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"Bessie done cut her old man": race, common-law marriage, and homicide in New Orleans, 1925-1945.

At 8:45 p.m., on Thursday, January 13, 1938, Bessie Walker fatally stabbed Rogers Matthews, her common-law husband. The seven-year union between the thirty-five-year-old Walker and the forty-six-year-old Matthews, both of whom were African American, had been tumultuous and violent. According to one neighbor, Matthews had frequently "beat Bessie and run her and the [four] Children out in the street." (1) Another neighbor noted that "they have been having these fights three or four times a Month for the longest [sic] and I know Rogers to be a mean man to his wife." (2) On the evening of their final battle, Matthews, a day laborer, had returned from work drunk and belligerent. As the couple sat by the fire grate in the interior room of their small Poydras Street home and tried to stay warm, "he started to fight and fuss," Walker later explained to the police. "Then he started to fuss about me sending my Daughter Dorothy to the grocery store to pay the bill." In the ensuing argument, Matthews announced that he "didn't like Dorothy and didn't want her going around paying bills for me." When Walker responded "if you don't like Dorothy, it's best that you and me part," Matthews exploded in anger. (3) Thirteen-year-old Dorothy, her ten-year-old sister, Rosemary, and their younger brother, Joseph, scooped up "the little baby" of the family and fled in fear, running to a neighbor's house, where Joseph Walker told Anna Bates that "My Papa is beating my Mamma, and said he was going to kill all of us." (4) Meanwhile, according to Bessie Walker, Matthews was becoming increasingly violent; he "started to curse me and then struck me on my shoulder, with his fist and then he struck me again." This was not the first time that Matthews had beaten Walker, and she had had enough. "I run [sic] to the armoire and got a large knife and when he came to hit me again I stabbed him two or three times." (5) Walker plunged the blade into Matthews twice, striking him once in the neck and once close to his ear. Bleeding profusely from the two stab wounds, Matthews staggered out of the house and collapsed on the sidewalk. Just after midnight, he died "from hemorrhage and shock following multiple stab wounds of the right side of the neck." (6) Martha English, who lived nearby, returned from church two hours after the stabbing and found the neighborhood abuzz. "People told me that Bessie done cut her old man." (7)

In many ways, this was not a typical early twentieth-century New Orleans homicide. Most local murders involved a man killing another man and occurred during the weekend. Furthermore, more New Orleans killers used guns than knives, and homicidal violence erupted on local streets more frequently than in homes. Walker and Matthews were also older than most killers and victims.

But Bessie Walker's actions on January 13, 1938, were hardly unusual. Between 1925 and 1945 hundreds of New Orleanians killed their domestic partners, and spousal violence accounted for more homicides than any other single source of lethal violence in the city--more than drunken brawls and robbery-murders combined. (8) In addition, partner killings (or "mariticides") occurred more frequently in common-law unions than in legal marriages or in any other domestic or romantic arrangement.

The homicide of Rogers Matthews illustrates three powerful and intertwined trends in early twentieth-century New Orleans violence. First, this case sheds light on the relationship between race and homicide in the city, for African-American residents died from criminal violence at more than five times the rate of white residents. (9) Second, the "cutting" of Matthews reveals many of the social pressures than contributed to remarkably high rates of African-American partner homicide during this era, which were nearly eight times that of white residents. And third, Matthews's attack on Walker and her response reflected the kinds of tensions that fueled homicidal violence by African-American women in early twentieth-century New Orleans. These residents comprised 16 percent of the city's population but committed nearly half of its spousal homicides. Moreover, American-American women killed their spouses at higher rates than African-American men, a pattern that conflicts with the nearly universal trend of higher levels of domestic homicide by men. (10) In short, Rogers Matthews's death highlights the volatile mix of race, region, and family life in the urban South.

This essay examines partner killing in early twentieth-century New Orleans, the world of Bessie Walker and Rogers Matthews. It draws from an unusually rich set of local police records, including witness interview transcripts, as well as from newspaper accounts of domestic homicides and other sources. (11) The analysis focuses on African-American spousal homicide from 1925 to 1945 and compares lethal violence in legal marriages and common-law unions, based on one hundred eighty-one cases identified in police records and other sources as partner killings. In particular, the essay explores the social and institutional forces that buffeted common-law marriages, making this the most violent domestic arrangement and contributing to the remarkably high rate of spousal homicide by African-American women in early twentieth-century New Orleans.

Homicide And Family Life In New Orleans

Violence seared daily life in African-American New Orleans. Homicide was not confined to African-American residents of the city, for white New Orleanians killed and were killed at very high rates, but lethal violence was concentrated in African-American homes and neighborhoods. Between 1925 and 1945, the city's homicide rate was 18.2 per 100,000 residents, placing New Orleans in the middle range of Southern cities. Compared to cities outside of the region and outside of the nation, however, the streets of New Orleans were awash with blood. The Crescent City's homicide rate was twice that of Chicago and Cleveland, four times that of New York City, eight times that of Boston, fourteen times that of Berlin, thirty-two times that of London, and eighty-six times that of Amsterdam. (12) African-American New Orleanians commited lethal violence at a rate of 41.4, while white residents had a homicide rate of 7.9. Between 1925 and 1945, African Americans comprised 29 percent of New Orleans's population, 68 percent of local killers, and 71 percent of homicide victims.

