MAILED: Oct. 23, 1997|
EAU CLAIRE -- The stories Jane Pederson uncovered while researching her newest book aren't pleasant but they are compelling, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire history professor says.
Take, for example, the story of the town of Blair man who was lynched by his neighbors after he repeatedly abused his wife and son. Not only were three neighbors convicted of first-degree murder, but so too were the wife and son. While they were in their house at the time of the lynching, the courts accused the family of stirring up trouble by sharing the stories of abuse so they were convicted and jailed along with their neighbors.
"I found an incredible set of court records," Pederson said of that case. "With those records, I was able to recapture the story of this family's life. It was a story of family violence and a neighborhood that tried to help the family.
"This research is a window into the question of what happens to people and what strategies they use in situations of family violence."
The story will be part of a book tentatively titled "Pardonable Offenses: Gender, Ethnicity and Justice in the Rural Midwest, 1880-1920." Pederson took a sabbatical in 1995-96 to research the topic.
Pederson became interested in studying family violence at the turn of the century - particularly the abuse of women by their husbands -- when she heard the story of the Blair family while researching her first book, titled "Between Memory and Reality."
"I think academic and popular audiences are going to be interested in the book because the narratives are so dramatic," Pederson said. "When I presented the lynching case for the first time at a conference, people were literally on the edge of their seats.
"Crime is compelling and historians have not done a lot to analyze the roots of contemporary violence."
Surprisingly, she said, there are a lot of sources available to document such cases during this period of Wisconsin's history. The documentation typically exists when the violence ends in the courts, especially when a woman has killed her spouse.
"Usually when a woman kills, it's a family member and in the majority of cases her husband," Pederson said research has shown. "And when young males kill, it's frequently their father or stepfather, who has been abusing their mother and the children.
During the 40-year period Pederson's research addresses, women often lived near their kin and neighbors spent great amounts of time in one another's homes. As a result, Pederson said, there were often numerous witnesses willing to testify to the abuse that led to the death.
Among the interesting things she found while researching the cases was how rural neighborhoods intervened in situations of family violence. The stereotype is that living in rural communities results in social isolation, but that wasn't true at the turn of the century, she said.
"Kinship networks also played an important role," Pederson said. "If you live 1,000 miles away from your kin, which is the case for many women today, they are not going to be there to help you. Also, people often had daily contact with their neighbors and kin. Neighbors knew what was going on inside each other's houses and intervened when necessary. That intervention was the first line of defense."
Also, she said, survivors of abuse were often women in rural communities who worked side-by-side with their husbands. As a result of their lifestyle, she said, they were physically strong and able to fight back more effectively.
Pederson is organizing the book around different ethnic groups, she said.
"There is a good deal of diversity in how different ethnic groups perceive and respond to family violence," Pederson said. "The story of the lynching was in a Norwegian community but I've also found cases of German Americans and cases in Polish communities. Some groups are more tolerant than others and have different expectations."
Most of the book will focus on women who killed their husbands, simply because the same amount of evidence doesn't exist when a man killed his wife because the wife wasn't around to testify to the abuse.
"Women who survive the cases of abuse and their neighbors tell a lot of the stories," Pederson said of her book.
Women in abusive relationships who killed in self-defense at the turn of the century in rural Wisconsin were treated more fairly than women who kill in similar circumstances today, Pederson said. Today the average woman convicted in these circumstances spends 25 years in prison, considerably more than the five to six years women served in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she said.
Pederson said she hopes to look at how the justice system has changed over time when dealing with cases of death resulting from abuse, and why those changes are occurring, she said.
"Today, the law is emphasized as the first line of defense," Pederson. "That was not an effective first line of defense then and it isn't now. Then if the women were beaten, neighbors took the women and children into their houses, functioning much as a refuge house does today.
"As a result, if a situation led to a trial, there were a lot of witnesses to testify in court. The women who weren't treated well in the courts were those who were isolated and had no one to testify. When it came to the courtroom, the community who knew the family's history mattered."
Another significant difference is the use of the pardon, Pederson said. In the late 19th century, the pardon was a political process that was controlled by the local community. As a result, many of the women convicted of murdering their husbands were later pardoned by the governor.
Pederson said she has nearly completed her research and has already written several chapters of the book. She hopes to have it published in the next few years.
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: Oct. 23, 1997