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Category Archives: Unwritten law


Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1934. Another application of the unwritten law entres femmes. Don’t know yet whether Wilma was successful in her appeal to the UL, but she’s a dark horse candidate at best for Mother of the Year.

Chicago Tribune, October 20, 1931. Further expansion of the “unwritten law” to cover serial catfight ass-kickings. Oak Park, for those who don’t know, is a tony southwestern suburb of Chicago (“a place of broad lawns and narrow minds,” in the words of its most famous native son, the celebrated gay amateur bullfighter Ernest Hemingway). I wonder if there isn’t a class-warfare angle to this little rhubarb. The $50,000 alienation suit kinda suggests that Mrs. Yonan saw her Oak Park rival as someone with deep pockets.

Chicago Tribune, January 29, 1908. Interesting attempt on the part of the prosecutor to use nativist prejudice against alien foodstuffs as a hedge against the “unwritten law.” Hard to figure out exactly what’s going on here relationship-wise though: was there a rape or seduction? Or did Ferreo simply sell Mr. Anselone on the notion that his wife was no good to improve his prospects with Angelina?

Also, I wonder if Ferreo’s epitaph–“Died In Self-Defense”–made better sense in Italian. More on the disposition of the case after the jump. Read More »

Chicago Daily Tribune, December 7, 1923. Further mutations of the para-legal principle that “the libertine must die.” Turns out that by 1923 unwritten law could also be extended to the vengeful slaying of reckless drivers, mentally retarded sex offenders, and, implicitly, anyone else implicated in a “violation of home.”

It’s hard not to snicker at the phrase “his moron brother-in-law” in an old newspaper. Considered in context, though, this is a godawful story. Supposing the term “moron” was being applied with any rigor, it would have meant that Frank Bilotta had an IQ somewhere between 51 and 70. That would have put him above the level of “imbecile” (IQ 26 to 50) and two pegs above “idiot” (0 to 25).* But I doubt the reporter was deploying the term with any precision: “moron” was simply standard journalese for “retarded.”

I’m digging the whatsa-matta-for-you dialect attributed to Donota Gallella. Betcha he spoke English like a native but was dishing out some strategic vaudeville for the jury.

*This nomenclature was the brainchild of influential psychologist and eugenicist Henry H. Goddard, who advocated that retarded people should be sterilized and sent to live in concentration ca–um, special segregated communities for the genetic good of the race.

Peoria Transcript, May 31, 1925. Another editorial on the unwritten law, published 56 years after the previous one, with a lovely little paragraph addressing the expansion of its privilege over time. Seems like the UL didn’t play in Peoria by 1925. But if that joke at the bottom did, you can see where Peoria got its reputation among vaudevillians as the national baseline of cultural

New-York Tribune, June 3, 1869. The soi-disant unwritten law (which we were talking about a few posts back) got written about a lot. I’ve run across some entertainingly bananas editorials on the subject. Dunno anything about this Canadian precedent, but it’s nice to know that libertines were fair game in the Great White North(s) as well. And how wonderful too to see the racial nuances of the UL so forthrightly addressed by our editorialist.

The notion of men acting as murderous proxies for women too timid to pull the trigger is an interesting ideological fig leaf. The UL was brought into being by angry husbands defending their patriarchal prerogatives. But it sounds much nicer from a late-Victorian perspective if you position the killing as a gallant gesture on the wronged woman’s behalf. Plus it papers over the disturbing possibility that the wife would rather see her husband than her lover dead.

Anyway, if the woman remains the primary avenger even when her male proxy pulls the trigger, she’s operating at a level of agency hard to reconcile with premises underlying patriarchal stewardship over ye weaker sex. If women can order hits, by what right can they be denied the vote? Read More »

Detroit News, April 11, 1931. Case closed. But this is rank sexism and ageism. Had Mrs. Thomsen and Mrs. Dilley been men fighting over a woman, Frances Thomsen might have been able to stand trial and win acquittal courtesy of the “unwritten law,” whose simple precept was “The libertine must die!” In the 19th century, American juries took it as a given that husbands, fathers and brothers were justified in killing a man who had been sexually intimate with their wives, daughters or sisters, and would nullify charges accordingly. The unwritten law was becoming a bit of a back number after the turn of the century, but there were still instances of its application in the 1920s and ’30s. I’m sure an example will pop up on this blog sooner or later.
Women could also benefit from the unwritten law when facing trial for killing their seducers, but as far as I know no woman ever successfully used it to get away with killing their husband’s mistress. Turns out I was wrong on that last count. The unwritten law goes through all kindsa wacky changes toward the end of its tenure. More on that later.


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:

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.