Intimate violence followed a race-based pattern. Early twentieth-century New Orleans was a dangerous place for all spouses and lovers, though it was especially so for African-American partners, who comprised three-fourths of the city's intimate violence killers and the victims. New Orleans's partner-killing rate was 3.6 per 100,000 residents during this era, which exceeded the overall homicide rates of Boston, London, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, and Amsterdam. For African-American residents, the rate of intimate homicide was 9.3, compared with a rate of 1.2 per 100,000 residents for white New Orleanians.

Common-law unions constituted the most violent domestic arrangement in early twentieth-century New Orleans. Over one-third of partner homicides occurred in informal unions, slightly more than in formal marriages and far more than in more casual and non-cohabiting intimate relationships between "lovers" or "paramours." (13) But this violence, once again, unfolded in race-specific patterns. Forty-four percent of African-American partner killings occurred between common-law spouses, compared with 17 percent of white partner killings. Conversely, white New Orleanians more often killed their legally married spouses; almost two-thirds of white partner homicides took place in formal marriages, compared with less than one-quarter of African-American partner homicides.

Women in common-law unions were particularly violent during this period, killing their partners more often than formally married New Orleans spouses. Half of partner killings by women occurred in common-law unions, compared with 22 percent in formal marriages--the remainder involved non-cohabiting lovers and ex-lovers. African-American women killed more than twice as many common-law husbands as formal husbands. In short, partner homicide in early twentieth-century New Orleans, and especially partner homicide by African-American women, disproportionately erupted in common-law unions, a pattern that persisted in the United States through the remainder of the twentieth century. (14) Rogers Matthews's death at the hands of Bessie Walker, in fact, represented the predominant form of partner homicide in New Orleans from 1925 through 1945.

Common-Law Marriage In Louisiana

Long-standing social and legal forces shaped the institution of common-law marriage in Louisiana in ways that contributed both to its popularity among African-American residents and to its lethality. Simply put, common-law marriage was an informal conjugal arrangement. Partners formed these unions by cohabiting and by publicly presenting themselves as husband and wife. (15) Many states formally recognized common-law marriage, though Louisiana did not. Based on the French Civil Code, Louisiana law required a marriage to be sanctified with a ceremony taking place before a civil official. A union formed without such a ceremony was not considered a marriage, and hence Louisiana law treated common-law wives as "concubines" and the children of these unions as "bastards." (16) Colonial and state law notwithstanding, Louisianans established informal marital unions and described their domestic arrangements as "common-law marriages." During the colonial period, when legal and religious institutions were not well established in the lower Mississippi valley, common-law unions were the norm, both for white and African-American Louisianans. (17) Among white residents, formal, sanctified marriage gradually supplanted common-law unions, though informal conjugal arrangements persisted for African-American residents. Thus, custom, rather than law, defined common-law marriage in Louisiana.

During the early twentieth century, common-law unions enjoyed particular popularity in the South and among African Americans. (18) Historical factors had long compelled African Americans to rely on informal domestic arrangements. Southern states had not recognized the right of slaves to form legal marital unions. (19) As a result, until the late 1860s, most African-American marriages were, by necessity, informal.

But cultural forces also led African Americans to choose more flexible domestic arrangements than European Americans. Traditions of matrifocality encouraged African Americans to embrace a conjugal form that did not vest disproportionate authority in men's hands. (20) Before and after Emancipation, African Americans entered into a wide range of domestic arrangements, including "taking up" and cohabiting, and many lived in family units that were de facto common-law unions. (21) According to early twentieth-century ethnographers, most African-American Southerners considered common-law unions to be entirely respectable. In her study of the African-American community in Indianola, Mississippi, during the early 1930s, the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker observed that "a licensed marriage in the lower or lower middle class is extremely rare. ... In neither the upper nor the lower middle class is there a feeling that to live together without a marriage license is sinful." One of Powdermaker's informants explained that "a man is your husband if you live with him and love each other, but marriage is something for the outside world." (22) The social psychologist John Dollard also concluded that among working-class African Americans "a reasonable belief in the existence of a marriage may be sufficient to brush aside all formal requirements." (23)

Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the resulting efforts to secure legal equality for African Americans generated conflicting pressures on common-law marriage in Louisiana. On the one hand, state-sanctioned marriage became available to African Americans, promising to extend to husbands and wives pension benefits and other legal privileges and protections attached to formal marriage. (24) On the other hand, state endorsement came at a high price; it compelled African Americans to allow hostile, overtly racist public officials to influence the contours of family life. Possessing the authority to define the required marriage "ceremony," government officials became the official "gatekeepers." Moreover, formal marriage, by design, bolstered the authority of men and of patriarchy, as it imposed white, middle-class gender norms. In return for state validation, women lost control over property and became, in the eyes of the law, dependents of their husbands. (25) Thus, common-law marriage remained attractive to African-American residents even after legal changes made formal marriage available.

Economic factors added to the popularity of informal domestic arrangements. Well into the twentieth century, marriage licenses in Louisiana were expensive, often prohibitively so. (26) Because historical and cultural forces led African Americans to view cohabitation and common-law unions as normative, there was little logic in applying for a costly marriage license in order to secure a kind of state validation that held scant importance within the community.

