Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The wilful murder case: pleas for the defence

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VIII  (1863) 
The wilful murder case. Plea for the defence
by Harriet Martineau


A few weeks ago I gave in Once a Week an account of the cases of death by crinoline, or hoop, which had come before coroners’ juries in the course of a few months, and I called the persistence of my countrywomen in that mode of dress, in the face of such facts, a new sort of wilful murder. That collection of facts has produced the sensation that might naturally be expected; but some of the incidents of the case could hardly, I think, have been anticipated by anybody. There has been no dispute about the facts, for the sufficient reason that they are indisputable; and almost every woman who has remarked to me on the statement has used the same word about it—that it is “appalling.” After going thus far together, the commentators on my appeal part off in various directions.

The fervent thankfulness of not a few women—ladies who dress well—has satisfied me that in the case in question there is no exaggeration in speaking of the tyranny of the leaders of fashion, and of the slavery which compliance with the mode imposes upon women. I am satisfied that the suffering undergone by many of my countrywomen, whether they wear hoops or decline to do so, is real and serious. Either way, they have much pain of mind to bear, and constant inconvenience. Those certainly suffer least who have resolution to refuse a compliance which they know to be wrong in every point of view: they have not to reproach themselves with helping to generate sin and death, and they must be conscious that they preserve for themselves that respect and confidence from men which the present generation of Englishwomen has so rashly forfeited; but they have their troubles too. The weaker majority use in regard to them the tyranny of majorities, and make them suffer for their refusal to follow the multitude in causing the evil which all admit to be “appalling.” My purpose, however, in speaking of these rational and conscientious women, was to say that I have been surprised at the number which has become known to me within a few weeks. They afford a sufficient foundation for a strong hope of present resistance, and of a not distant change of fashion. “Remember,” said a friend of mine to some little girls who were looking wistfully at other people’s hoops; “Remember, when you grow old, and hear this fashion spoken of as it will be spoken of hereafter, that neither your mamma, nor grandmamma, nor aunt, ever wore a crinoline or a hoop.” Such ladies as these naturally hail any such exposure of the mischief as my collection of coroner’s cases afforded; but there are others who are more grateful still,—the women who have sense enough to see and understand the evil, but who have not courage to discountenance it in their own practice. They trust that their chain will be broken for them, lacking as they do the spirit to break it themselves. I do not feel disposed or able to blame such women. It does require a calm and sustained courage to dress unlike other people; and all one can do in regard to the well-disposed who are weak is to pity their trouble, and help to extinguish the cause of it.

These are the two classes of commentators who are pleased and thankful. All the rest are, as far as I know, more or less displeased and vexed. Some express their feelings more, and some less, graciously; some are very amiable and cheerful: some are insolent: and all agree in offering such a defence as they can of the fashion which they admit to have murdered scores of women in the course of last year. Two or three of their pleas are urged by them all: but there are other grounds of defence remarkably characteristic of their proposers. My object now is to state these grounds of defence, in order to see what can be said on that side of the question, and to ascertain what it amounts to.

I. “The hoop carries the clothes lightly and easily. It relieves the waist and the loins of the weight of the skirts and their flounces.”

This plea appears in every one of the array of letters before me. I am told that the weight of clothes which a young growing girl puts off at night is something fearful. If such a weight were all borne by tightening the dress round the waist or haunches, the girl’s health and figure would be injured, and probably her spine would suffer. The hoop carries off the chief part of the weight; and thus, wearing it is actually a sanitary measure.

The obvious solution of such a difficulty seems to be,—not to wear heavy skirts; and to suspend such weight as there is from the shoulders, which were made to bear the burden.

This brings me to an item of the defence which is not ventured upon by many. It appears, however, in more than one letter, viz.:

II. “Medical men approve the fashion as favourable to health. It is cool and airy.”

Who these approving medical men are I do not know. I know several who disapprove the mode as heartily and as openly as I do. “Cool and airy.” Yes! One of the first physicians in London was seen, the other day, more disturbed and vexed than some of his friends ever saw him before. He was in great pain of mind at witnessing the havoc made by “this detestable fashion” in a home in which he was interested. The life of the lady depends on her being clothed as no woman who wears a hoop can be clothed; and she positively and obstinately refuses to leave off her hoop. What this physician thinks is conceivable enough.

