“A Very Bad Case”: Sympathy and Mercy for Men Who Murdered Their "Sweethearts" in Twentieth-Century England and Wales

Alexa Neale, University of Sussex

The UK Home Office officially kept secret their reasons for deciding to hang or reprieve prisoners sentenced to death in twentieth-century England and Wales. Historians and Criminologists have therefore not been able to confidently assert why individual cases were selected for mercy over others, or account for changing rates of reprieve over time. It has been observed, however, that roughly forty percent of twentieth-century death sentences for murder were commuted to terms of imprisonment, that men were more likely to hang and women more likely to receive mercy. For the first time in 2019-22 a unique project is analysing the Home Office ‘Black Books’ in which death penalty decisions to hang or reprieve were recorded by civil servants. Kept under lock and key, these working indexes categorised cases according to classifications such as the relationship between prisoner and victim or their respective identities, for examples ‘Murder by Foreigners’, ‘Murder of parents’. These lists and short narratives highlight social behaviours and gendered roles as significant in case outcomes, enabling direct comparisons and quantifiable analyses of prisoners executed versus those respited. This paper analyses by far the largest categories in the ‘Black Books’ - ‘Murder of Sweethearts’ - lists of men who killed women with whom they had romantic relationships. Criminologists and historians have tended to displace emotional reactions to capital punishment by policymakers in favour of 'public' feelings, yet this paper finds that emotions ran high among government bureaucrats at the Home Office, playing a significant role in life-or-death decision-making. Highlighting the ability of bureaucratic sources and quantifiable data to describe emotional relationships and feelings about them, the ‘Black Books’ demonstrate how gendered notions of appropriate emotion in relationships directly informed legal approaches and the distribution of mercy.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 48. Cruelty, Theft, Murder: Gender and Emotion from British and Australian Legal Data, 1850s-1950s