Finally, political and institutional pressures led African Americans to form common-law unions. Even as many government officials urged African Americans to embrace white, middle-class domestic arrangements and gender norms, other Louisiana politicians and law enforcers discovered advantages in African Americans' preference for more traditional and informal conjugal relationships. The persistence of common-law unions among African Americans served an important political purpose for defenders of the region's racial hierarchy, who identified this marital form as prima facie evidence of the loose morals and promiscuity of freedpeople. As late as the 1960s, segregationist lawmakers defined common-law marriage as a formal marker for immorality and therefore a convenient justification for withholding social-welfare benefits from African-American residents. (27) Nearly a century after Emancipation, Louisiana legislators explicitly criminalized common-law unions, denying partner benefits, such as workmen's compensation payments, to those in such unions and enabling local sheriffs to charge African-American residents living in these marriages with fornication or adultery. (28) Being in such a domestic unit, according to state law, constituted "bad character" and thus provided the rationale for denying voting rights. (29) At the same time (and for the same reasons), Louisiana lawmakers made it more difficult for African-American, residents to obtain marriage licenses, requiring, for instance, the submission of certified birth and medical records. (30) By imposing barriers to the formation of legal unions, segregationists, as late as the 1960s, encouraged African Americans to maintain common-law unions and then denied them a broad range of civil rights because they lived in common-law unions. (31) In sum, a complex blend of push and pull factors, including historical forces, the cultural preferences of African Americans, economic pressures, and tenacious hostility at the hands of segregationist legislators, contributed to the popularity of common-law marriage in Louisiana--and to the high level of spousal homicide that plagued these unions.

Common-Law Marriage In New Orleans

Within New Orleans society, common-law marriage held less political meaning. Legal niceties notwithstanding, most observers, including government officials, either ignored the distinction between legal marriage and common-law marriage or permitted residents to determine their own marital status. Early twentieth-century federal census enumerators, for example, classified common-law partners as--legally--married persons. The census schedule provided only four choices: single, married, divorced, and widowed. Although myriad sources indicate that a sizable proportion of African-American New Orleanians lived in common-law unions and, therefore, were not legally married, according to federal census returns, the proportion of married African-American residents was nearly identical to the proportion of married white residents, indicating that census takers folded common-law partners into the "married" category--rather than following the letter of the law and treating informally married individuals as being legally "single." In 1930, the federal census recorded 52.9 percent of white women and 55.6 percent of African-American women as married, while a decade later the figures were 60.3 percent and 63.1 percent. (32)

Local observers of lethal violence often blurred the categories, shifting back and forth in descriptions of homicides involving common-law partners. On January 26, 1939, for instance, the New Orleans Item ran the headline "Stabbed to Death: His Wife Being Sought" above the article stating that Marie Dejob was believed "to have stabbed to death her common-law husband, Willie Collins." (33) Likewise, witnesses to homicides frequently used familial terms--without the "common-law" modifier--to describe common-law partners. The neighbors who provided statements to the police officials investigating Rogers Matthews's death were typical. Martha English referred to Bessie Walker as Matthews's "wife," and Anna Bates told of ten-year-old Rosemary Walker's frantic cry, "My Mamma cut my Daddy." (34) The police officers on the scene of the stabbing added to the jumble of familial terms, identifying Matthews as Rosemary Walker's "stepfather," while a local crime-beat reporter covering the murder referred to Walker as Roger's "wife." (35) Articles in the Louisiana Weekly, an African-American newspaper, often used "common-law husband and wife" interchangeably with "husband and wife" and with "mates." (36)

Despite this plastic language, killers and victims consistently distinguished formally married spouses from common-law spouses. In their testimony to police officers investigating domestic homicides and in interviews with local journalists, killers and victims used the specific phrase that, by custom (and, in other states, by law), defined a union as a common-law marriage. Bessie Walker began her statement by explaining that "Rogers Matthews, who I was living with, for 7 years, as man and wife ..." (37) Valaria Taylor noted that she and her victim, Edward Beco, her common-law husband, "were living together at #2845 Belmont Place as man and wife." (38) Similarly, Eugene Morris, who murdered his domestic partner, told a police officer that "for the past 3 years I have been living with Hazel Long at 1734 Calliope Street, as Common-Law Man and Wife." (39)

Relatives and witnesses often used this phrase to describe the relationship between killer and victim as well. Harry Moore, for example, testified that his sister and Willie Green, who murdered her, "started living together as man and wife ...," while Louise Kelley, whose daughter, Fannie Jackson, fatally stabbed Richard Small, told a local reporter that "Fannie and Richard lived together as common-law man and wife." (40) Just as ethnographers Powdermaker and Dollard reported that African Americans living in common-law unions presented themselves as "man and wife," New Orleanians who killed their partners, who witnessed such violence, and who reported on such homicides indicated that the common-law partners lived together as "man and wife."

African-American Partner Killing

In demographic terms, common-law spouse killers and victims resembled their formally married counterparts. Neither age not class set one group apart from the other. The mean age for common-law spouse killers was 31.7, while the mean age for formally married spouse killers was 32.6. This modest gap reflected the higher proportion of common-law killers who were women and the trend for women to be slightly younger than their partners. For victims, the age difference was similarly narrow. The class backgrounds of partner killers were comparable as well; both groups were clustered on the bottom rungs of the city's socio-economic ladder, reflecting the overall poverty of New Orleans's African-American community. If African-American New Orleanians who embraced white middle-class gender roles or who were wealthier were more likely to form legal marriages than common-law unions, the occupational backgrounds of partner killers revealed no such class differences.