On every hand, the doctors are telling us of the diseases which prevail among children, and older girls, from the deficiency of warmth under the skirts.

Country surgeons say that women and girls in every village take advantage of the hoop to hide the scantiness of their clothing. The “coolness” and “airiness” of the hooped dress is the cause of the fevers in which hundreds of sufferers are now tossing on their beds, and of some of the funeral processions which pass to the cemeteries of England day by day.

As to physicians, or men of any other calling, approving or liking the fashion, I think it is well that my countrywomen should hear the truth. To the best of my knowledge, no man approves or likes the fashion. One of these same often-quoted medical men observed to me lately that he had never met, or heard of, any man who likes the crinoline or hoop dress. Some few light young men profess that they like to see pretty girls sailing about in the way which is now “the go;” but, of men whose opinion is worth hearing, my friend had never known one whose view differed from his own.

There is something piteous, I can assure the ladies who “go sailing about” in comfortable complacency about their dress, in hearing the accounts given by their fathers, husbands, and brothers, of the defensive measures they take against the mischiefs of the prevalent fashion. Though they suppress more than they tell, they relate enough to excite an old man’s wonder at what the heads of English households will submit to in these days. They say nothing of the difficulty of finding money for the increased cost of female dress; nor, perhaps, of the grief of being subjected to hourly annoyance and inconvenience by wife, daughter, or sister, who is supposed to be bound to consider the comfort of the head of the family: but they speak out about the dangers to life and property. They have bought high fenders and fireguards for every room in the house; and they put forth their full authority on the subject of keeping the fireguards locked. As for the property endangered by skirts too large for the dwelling,—the china, the flower-stands, light tables, and whatever stands upon them,—some gentlemen are vexed, and others take it easily, when these things are smashed; but all regret the days when such property was safe from one generation to another, and when we could all walk about our own houses without thought or care. On the whole, the impression, after an hour’s conversation in the absence of ladies, is one of no little pain. Cynics may find amusement in the helplessness of husbands and fathers who would lose more than they could gain by opposition to the fashion: but men of heart,—men who have been accustomed to respect the domestic sex,—cannot but regret the levity or perverseness, or mere weakness, by which that respect, and the mutual confidence and affection of home are put to too severe a proof.

To continue the list of ladies’ reasons,—here is another of the universal pleas:

III. “I do not like to have my clothes cling about my limbs, or my skirts draggled with mud. The hoop is convenient and pleasant in saving me from this.”

As for the draggling,—it does not appear to be a law of Nature that if clothes are not lifted up, they must sweep the ground. There has been such a thing known as a dress which was light, and which neither touched the ground nor showed more than it ought. That such a thing should be said is another evidence of the skill of mortals in creating their own troubles; as if life had not natural woes enough without artificial ones of our own devising. If women had no other choice than between a dress too heavy to carry and too long to be endured, we could only pity them, and leave them to their choice of evils. As it is,—the present century having afforded specimens of every width and every length of gown and petticoat,—the defence goes for nothing, while compelling a remark which must not be suppressed, but which I will defer for the present.

As for the clinging of the clothes,—there is, under the existing fashion, only the choice between insufficient under-clothing, and that which must sit close to be of any use. In proportion to the expansion of the upper skirts must be the quantity or close fitting, or both, of the under garments.

IV. “The mode is a graceful one,—for ladies who have only to sit, stand, or move gently. They cannot be expected to order their dress by the conditions which affect the working-classes.”

Whether balloon-skirts are graceful is a matter of opinion. I know a good many persons of taste who regard them as the grossest violation of all the principles of grace and beauty exhibited in any mode of dress in our time. To say nothing of the necessity of some recognition of Use to the existence of Beauty in dress, as in furniture, the lines formed by the hoop-skirt and the upper part of the figure are pronounced by artists and other persons of educated taste ungraceful to the point of absurdity. The multiplying caricatures of the ladies of the day as extinguishers, haycocks, &c., could not have grown out of any reasonable or graceful fashion. This is, however, a matter of taste, as I said. But there is a view of it about which there can be no mistake, and no difference of opinion, viz., the outrageous selfishness involved in the two last pleas.

