“Murder and Women in the 19th Century,” at the Sterling Memorial Law Library, confronts viewers with death, rape and assault — all consolidated into two neat glass cases.
The exhibit features illustrated pamphlets that depict some of the 19th century’s most famous murder cases involving women, whether as victims or perpetrators. And although many of the pamphlets contained attractive typography and eye-catching drawings, the brutality they depicted made for an unsavory contrast.
My eye shifted from one gruesome scene to another and finally focused on a black and white drawing neatly placed in the corner of one of the two displays. The drawing depicted the “beautiful” Miss Alice A. Bowlsby, victim of the Trunk Tragedy. Occupying the upper half of the image was a group of men in top hats crowded around a trunk, peering into its horrifying contents. The looks on their faces were worried, but also overwhelmingly curious.
Although billed as a legal history, the exhibit also chronicles a history of voyeurism. As I examined each piece, I felt transported — like a rubbernecker on an extremely lethal highway. And despite my horror, I was enthralled. As I looked from image to image, from one cheaply produced pamphlet to another, I felt like one of those unapologetically curious men in top hats.
At the top of most pamphlets was a price, ranging from ten cents to about 25. Just below, most featured bold lettering exclaiming some of the case’s most scandalous details: “The Unfortunate Wife is now Dying in Prison!” The pamphlets’ aesthetic reminded me of cereal-boxes boasting prizes inside — prizes that never quite lived up to the hype. Similarly, the facts of each murder were never quite as colorful as the headline suggested.
Each headline promised to provide the “ultimate,” tantalizing details about the grotesque event. Yet each pamphlet was starkly unoriginal. In most, the woman was “beautiful,” “pretty” or “unfortunate.” “Pretty Rose Ambler, the Connecticut Beauty” reads one. All we glean about Ambler’s life is a one-liner that communicates her general physical attractiveness. “Pretty” tells us nothing about Ms. Ambler’s personality, presence or relationships. Anybody interested in 19th century gender-roles would have field day.
It makes me wonder, did these people get funerals with their loved ones? Or was this it?
For the purposes of the pamphlet, that one-liner sufficed, coloring the subject in just enough to win the viewer’s affection. This, in turn, made her death worth 10 cents. The accumulation of so many murder stories in the exhibit seemed like a huge mass grave in which the personalities of the victims (or criminals, in some cases) was lost in a sea of indistinct faces.
Murders weren’t the only 19th century occurrences to merit pamphlets, which were also used to spread information about topics like religion, politics and even sex. The universality of the medium further homogenized the lives and deaths of these individual women.
But sensationalist pamphlets provided people with a desperately needed sense of involvement in another world. “Be the Judge, Be the Jury,” read the cover of one publication. This sounds like the title of a children’s game. Was this the 19th century version of The Sims? Unlike computer-generated automatons, though, these were real people dying, something these mass-produced pamphlets make it easy to forget.