Despite these similarities, spousal homicide exploded in fundamentally different ways for informally and formally married African-American New Orleanians, underscoring the particular pressures that triggered lethal violence in common-law unions. Because of overlapping, inconsistent language from census enumerators, it is impossible to calculate and compare rates of partner homicide for the two conjugal forms. But all indicators suggest that common-law unions suffered from significantly higher rates of violence, a pattern confirmed by modern researchers. (41)

Spousal Homicide In Formal Marriages

Homicides between formally married African-American spouses assumed distinctive forms. These husbands and wives killed in nearly equal numbers, with men committing 47 percent of spousal murders and women committing 53 percent. By comparison, among white spouse killers, husbands committed more than two-thirds of the homicides. Legally married African-American spouse killers also typically shot their victims. Nearly 70 percent of murderous husbands used guns, while 56 percent of wives relied on firearms.

Within formal marriages, spousal homicide unfolded in gender-specific ways. For African-American men, acrimonious separations most often sparked the violence. Fifty-three percent of wife killings (or "uxoricides") occurred between spouses who were either separated or in the process of separating, almost always at the woman's insistence. In some cases, the lethal confrontation erupted immediately after the woman asked her husband to leave. According to Vivian Williams, who witnessed her sister's murder, twenty-nine-year-old Louis Jackson roared "she [his wife, Eva Jackson] is not going to put me out of this house [and] I am going to show her that she can't put me out." Williams then told the police that "Jackson ups with a gun and shot his wife." (42) More often, however, the homicide occurred when the estranged husband tracked down his wife and demanded a reconciliation. When she refused, he shot her. (43) Twenty-nine-year-old Joseph Dequire, for instance, followed his estranged wife, twenty-eight-year-old Mable Dequire, to her sister's apartment and repeatedly asked for and then demanded a reconciliation. According to Alma Alberts, the victim's sister, "He had come around my sister asking her to take him back, and telling her that something terrible would happen if she did not." (44) On July 15, 1939 she again refused to return to him, and Dequire shot her in the head, left shoulder, and abdomen, after which he placed the muzzle of his Colt .38 calibre in his mouth and took his own life. (45) Unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation constituted the leading single trigger for uxoricide, accounting for 44 percent of African-American wife killings.

These were premeditated crimes. The men expected trouble and usually brought revolvers with them, often because they anticipated being rebuffed and planned to slaughter the women who rejected them. (46) Joseph Dequire brought two revolvers with him when he met his estranged wife and fired a total of six bullets. One in three of these estranged husbands, like Dequire, attempted suicide immediately after killing his wife.

By contrast, African-American women in formal marriages killed their husbands in self-defense. In nearly three-fourths of such homicides, the woman acted in response to her husband's violent attack. Estrangement sometimes led to the final encounter, and the woman secured a gun the moment her husband appeared, thus accounting for the high rate of gun use. A wide variety of sparks, however, triggered the assaults that ended when a woman killed her attacker. Jealousy and battles over control or authority often prompted a husband to assault his wife and to die in the process. Stephen and Rena Christian's lethal fight occurred after she accused him of infidelity. For Rena, the combination of frequent abuse at his hands and his extra-marital affair was more than she could endure, particularly when he came home drunk on New Year's Eve and demanded supper. According to police investigators, Rena "told him [to] let your friend Bailey give you your supper." Stephen, a forty-four-year-old laborer, then "told her that he was sorry he married her" and began to beat her. Rena Christian quickly reached for "a revolver from under the pillow on the bed and shot him." (47)

Spousal Homicide In Common-Law Manages

Common-law partners killed under very different circumstances. There were similarities, however, and common-law husbands sometimes murdered estranged partners who rebuffed overtures to return home. Forty-one percent of the men who murdered their common-law wives were separated from the women when the violence occurred, and 21 percent of common-law husbands killed their wives when they refused to reconcile. But both of these figures were significantly lower than for formally married men. One month after the couple separated, twenty-nine-year-old Eddie Emery, for instance, confronted his estranged partner, telling Laura Smith "that she would have to come back with him and if she did not he was going to kill her." When she refused, he shot her six times. (48) But most common-law spouses cohabited at the time of the lethal violence, including more than three-fourths of the common-law wives who killed their partners, and thus these homicides usually followed a different track than those involving formally married couples, who most often lived apart at the time of the lethal encounter.

Battles over control of behavior and over authority constituted the leading single spark for partner killings by both common-law husbands and common-law wives, accounting for 38 percent of the homicides committed by men and 32 percent of the homicides by women. Control or authority disputes triggered twice as many homicides in common-law marriages as in formal marriages, while quarrels about separation or reconciliation and fights ignited by jealousy generated half as many homicides in common-law unions. More than threats of separation or allegations of infidelity, seemingly trivial disagreements generated lethal violence. (49) For Richard Brown and Pearl Turner, "an argument over who would kill a chicken for supper" sparked a lethal fight. Turner refused; Brown "threatened to kill not only the chicken but to kill her also" and attacked Turner; and she defended herself with lethal force, driving a kitchen knife into her common-law husband's chest. (50) Alphonse Madison, a thirty-year-old service-station attendant, beat to death Ethel Hopkins, his twenty-three-year-old common-law wife, after he commanded her to leave a beer parlor with him and she refused. (51) The fight between James Taylor and Ruby Alexander began when he undressed, "dropped his trousers on the floor and told Ruby to pick them up." The dispute ended when Alexander drove a butcher knife into her common-law husband's chest. (52) After Percy Peyton asked Lucille Betz to "give me something what you are drinking" at a local saloon, Betz, his thirty-four-year-old common-law wife, "pulled the knife out of her bossom [sic], and stabbed Percy Payton, in the chest, at the time saying 'I'll give you something.'" (53) Other lethal battles began when men commanded their common-law wives to "get off of the [street] corner, M-F," "to come on home," and to come to him when he "sent for her." (54) Again and again, a man commanded his common-law wife to act, she refused, and he struck her. In more than two-thirds of common-law partner homicides, the woman prevailed in the ensuing fight, typically stabbing her common-law husband as he attacked her. Describing one such battle with knives, the Louisiana Weekly sardonically explained that Alberta Alexander "used a large, keen-edged butcher knife with more deadly accuracy" than net common-law husband, who wielded a "Texas jack-knife." (55)

