Women and crime

Women and crime

What kind of crimes have women committed, and what sort of women were they? Here are Nell Darby's book suggestions to help you find out more about these women's lives, and offences...

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history


Last month I looked at Hallie Rubenhold’s book about the women who were killed by an individual who has become known as ‘Jack the Ripper’, and how female victims of crime – and ordinary women in general, regardless of their involvement in crime – have tended to be sidelined by history. This month I consider female criminals, or alleged criminals, and how books and articles have covered their crimes. By reading such accounts, we get a picture of their offences, but also of their lives, their backgrounds, and the issues that they faced. We can then apply these to our own ancestors, to see what might have made someone commit crime – or have a crime committed against them. The many books about women – who over history have formed a minority of criminals compared with men – also shows us how fascinated we are by these women, and how they refused to live by society’s unwritten codes of gender behaviour and morality.

Female thieves have probably always existed in society. This 19th century depiction of a female shoplifter draws attention to her outward respectability
Female thieves have probably always existed in society. This 19th century depiction of a female shoplifter draws attention to her outward respectability

Madeleine Smith
Madeleine Smith was unusual for her time and her class. She was a middle-class Glasgow girl who, at the age of 19, embarked on a sexual relationship with an older Jersey émigré. Her family, who were unaware of the relationship, found a suitable man for her to marry; Madeleine duly broke off her illicit relationship, only for her lover to try to blackmail her when she sought the return of her love letters. He was soon found dead, having been poisoned; Madeleine went on trial for his murder in 1857, but the charge against her was found ‘not proven’.

The 19-year-old Madeleine Smith embarked on a relationship with a man ten years older – but came to regret it.
The 19-year-old Madeleine Smith embarked on a relationship with a man ten years older – but came to regret it.

Several books and articles on this case have been published, and it’s easy to see why Madeleine’s life intrigues us so much. She was from a good family, well educated, with her life before her. She broke Victorian conventions by having sex outside marriage, and enjoying it. Because of the court’s verdict against her, she was deemed both innocent and guilty – free to leave court, but not to recover her reputation – and historians have since sought to ascertain whether she really did kill her lover or not. Regardless, her family lost their position and reputation in local society as a result of their relationship with Madeleine, and had to move away from their Glasgow home. Madeleine also went on to have a long, fascinating, but somewhat shadowy life, involving marriage to a member of London’s art and political scene, and then emigration to New York.

Try reading: Murder and Morality in Victorian Britain: The Story of Madeleine Smith by Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair (Manchester University Press, 2011) or The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith: Victorian Scotland’s Trial of the Century by Douglas MacGowan (Mercat Press, 2007).

Similar cases: The young, glamorous American Florence Maybrick was accused of poisoning her husband, Liverpool merchant James Maybrick, in 1889. This case similarly shocked Britain because it involved sexual relationships, notions of 19th century respectability, and a woman accused of a murderous crime. Kate Colquhoun covers the case in her book Did She Kill Him? (Abacus, 2015).

Amelia Dyer, photographed by police, was a notorious baby farmer, her murders of children sitting at odds with her former career as a nurse
Amelia Dyer, photographed by police, was a notorious baby farmer, her murders of children sitting at odds with her former career as a nurse

Amelia Dyer
Baby-farming was a Victorian and Edwardian scandal. For those with babies and who needed to go out to work – particularly younger women, with illegitimate children, or no family to look after their children – employing another female to look after their offspring was an option. Unfortunately, some of these women were unscrupulous, taking money but then failing to maintain the children in their care. Some were left malnourished, dirty, unloved, and left to decline and die out of neglect. Others were actively killed by their ‘carer’, sometimes with the complicity of the parent. Amelia Dyer was a particularly notorious example of a baby-farmer, taking in other people’s children for money, and then killing them. She appeared to be an ordinary wife and mother, living in Reading, and a former nurse – a member of the caring profession! – yet she had a dark side that was motivated by money. She hanged for her offences, but baby-farming continued for a few years, until the practice was banned. A related issue was that of infanticide, involving mothers killing their babies – this was sometimes, although not always, as a result of feeling shamed by having a child out of wedlock, or of concerns about how the mother could earn enough to live if she had a child to support (or had no family to look after it while she worked).

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Try reading: Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley (Manor Vale, 2016); or A History of Infanticide in Britain, c1600 to the present by Anne-Marie Kilday (AIAA, 2013).

The Forty Elephants
The name doesn’t really tell you much about what this gang was, or what it did – but it certainly gets the attention. Their other commonly used name, the Forty Thieves, gives you more of an idea about this crime syndicate based in south London (the name coming from the Elephant and Castle area). They were a group of women who specialised in shoplifting from London’s proliferating shops and department stores, sometimes also posing as house servants in order to get jobs in good homes – and then rob them. In the early years of the 20th century, the gang was led by Annie or Alice Diamond, the ‘Queen of the Forty Thieves’. The gang is significant both for its longevity – operating from the 1870s to the 1950s – and for the women who were an active part of its criminal activities, showing that crime has never been just the preserve of men. In fact, the Forty Thieves were simply a more organised form of shoplifting and thieving that had long occurred in urban England (see the Old Bailey Online website, oldbaileyonline.org, for multiple accounts of women accused of theft and picking pockets).

Try reading: Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants: The Female Gang That Terrorised London by Brian McDonald (Milo Books, 2015).

Similar cases: For a more modern story of a female thief, try Gone Shopping: The Story of Shirley Pitts, Queen of Thieves by Lorraine Gamman (Bloomsbury, 2013). Books such as this show how we have a longstanding interest in the women who steal, and why they steal. There have always been women who have stolen out of genuine economic need – stealing, for example, items of food, or items that can be easily sold on for money that can then be spent on essentials – but alongside this, there have also always been women who steal for the adrenalin rush, for the danger, or because it has become a way of life for them. For a tale further back in history, about the lives of two 17th-century criminal women, try Counterfeit Ladies: The Life and Death of Mary Frith and the Case of Mary Carleton by Elizabeth Spearing (Routledge, 1993).

The press loved Beatrice Pace – and it helped that she was photogenic, which helped them sell copies of her case and trial
The press loved Beatrice Pace – and it helped that she was photogenic, which helped them sell copies of her case and trial

Beatrice Pace
Beatrice was a 36-year-old sheep farmer’s wife from Coleford in the Forest of Dean who, in 1928, went on trial for killing her husband Harry with arsenic, but was acquitted. Her trial was lapped up by the press, but also raised questions about gender, celebrity culture and press reporting. Beatrice was the victim of physical and mental violence by her husband, who she had married aged just 17, but became a fully fledged celebrity and figure of great sympathy as a result of her case; one newspaper noted that ‘seldom has there been a prisoner committed on a capital charge who so enlisted public sympathy’.

Try reading: The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace by John Carter Wood (Manchester University Press, 2012).

Similar cases: Edith Thompson was hanged for murder in 1923, despite having not physically committed the crime. She had been unhappily married and had a lover, Frederick Bywaters, who she wrote numerous love letters to. These letters were used against her during her trial, and despite Frederick having been the one who killed her husband, she too was executed, raising issues about how women were perceived, and told to be, in 1920s England. Read Laura Thompson’s Rex v Edith Thompson: A Tale of Two Murders (Head of Zeus, 2018) for a gripping account of the case.

Mary Frith was a notorious pickpocket in the 17th century underworld better known as Moll Cutpurse
Mary Frith was a notorious pickpocket in the 17th century underworld better known as Moll Cutpurse

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