Manipulation of the Presumption of a Husband's Coercion in Criminal Trials of Wives in the Nineteenth Century
At common law, a married woman who committed a crime in her husband's presence was absolved of that crime. This doctrine was predicated on the belief that the wife's will was subordinate to that of her husband; if she committed a crime in his presence, he must have coerced her to do so. During the late nineteenth century in Massachusetts, use of the presumption of coercion became increasingly unpredictable.
Legal treatises in the nineteenth century treated the presumption of coercion as fairly rigid, especially in the early nineteenth century. Commentators considered a married couple to be one unit legally, and assumed wives committed their criminal acts at the behest of their husbands. Husbands were held responsible for both the civil torts and the crimes their wives committed. Treatises in the late 1800s, however, began to state that the presumption of coercion was rebuttable.
Most of the Massachusetts presumption of coercion cases involved the sale of illegal liquor. Some also involved prostitution. One case each involving allegations of treason, larceny, and keeping a disorderly house reached the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The court treated the presumption of coercion doctrine inconsistently. Wives were acquitted for treason and larceny. They were, however, found guilty in nine of ten liquor cases and for keeping houses of prostitution as well as running a disorderly house.. In several of these cases, the husband's presence in another room did not trigger the presumption of coercion. His actual physical presence or proximity was important in determining the wife's culpability. Late in the nineteenth century, husbands were tried for their wives' sale of liquor; in these cases five of six husbands were convicted under the presumption of coercion. Courts manipulated the presumption of coercion to gain convictions, denying it if a wife was on trial but applying it if a husband was.
Several social factors influenced the courts' attitude toward the presumption of coercion. The feminist movement opposed it because it denied women free will. Women's moral conduct became increasingly important; they were expected to set examples for their families, and thus were more likely to be held responsible for activities considered immoral, such as selling liquor or running a brothel. The emergence of the temperance movement encouraged the prosecution of illegal liquor distributors. With the industrial revolution, more women worked outside the home. Working fostered in women the belief that their work was compensable and made them both more aware of their individual rights and responsibilities and less financially dependent on their husbands. Married women's property acts were passed in the 1840s, recognizing that married women had separate legal identities. If wives were separate from their husbands in terms of property law, they could also be separate entities in criminal cases. As a result, ownership of a building in which liquor was sold was often a factor in determining guilt. Increasing education for women led to increasing awareness and involvement in social institutions, including the legal system, and decreasing dependence on their husbands for knowledge. These factors combined to form a view of married women as separate entities from their husbands, making the presumption of coercion easier to manipulate.
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