This violence appears to have been spontaneous, though in many cases, such as Bessie Walker's killing of Rogers Matthews, a long history of domestic abuse predated the final explosion. Most often, as her partner attacked her, the woman reached for the nearest weapon. Because four-fifths of the fights occurred around the home (and frequently in the kitchen), she often secured a kitchen knife or an ice pick. (56) When Dock Richardson attacked Maggie Turner, his common-law wife, for example, she "broke and run [sic] into the kitchen and he was advancing on me with a knife and I grabbed an ice pick and struck at him." (57) Similarly, Fannie Jackson defended herself with the closest available weapon. Recounting the violence to a reporter, Jackson explained that her common-law husband, Richard Jackson, "jammed me in the kitchen and stuck the knife in my leg, pulling straight down my leg. I saw a vegetable knife on the table and reached over and picked it up. I told him 'If you cut me again I am going to kill you.' When he came after me the second time," Jackson added, "I stabbed him under the heart." (58) But many of the women who killed their common-law husbands, like Lucille Betz, carried knives in their "bosoms," because they anticipated the violence and had resolved to defend themselves, with lethal force if necessary. (59) A week before their lethal battle at Sam Moon's saloon, Percy Payton had broken Lucille Betz's jaw, and just before she stabbed him, he threatened to break her jaw again. (60) Similarly, thirty-two-year-old Beatrice Brown concealed an ice pick in her clothing and used it to defend herself against her Alex Jackson, her common-law husband. After Jackson commanded his partner to leave a local barroom, Brown replied that she was "not coming out for him to beat me up." Jackson then "said come out bitch I am going to stomp your ass out, he then grabbed ahold of me by [my] arms and dragged me outside beating me, I then took my ice pick out of my bosom ..." (61) Sixty-five percent of common-law wives used knives or ice picks against their partners, compared with 39 percent of the women who killed their formally married husbands. All of these patterns--the proportion of husbands who died, the percentage of cohabiting couples, the relative absence of premeditation, the proportion of killings that began with battles over personal authority, and the use of knives rather than guns--set common-law partner killings apart.


For African-American New Orleanians, common-law marriage was fundamentally different from formal marriage, and hence the violence connected with the two marital forms differed as well. In common-law marriages, the terms of the union were fluid. Because cohabitation and public presentation as "man and wife" defined the union, separation signaled the immediate dissolution of common-law marriages, and partners were free to form new unions immediately after leaving their spouses. (62) As a consequence of this fluidity, separation played a considerably smaller role for New Orleanians who killed their common-law partners than for those who killed their legal spouses. Women, in particular, moved on--literally and figuratively--soon after leaving their common-law partners and formed new unions. Lee Caldwell's 1938 murder of Ernestine Caldwell did not conform to the typical pattern of common-law partner killings, though the violence illustrated the fluidity of common-law marriages and the resulting potential for conflict. After a nine-month common-law union, Joe Neason and Caldwell "had a fuss and," according to Neason, "she put me out." With this action, the marriage ended. Five days later, the former partners met in their neighborhood and happened upon Lee Caldwell, who had been Ernestine's common-law husband for the twelve years immediately preceding the union with Neason. Lee Caldwell recognized that Neason had left and that the union had, therefore, ended. The two ex-common-law husbands then preened, postured, and bickered to determine who was the intruder in Caldwell's house. In the ensuing confrontation, Lee Caldwell threatened to shoot both Neason and Caldwell, then killed his former partner, and finally "made a b-line to his present home where he found his most recent common law wife, Eveline McGraw, in bed," according to a local reporter. Describing the tangle of proprietary claims by the two men, the Louisiana Weekly concluded that the dispute was "shrouded with Common-lawism." (63)

The relative ease of dissolution exaggerated gender-based differences in expectations about household authority and thus fueled violence in early twentieth-century New Orleans. Especially for men, the fluid boundaries of informal conjugal relationships heightened feelings of insecurity. Either partner could dissolve the common-law union, and, as a consequence, women exerted greater control than in formal marriages, in which the state required a legal proceeding--and one that explicitly bolstered men's authority--to end the marital union. Therefore, lethal fights for common-law spouses typically occurred while the couple cohabited, escalated from more minor disagreements, and began with men challenging their partners' perceived assertions of authority, giving common-law marriages a lower flashpoint for conflict and hence a higher rate of violent confrontations than formal conjugal unions. In his study of Indianola, Mississippi, Dollard described the volatility of men in informal marriages. "The hold of the Negro man on his woman is institutionally very weak," he explained, and "since the Negro cannot hold his woman by force, say, of a strong family institution, he must do it by personal force instead." (64)

