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Domestic Violence in the Press a Century Ago Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Nandita Saikia, India Dec 27, 2007
Media , Human Rights   Opinions


In 1881, a Mr Bergh (who had earlier restrained cruelty towards animals) proposed a bill which would punish wife-beaters by flogging them. The article which reported this questioned Mr Bergh’s reverence for the holy institution of marriage and asked how he could denounce honourable and chivalrous men merely because they occasionally knocked down their wives. “What we ought to do,” said the article, “with the person who has inadvertently, or, perhaps in a moment of temporary strength, beaten his wife is to sympathise with him to develop all that is manly and noble in his, and to say or do nothing which can by any possibility lead him to suppose that he has sunk in our estimation. … Moreover, there is reason to believe that a woman does not suffer as much pain form a beating as her husband would suffer were he to be beaten. Most intelligent and trustworthy wife-beaters testify that their wives, when knocked down with a blow of the fist or tapped with a club, rarely make any loud complaint.” [1]

The charge against a German man who was accused of beating his wife with a sledge hammer was dropped in 1897 when he told the Court that, after their marriage, he discovered that his wife was a coloured woman and was not white. I’m not entirely certain how he could have missed noticing that prior to marriage or how it could possibly have justified the assault. Nonetheless, the provocation, such as it was, was held to be sufficient to justify the assault. [2]

The State of Oregon instituted the penalty of the whipping post for wife-beaters for a period of four years before abolishing it in 1911. [3] This was in contrast to an 1883 article which described a battered wife as ‘the real criminal’ and said, “A wife who, when her husband returns home late at night instantly proceeds to be beaten and to awaken with her screams everybody within the radius of a quarter of a mils is simply a nuisance, and in many cases an intolerable nuisance. … Let it be suppressed by intelligent legislation. The law as is now exists clearly recognises that the wife is the offender. The punishment should therefore fall exclusively upon her, and all attempts to punish her vicariously through her husband should be abandoned. … A wife who is found guilty of being beaten by her husband should be imprisoned for thirty or sixty days according to the gravity of her wounds and if she has any money of her own, she should be compelled to pay a reasonable amount of it to her injured husband.” [4] I’m not sure whether this particular article was meant to satirical or if the author wrote in all seriousness.

Considering that the rights of a gentleman seemed to include wife beating in 1902, the characterisation of abusive husbands as ‘innocent and suffering’ and battered wives as ‘criminal’ may not have been in jest. The author of ‘The Rights of a Gentleman’ contended that ‘killing’ was not the same as ‘inflicting grievous personal injury which, if not interrupted might be attended with untimely fatal consequences’. In this case, a policeman who was informed that a woman was in the process of being killed by her husband and who arrested the husband was described as being over-zealous. After all, as the author pointed out, he acted ‘without stopping to consider whether the provocation might not have been adequate or the necessity for exemplary discipline sufficiently exigent to make this proceeding entirely proper and commendable.’ [5]

[1] Wife-Beating; February 8, 1881; The New York Times
[2] A Matrimonial Mistake February 14, 1897; The New York Times
[3] Oregon’s Wife Beaters; February 6, 1911; The New York Times
[4] The Real Criminal; March 20, 1883; The New York Times
[5] July 11, 1902; The New York Times



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Nandita Saikia

Nandita Saikia has had two books published: one on Business Communication and the other on Human Rights. She has has contributed to a number of publications on a wide range of subjects although her primary interests are domestic violence and choice inhibition.
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