In answer to proof of deaths by the score, and to remonstrance about the embarrassment and inconvenience caused to almost every husband and father in the kingdom, these ladies whose letters are before me, think it enough to say that they find the hoop-skirt comfortable, and think it pretty! If their convenience is suited, no matter for the rest! I regret to say that this defence is to be found in almost every letter of the whole array on my table.

V. “The fashion is agreeable to female modesty as it conceals the state of pregnancy. For the same reason that the Empress of the French introduced it, all the young mothers in the kingdom will sustain it.”

It would be useless to preach here on false modesty, because women who are ashamed of their function of maternity, or who have any sympathy with that shame, cannot be reached by any appeal of mine. But I must not pass by the occasion of appealing to true modesty by a reference to facts which are unquestionable.

An eminent London physician writes as follows:—“I cannot express myself sufficiently strongly of this abhorrent custom,—not only dangerous as regards crinoline, but, since the introduction of hoops, positively indecent. As a friend of mine said the other day, ‘Ladies might have been proud of showing their ankles when they had a good one: now every woman seems proud of showing her knees.” An anonymous vindicator of the hoop writes to me about the indecency of the dress in a way which reads strangely on the same page with her laudation of the fashion. She tells of housemaids making beds and filling ewers with such a display of the person as makes any lady who passes shut the door in a hurry. She tells of seeing a servant washing the door-steps with her hoop actually lying flat on her back as she stoops to her work. The highest authority that can be quoted on such a question as the one before us,—Florence Nightingale,—says in her “Notes on Nursing” (enlarged edition, p. 68).

“I wish, too, that people who wear crinoline could see the indecency of their own dress as other people see it. A respectable elderly woman stooping forward, invested in crinoline, exposes quite as much of her own person to the patient lying in the room as any opera-dancer does on the stage. But no one will tell her this unpleasant truth.” Nor will any one tell young ladies the unpleasant truth of the remarks which their dress provokes everywhere behind their backs, wherever they move—whether in the breeze of the seashore, or on the deck of the steamer, or entering a railway carriage, or climbing hills, or walking in Exhibition galleries,—or doing anything but sitting still. It was but the other day that an omnibus full of young ladies, on their way to a country ball, was upset; and the perplexity how to get them out was simply and seriously described by the first person who arrived to help. He said that the ladies were tumbled so inextricably together that they could not rise or free themselves and that there was nothing to be seen but a crowd of legs sticking up, so that how to get hold of any one, in order to make a way for the others, was the difficulty. Some may treat this as a joke, though the man himself did not; but there is another view of this defence on the ground of modesty which it is impossible for anybody with a heart and a conscience to make a jest of.

The increase of seduction, of illegitimate births, and of infanticide has been so marked since this fashion of balloon-skirts became prevalent, that it is engaging the most serious attention of our clergy, our physicians and country surgeons, our poor-law guardians, coroners, and everybody who is interested in observing the life of the working-classes. If the ladies who set, or weakly follow, the fashion would give the same attention to the fact, it would be well for their countrywomen; but women who are so squeamish about the honourable state of maternity in married life are not exactly those who can be expected to consider the natural dangers of their sisters of the working-class amidst the realities of life. If they would attend, however, they would find that the present mode does but too effectually conceal pregnancy, and that the domestic misery and shame consequent on a wide spread of sin, and on its sudden disclosure at the last moment, have spread all over the land, in town and country, till those who know most are aghast. It was but the other day that one of the Metropolitan coroners spoke publicly of the increase of infanticide, and of possible means of meeting the calamity. Other coroners everywhere are remarking on the same state of things; but it is to be hoped that none of them will propose the remedy suggested by the East London functionary,—a Foundling Hospital. For my own part, I trust we do not need to be taught the operation of Foundling Hospitals, in encouraging vice, and causing a vast increase of sin and shame. It is disgrace enough to our generation that the ladyhood of the kingdom has spread a new snare before the whole sex, and done more by a vain fashion in dress to corrupt the morals of society than all educational and sanitary effort can do to mend them.