The symmetry or relative equality of common-law unions intensified men's proprietary behavior. Just as formal marriage vested authority in the hands of men, common-law marriage entailed a weaker or more equivocal hierarchy. The common-law wives embroiled in early twentieth-century partner killings were less submissive than their legally married counterparts, and their husbands were less able to assert patriarchal or proprietary authority. For example, when Johnny McGee chided and then struck Zelia Johnson, his common-law wife, for removing a knife from the kitchen, she refused to cede to his authority and return the knife to the kitchen. According to Johnson, he "started hitting me and I said god dam [sic] you you hit me and if you hit me again I will stick you with this knife, then he hit me again and I stuck him." (65) If relatively greater equality in common-law unions offered myriad advantages for African-American women, it also blurred the lines of household power, which, in turn, spawned conflict. (66)

The common-law husbands who resorted to violence fiercely resisted this symmetry and struggled to preserve their prerogatives as men and as husbands. When Sarah Gates questioned her common-law husband, Archie McGee, about his whereabouts after work, the thirty-nine-year-old longshoreman snarled '"what in the hell have you got to do with it'; then he said 'I am my own boss and I do like I dam [sic] please.'" According to Gates, McGee then stated "I will pick this chair up and break your god-dam head with it." After he followed through with the threat, the thirty-eight-year-old Gates thrust the blade of a pair of scissors into the left side of Gates's neck, killing him. (67) On April 7, 1927, Andrew Brown engaged in a still more explicit act of proprietary violence. A twenty-six-year-old truck driver, Brown began to beat Alice August, his common-law wife of seven years, when a passerby interceded, asking "what did he hit that woman for?" Brown "replied that it was his wife and that he would do as he wanted to." (68) In these confrontations, men claimed the authority of formally married husbands (thus Brown omitted the "common-law" modifier in his pronouncement), while women maintained the autonomy of common-law wives. An African-American reporter wryly attributed one homicide to the aggressive efforts of a common-law husband to establish himself as the "ruling mogul of that shanty." (69)

Such clashes were hardly unique to common-law marriages, but they assumed greater volatility and lethality in relationships with fluid boundaries and uncertain hierarchies. Minor arguments became freighted with significance about patriarchal authority and frequently spiraled into lethal battles. Hence the threshold for resorting to proprietary violence was significantly lower in common-law unions, as men demanded obedience and became increasingly aggressive when their partners failed to submit. (70) Furthermore, conflicting perceptions of authority and power, and especially common-law wives' greater assertions of equality and autonomy, help to explain why women in these unions killed more than twice as many partners as women in formal marriages and why a high proportion of these homicides began with disputes over a common-law husband attempting to control routine household matters.

The fluidity and symmetry that transformed minor disputes into lethal battles, however, did not extend to infidelity. At least judging by homicidal violence, common-law unions were not open marriages, and common-law spouses were not promiscuous. Perhaps because either partner could end the union at will, few homicidal encounters revolved around questions of infidelity. Lethal fights inspired by jealousy were one-third less frequent among common-law partners than among legally married African-American New Orleanians. If "common-lawism" discouraged partners from being unfaithful, it simultaneously exaggerated the significance of everyday disputes.

Poverty also exacerbated contests over for authority and hierarchy in common-law unions. Scattered clues in testimony to the police suggest that common-law wives believed that their partners had to contribute to household expenses and to support them "properly," and when men failed to do so, their spouses considered the unions dissolved. (71) Conversely, men who paid rent asserted a proprietary claim. Ernestine Caldwell's two ex-common-law partners debated and then fought over who had a right to be in her house. "I asked him if he was paying the rent," Joe Neason later told the police. (72) Even more than in legal marriages, women considered common-law marriages were over when men failed to help to support the household. As a result, battles over money quickly escalated into referenda on the future of the marital union. Therefore, the poverty of African-American residents and the high proportion of these residents living in common-law unions reinforced the potential for violent conflict.

Trends in African-American partner violence during the 1930s illustrate the impact of economic problems on common-law unions. As the Great Depression hit New Orleans, levels of poverty skyrocketed, and household financial woes mounted. Even though the partners in informal unions were not poorer than their legally married counterparts, the number of homicides involving common-law partners doubled during the early 1930s, while the number involving formally married partners remained largely uncharged (See Figure 1). By the late 1930s, when the local economy rebounded, common-law and formally married partner killings followed parallel slopes, with the former still occurring with greater frequency. Formal marriages, perhaps because of the complexity of dissolution or perhaps because the partners invested differently in them, may have functioned more effectively as economic units during hard times, though the evidence for this is fragmentary.


