In my thesis proposal, I will argue that the trial of Adelaide Bartlett for the murder of her husband, Edwin Bartlett, shows how Victorian ideas of proper marital behavior influenced criminal investigations of accused female killers. By focusing on the trial of Adelaide Bartlett, my thesis will address the cultural context of gender, marriage, criminal investigations, and forensic evidence in Victorian England. I want to know how accused women, whether guilty or not, were treated by the press and court systems and what evidence was used against them in court. I want to study the trial and newspaper reports about the trial to understand how the prosecution built a case against Adelaide by using poison and mesmerism. The significance of this research is to show how the media treated accused female criminals, how the law decided guilt, and how Victorian culture defined normal behavior between married couples. These three points will help us to understand modern day definitions of sanity, guilt, and marital relations according to law and culture.
I want to examine Adelaide’s trial and the issues it brought to light through gender theory. I believe my work will situate itself into gender history, cultural history, legal history, and criminal justice history. I will interpret my sources with ideas of gender, culture, and law. Because my research deals with crime, I will need to use Foucault’s theories on crime and punishment to analyze the Victorian criminal justice system. The strongest part of my methodology will be conducting research through gender theory, because I want to understand how accused female killers were gendered. I see myself emerging as a gender historian, more specifically a gender historian of criminal justice. I want to apply theories of gender to the study of the criminal justice system in England in order for me and other historians to understand how criminals, crimes, and victims were gendered.
Undoubtedly, I will encounter some problems and limitations with this research. One limitation is simply not knowing if Adelaide Bartlett was guilty or innocent. Additionally, sources are limited documenting what became of Adelaide and her alleged lover, George Dyson, after the trial was over. Public feeling towards a certain individual standing trial for murder can vary and certainly there will always be those who will be certain of a defendant’s guilt or innocence. The trial itself and newspaper coverage will not necessarily determine how the readers felt about Adelaide, but will show where the sensationalism was in the coverage of her story. Aspects of the trial that are reported on by the press will show which aspects newspaper reporters felt would make their papers sell. As for gauging public reactions to Adelaide’s trial, the issues brought up at her trial, and her eventual acquittal, that part will be difficult to determine. Letters to the editor in the Times and other British newspapers may help determine how some individuals felt about Adelaide and the charges brought against her, but this certainly was not representative of everyone who followed her trial. One way to determine how the public treated an accused woman who was acquitted would be to find out what became of her after her trial. Exploring what happened to Adelaide Bartlett and George Dyson after the trial has its limitations. Records of them after 1886 are scarce, but I plan to use census records and death records accessed on Ancestry.com to find out what became of Adelaide and George. This will also be limited as either of them could have changed their names or moved out of England. I do hope to find evidence that both of them lived happily ever after when the trial was over, but it is likely that neither of them had any peace after being accused of murder.
Secondary Readings this week: “Women Murderers in Victorian Britain” by Judith Knelman and “The earliest days of first aid” by John Pearn. That last article was useless. I thought, because it was medical article, it would help give a medical explanation for Edwin Bartlett’s death. Instead, the article only briefly alludes to Edwin’s death from chloroform poisoning, but nothing to help explain how it might have gotten there. Knelman’s article was much more helpful because she discusses how female killers were dehumanized by the Victorian press, especially when they killed children. Her research reiterates how female killers had a special gender that wasn’t quite masculine, but was not at all feminine.
As for Bertoti, I think it went well. There were some moments of unpreparedness, like who would introduce the speakers and assigning hotel rooms, but they were minor and easily fixed. I enjoyed spending time with Dr. Jacobs and talking with her and getting to know potential VT students. My favorite panel was the Southwest Virginia panel–for obvious reasons–and hearing and seeing the research and hard work of second and first year students was great! I see how this conference can benefit future historians, and for the most part I think it went smoothly.