It is not only an alarmed coroner here and there who would, in despair, turn to retrograde methods for a chance of relief. The champions of the hoop ask for a retrograde policy, not in alarm, but in a wantonness of insolence which is astonishing in our day. Several of my correspondents say—

VI. “The real evil is that the working-classes are free to imitate the dress of the non-working order. I, who have no work to do, decline to be influenced by the consideration of what suits the condition of women of the labouring classes.”

I need not comment at any length on this kind of defence. It ignores the fact that, thus far, more ladies have been burnt than working-women. It admits the bondage that “gentlewomen” are living in, under a fashion which compels them to be idle on peril of their lives. It takes no account of the mothers of the opulent class who nurse their babes, play with their children, and tend their husbands or parents in illness: or of the large middle-class, in which the wives share the household work;—of any women, in short, who do something useful in life. As soon as they stir to do something useful, these multitudes incur the risks of the domestic servant and the cottage mother. This defence does not show how or where the line is to be drawn between the industrial and idle classes. All this tells itself. The point which most moves wonder and indignation is, that there should be educated persons in England (if only the few who have written the letters on my desk) who propose to restore the caste distinctions of the Middle Ages, for the gratification of an exclusive wilfulness in dress. After a long course of effort to elevate the mind and spirit of the labouring class,—after congratulating ourselves on the success of this effort, as evidenced by the temper and conduct of the Lancashire population in this period of trial,—it is astonishing to meet the demand that the labouring classes shall have a costume which their superiors shall decide to be fitting and convenient for them! But there is no danger of such a proposal being countenanced for a moment by enlightened men,—or women either. The open career which is the true English privilege,—the absence of all arbitrary distinctions which can prevent the fusion of the intelligence and virtue of all classes,—will never be given up, or in the slightest degree interfered with, for any consideration: and certainly not for that of impunity to English women of any order in wearing a perilous and objectionable sort of petticoat.

One of my anonymous correspondents takes strong ground in first denying that there has been any more death by burning of late than usual; and next by assuring me that if I had known what it is to wear petticoats, I should be thankful for the invention of the hoop: after which she proceeds to insist that no women shall use the blessing but the few of the upper ranks who have nothing useful to do. She fully agrees with me about the mischief to the vulgar; but she does not perceive what the privileged class have to do with that, beyond reprobating the ambition which causes the servant girl to emulate the gentlewoman’s way of dressing, as the gentlewomen emulate that of their superiors. The coroners’ inquests of the last year are the best answer to one point: the testimony of Englishwomen by the score, whose judgment and feelings I respect, satisfy me on the second: and I need no aid in pronouncing on the character of the third item in the statement. I have no complacency in regarding as my countrywomen any persons who think that working women are served right by being burned to death in imitating gentlefolks, instead of submitting to be badged by a costume like the peasantry of France. Our country and time are so far advanced that these insolent critics of our social state must make up their minds to follow the progress of the rest of our world, instead of hoping to drag society back to the arrangements of the dark ages.

This reminds me of a suggestion offered in the same spirit.

VII.“Would it not be a good thing to impose a tax on crinoline and hoops, by which the use of them would be confined to the opulent classes?”

The slightest glance into the history of sumptuary legislation anywhere, and especially in England, would show how ineffectual it has always been: and the suggestion at this time of day is truly extraordinary. The shortest course, however, is to see whether, if the thing could be done, it would prevent “poor people” wearing any imitation they please of the dress of the gentry. One Saturday evening a country lady had business at the cottage of a labourer, whose family lived on ten shillings a week. One of the girls was pushing something into the lowest of a hierarchy of tucks in a white petticoat: and that something is not exactly an article which the legislature could tax. The girl was preparing for church, next morning; and she was doing it by thrusting a long blackberry switch into the tuck of her petticoat,—that bramble, stripped of its thorns, being the next best material for a hoop after the steel apparatus of the tax-paying gentlewomen.