Finally, disputes about children from previous unions added to the volatility of common-law marriages in early twentieth-century New Orleans. Because couples moved in and out of common-law unions more often than their legally married counterparts, "stepchildren" were more likely to enter these informally constructed households and more likely to find themselves embroiled in disputes. Bessie Walker's lethal battle with Rogers Matthews, for example, began with a disagreement about Walker's daughter from a previous union. Irma Turner's lethal battle with her common-law husband, Edwin Dolliole, unfolded in similar ways and included many of the characteristic elements of common-law homicide in early twentieth-century New Orleans: It began with a battle over the control over behavior, escalated when a child from a previous union became involved in the dispute, and ended in a kitchen when a woman, acting in self-defense, reached for an ice pick and killed her partner. At 9:20 p.m., on Saturday, May 13, 1939, Dolliole "ordered" his common-law wife to come into the house and began beating her. Willard Turner, her son from a previous union, begged him not to hit his mother. Dolliole then struck the fifteen year old, prompting Turner to tell her partner that "he could hit me but not my son. This angered him," Turner explained to a local reporter, "and he picked up a lighted lamp and threw it at me. I ran into the kitchen, with him behind me and, being afraid that he would kill me, I grabbed an ice pick from the table. He still chased me, and when he got close to me and tried to grab me, I stuck him with it." (73) Even in formal marriages, stepchildren often became the flashpoints for disputes over authority. (74) But such a source of conflict was magnified for poor couples living in more fragile unions roiled by uncertain hierarchies. (75)

While the structure and informality of common-law marriage contributed to the high rates of African-American partner homicide, particularly homicide by women, the sources of the violence were more complex. If the violence had been rooted simply in the nature of informal marital arrangements, then such distinctive patterns also should have occurred among white New Orleanians who had common-law partners. Though in smaller numbers than among African-American residents, many white New Orleanians lived in common-law marriages during this period, and some killed their partners. These homicides, however, assumed very different forms and levels. White common-law violence resembled violence between married partners and occurred at a lower level, comprising only 17 percent of partner killings. Men committed the overwhelming majority of white spousal homicides, including 68 percent of the murders of formally married wives and 80 percent of the murders of common--law wives--compared with 53 percent and 31 percent among African-American New Orleanians. Because white women committed so few partner homicides, the methods and the sparks of the violence reflected the predominance of men as killers. Seventy-four percent of the white residents who killed formally married partners used guns, and 70 of those who killed common-law partners relied on firearms--the comparable figures for African Americans were 62 percent and 37 percent. Similarly, jealousy was the leading motive for the murder of both formally and informally married white partners, also in sharp contrast to African-American partner violence. Such distinctive, race-based trends indicate that common-law marriage did not, by itself, account for the patterns of lethal violence. Rather, the interaction of social and institutional pressures--cultural tradition, institutional racism, conflicting gender roles, and a marital arrangement especially buffeted by these forces--shaped African-American mariticide in early twentieth-century New Orleans, contributing to the elevated levels of partner killing in common-law marriages and particularly to the very high rates of homicide by women.


A confluence of forces, some intensely personal and others social and institutional, led Bessie Walker to stab Rogers Matthews. On the one hand, a unique elision of tensions and events combined to ignite the deadly violence, including the history of domestic violence in the relationship, the friction between Matthews and Walker's children, and their difficulty paying their bills. On the other hand, Matthews's death typified the most common form of intimate homicide in early twentieth-century New Orleans: the lethal violence involved African-American, cohabiting, common-law partners; a woman, acting in self-defense and using a knife, committed the homicide; and the deadly fight included a confrontation about children from a prior union and revolved around a dispute about control and authority in the household. Dozens of remarkably similar homicides occurred in New Orleans between 1925 and 1945.

This pattern was bound up in the complex relationship among race, family life, and violence in the early twentieth-century Southern city. Overlapping and colliding forces encouraged African-American residents to form common-law marriages and made these unions susceptible to violence. The cultural preferences of African-American Southerners, the legacy of slavery, and an unwillingness to cede control over private life to white government officials contributed to the popularity of common-law marriage in the region. Institutional racism reinforced African Americans' decisions to maintain informal marital unions, as segregationists simultaneously criminalized common-law partnerships and made it more difficult for African Americans to establish legal marital unions.

These forces generated conflicting pressures on African-American families. African-American New Orleanians both chose and were forced to choose common-law partnerships. In early twentieth-century formal marriages, separation typically triggered the deadly violence, as men killed women who refused to reconcile or as women killed men who attempted to force them to reconcile. But in common-law unions, lethal violence occurred while the partners cohabited. For couples living in informal marriages, separation signaled the irrevocable dissolution of the union. As a consequence, lethal battles for control over the relationship flared at an earlier stage of conflict and were less regulated by specific acts or cues, such as the decision to separate or the refusal to reconcile. Moreover, with less formal hierarchy than in legal marriages, common-law marriages had lower flashpoints, as men seized on mundane disagreements to assert their control and as women defended their authority within the union and used lethal force to do so. Finally, and for similar reasons, in common-law unions financial pressures more often laid bare deeper conflicts over control of the partnetship and therefore proved to be more incendiary than in formal marriages.

In early twentieth-century New Orleans, the pressures that disproportionately hit common-law unions were still more powerful for poor residents, for African Americans, and for women. Thus, common-law partners suffered from especially high levels of domestic homicide, as did African-American residents. Moreover, American-American women, at the eye of this collision of social and institutional forces, confronted particular challenges and, in response, committed domestic homicide at staggering rates. These residents killed their partners at fifteen times the rate of white women in the city and at more than five times the rate of white men in New Orleans during the early twentieth century. In short, a blend of conflicting institutional factors, racial ideologies, and gender identities contributed simultaneously to the popularity of common-law unions among local African-American residents and to the high level of lethal violence within these marriages. The residents of New Orleans's Poydras Street understood these pressures and were familiar with the resulting trends in homicide. Explaining that Rogers Matthews was a "mean man to his wife and that she is a good smart Woman [sic]," Martha English expressed little surprise when she told Acting Desk Sergeant T O'Sullivan how "Bessie done cut her old man" on January 13, 1938. (76)


(1.) "Statement of Martha English relative to one Bessie Walker cutting which resulted in the Death of her Common Law Husband, Rogers Matthews," January 14, 1938, Transcripts of Statements of Witnesses to Homicides, New Orleans Police Department, Louisiana Division, City Archives, New Orleans Public Library [hereafter cited as "Transcripts of Statements"]; "Report of Homicide of Rogers Matthews," January 14, 1939, Department of [New Orleans] Police, Homicide Reports, New Orleans Police Department, Louisiana Division, City Archives, New Orleans Public Library [hereafter cited as "Homicide Reports"].

