Female Injustice in Victorian Britain
Pen and Sword, October 2019
Between 1836 and 1900 the wheels of justice often wobbled slowly and erroneously through British society. There were major changes in policing and some changes in social attitudes. However, the balance of justice most often was weighted in favor of the male side of things. Several women were accused of heinous crimes—mostly murder—and, according to this author, mistakenly convicted and executed.
The author, a private solicitor, in 1992 founded Fair Trials International, leading a persistent effort to balance justice world-wide. This volume of true crimes and results is part of his ongoing efforts.
It is a trudging look at the gathering of evidence and its presentation in English courts. The presentation is dense, careful and evokes textbooks of past classes. Indeed, the type on the page is small and readers might be advised to have a magnifier at hand. This is not bed-time pleasure.
However, for anyone intrigued by the evolution of our justice systems, police work and the attitudes of court authorities will find much of this book more than merely interesting.
Another rather fascinating aspect of the book is the role of religion. The author documents a case of torture of a woman prisoner by a chaplain and testimony in court by religious leaders who were supposed to be hearing confession by the female prisoners.
During the time between 1843 and 1900, 53 women were hanged after murder convictions. Thirty of those were poisoners. Fifteen of the poisoners never confessed. Eleven of the 53 were clearly guilty and of the rest, there were various problems that call into question the whole process and outcomes.
It appears that a good deal of the bias toward these women, some of whom were successful in society, was generated by a press that could be accused of being out of control over these sensational cases.
One of the most prolific murderesses described in the book is Mary Ann Cotton. Although convicted and hanged at 40 years of age, only for murdering her stepson, she was married many times, lost many children, and is reliably suspected of have used arsenic in tea to kill at least twenty men and children.
The book documents some appalling miscarriages of justice, as well as describing some appalling acts of murder that were never adequately resolved. Well researched, documented and written, this is not, however, something one would select to take to the beach.
HarperPaperbacks, February 1999
Mass Market Paperback
On a steamy July afternoon in 1983, three young boys run gleefully from their front yard to the nearby park and down the bluff to the edge of the Mississippi River. They do not return home ever again.
Fifteen years later, top television anchor, Alex Collier scans a memory item, the disappearance, on this date, of those three Hathaway sons. The story mildly intrigues him. Now readers, introduced to Collier’s co-anchor on the news team, are drawn inside the routine workings of a major station news operation. The author, with vast and varied experience in such operations, is careful to avoid relying on the technical details of such an operation to move the story forward.
Rather, Handberg relies on the interpersonal relationships, decisions and routines of the people who spend their time researching, writing, taping and presenting the daily television news to help move the story forward. It’s an interesting and sometimes tension-filled situation, but the story really focuses on the three missing boys. Collier decides to use his star-clout to get the station to in effect reopen the case.
Careful logical moves, rather than sudden insightful intuition guides Collier and his young co-anchor to the people, many long retired who were involved in the original case, including the still distraught, still seeking answers, parents of the boys.
The novel is rooted in reality and makes good use of the unusual and often exotic internal scenes in a big-time television operation, the evolving life of officials and ordinary citizens, some of whom have moved on, retired or left the Twin Cities. Mysterious threatening phone calls, possible deliberate hit and run and new murder all populate this novel as the clues mount, incidents occur and Collier persists against mounting resistance and tension.
The physical presence of the cities and rural Minnesota are inserted judicially with logical and useful influence on the trajectory of this story. The narrative rhythm is appropriate and although the novel is long, it is a well-paced read that will capture the imagination and attention of anyone interested in missing person cases.