may have had to do with the sheer bumness of Bennett’s bridge playing. People took their bridge very seriously during the Twenties and Thirties.

*Lesy is also the author of the excellent Wisconsin Death Trip, a book no well-furnished home should be without. I also recommend James Marsh’s excellent feature film based on that somber tour de force.

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