What remains, in the form of defence, is mere matter of amusement. For instance—

VIII. “It should be considered that the balloon-skirt saves life as well as destroys it. A young woman was thrown down a coal-pit by her lover; and she descended alive, as on a parachute. It is not fair to conceal this quality of crinoline or the hoop.”

No doubt it will be duly considered when women of all ranks and ages hover about the mouths of coalpits every day, and all day long, as they do about the household fire and candle. Till then we may leave it.

IX. “It is not fair to condemn this custom more than others which have occasioned loss of life. If balloon-skirts are to be denounced, we must condemn, for instance, false teeth, and thus sentence old people to a period of indigestion at the close of life; because inquests have been held on persons who died by swallowing false teeth.”

Here, again, the discussion may be deferred. When people of all ages and conditions take to wearing false teeth as a fashion, and for reasons of fashion alone, it will be time enough to think of discountenancing false teeth. I am not aware that there is any such existing taste for them as leads anybody to adopt them without some inducement of individual need.

All the champions of the fashion, except one or two, insist on my understanding that they approve of it only “in moderation.” I do not see that any standard is proposed by which the meaning of “moderation” may be ascertained; and I suspect no two of the letter-writers would agree as to the proper dimensions of their skirts. Yet, under this head of their remonstrance, if they do not resort to science for measurement, they do to morality and religion for a sanction.

X. “It is a mere indulgence of vanity to refuse to wear a hoop,—a seeking of notice by singularity.”—“It shows a temper of cruelty to endeavour to make anybody uneasy in doing as others do, and especially to trouble young girls with scruples or restrictions.”—“As much weakness is shown by going into one extreme as another,—by condemning hoops of any size as by wearing the largest kind. Total abstinence is an unchristian principle, as we learn by the history of celibacy, and the spectacle of teetotalism: why not therefore in this case?”

I will only say that I do not look among the vain women of my acquaintance for those who resist the fashion of the hoop: that it seems to me kinder to warn one’s neighbours against causing violent death than to let them slide unwarned into a liability which may destroy the peace of their whole lives, and that I rather imagine that the unchristian character of total abstinence depends on what is abstained from. The appeal is to St. Paul; and I can only say that I do not think St. Paul would have condemned total abstinence from Wilful Murder. If I remember right, too, he recommends abstinence from things otherwise innocent when they may lead weak brethren into danger or offence.

Enough! I must assure my readers that these defences are, to the best of my belief, offered in simple good faith by my various correspondents. For my own part, I have written in a sufficiently serious mood—in truth, in a very sad one. I have only to leave my readers to judge for themselves of the pleas offered to me. Some will perhaps think that it would have been wiser in the ladies to have proposed,—if any defence,—the unanswerable one—“I choose to wear the hoop because I choose it.” That is a point with which I am not concerned. But there is another which concerns us all.

What is all this perturbation about? Why are coroners’ inquests multiplied, and young women ruined, and infants murdered, and heads of households pressed for money till they think they have fallen on evil days? Why are we living under a perpetual sense of danger,—guarding against death by anxious precautions at the ironing-board, and by locking up every fire in the house? Why all these proposals of return to a system of caste, and to sumptuary taxation? Why all this arguing and disputing, and remonstrance,—this frail footing of peace at home, this sudden dislike of the freedom of the press and the independence of the working-classes,—this flagrant display of shameless selfishness and perilous self-will on the part of a class which bore a very different character twenty, and even ten, years ago? What is all this for? To enable a few of the women of England to wear, and to compel others to wear, skirts too heavy and large for use or beauty.

Will a future generation believe it? Is it credible to ourselves? Yet, I must say, from my own experience, it is too true. Here is a crowd of Englishwomen spontaneously speaking their minds: they all declare themselves “appalled” by the amount of murder committed by this fashion; and—they all avow their intention of adhering to and sustaining it! Heaven comfort them when they come to see what they have done!

From the Mountain.