(2.) "Statement of Anna Bates relative to one Bessie Walker cutting which resulted in the death of her Common Law Husband, Rogers Matthews," January 14, 1938, Transcripts of Statements.

(3.) "Statement of Bessie Walker relative to her cutting Rogers Matthews," January 13, 1938, Transcripts of Statements.

(4.) "Statement of Anna Bates relative to one Bessie Walker cutting which resulted in the death of her Common Law Husband, Rogers Matthews," January 14, 1938, Transcripts of Statements.

(5.) "Statement of Bessie Walker relative to her cutting Rogers Matthews," January 13, 1938, Transcripts of Statements; New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 15, 1938.

(6.) "Report of Homicide of Rogers Matthews," January 14, 1938, Homicide Reports.

(7.) "Statement of Martha English relative to one Bessie Walker cutting which resulted in the Death of her Common Law Husband, Rogers Matthews," January 14, 1938, Transcripts of Statements.

(8.) Spousal killings accounted for 18.3 percent New Orleans homicides, while drunken brawls and robbery-murders produced a combined total of 17.8 percent of local homicides.

(9.) For a sample of studies of race and violence in American history, see Roger Lane, Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia (Cambridge, MA, 1986); Kali N. Gross, Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910 (Durham, 2006); Jeffrey S. Adler, "Murder, North and South: Violence in Early Twentieth-Century Chicago and New Orleans," Journal of Southern History 74 (2008): 297-324. Also see H. C. Brearley, "The Negro and Homicide," Social Forces 9 (1930): 247-53.

(10.) Between 1925 and 1945 African-American women committed spousal homicide at a rate 13 percent higher than African-American men. For intriguing discussions of the "sex ratios of spousal homicide," see Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, "Who Kills Whom in Spouse Killings?: On the Exceptional Sex Ratio of Spousal Homicide in the United States," Criminology 30 (1992): 189-215; Martin Daly and Marge Wilson, Homicide (New York, 1988), 202-19.

(11.) Local law enforcers kept detailed reports on every homicide during this period. Each account filled two-to-four pages of a ledger book and included demographic information on the killer and the victim, as well as an extended narrative of the events surrounding the incident and a summary of the autopsy report. The homicide records appear to he remarkably complete; the annual tallies, for example, are nearly identical to homicide totals listed in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. Some annual volumes of the homicide reports have been lost, and therefore this analysis covets the period from 1925 through 1945 but omits the missing years of 1932-34, 1936-1937, 1940, and 1944. The overall data set includes 1215 cases, of which 240 cases involved partner homicide (and 181 of these involved African-American killers and victims). A second set of police records consists of the transcripts of witness interviews for 1930-1933, 1935-38, 1940-1942, and 1945. These documents included the testimony of killers, witnesses, and occasionally deathbed interviews with victims.

(12.) The comparative figures are based on data from 1925 through 1937 and drawn from the annual tabulations prepared by Frederick L. Hoffman, an early twentieth-century statistician, and published in the Spectator, a periodical of the insurance industry. Hoffman's figures came from Federal Mortality Censuses. Also see Kenneth E. Barnhart, "A Study of Homicide in the United States," Birmingham-Southern College Bulletin 25 (1932): 7-38; Frederick L. Hoffman, The Homicide Problem (Newark, 1925); H. C. Brearley, Homicide in the United States (Chapel Hill, 1932), 209-33.

(13.) I relied on the categories that killers used to describe their intimate relationships. Legal and common-law spouses accounted for over two-thirds of the homicides, while the remaining killings were evenly divided among self-styled "lovers," "former lovers," and "paramours." In cases in which killers did not define their relationships with victims, I drew from police reports and newspaper articles.

(14.) See, for example, Douglas A. Brownridge, "Understanding Women's Heightened Risk of Violence in Common-Law Unions: Revisiting the Selection and Relationship Hypothesis," Violence Against Women 10 (2004): 626.

(15.) Cynthia Grant Bowman, "A Feminist Proposal to Bring Back Common Law Marriage," Oregon Law Review 75 (1996): 712-13; Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, MA, 2000), 31.

(16.) Moore v. Capitol Glass & Supply Co., et al., 25 So. 2d 248 (March 11, 1946); Thompson v. Vestal Lumber & Mfg. Co, 208 La. 83, 98 (December 11, 1944); Charles D. Marshall, "The Necessity of Ceremony in a Putative Marriage," Tulane Law Review 10 (1936): 435-441; May Bamforth Hubert, "The Annulment of Marriages in Louisiana," Tulane Law Review 24 (1949): 228; Walter O. Weyrauch, "Informal and Formal Marriage--An Appraisal of Trends in Family Organization," University of Chicago Law Review 28 (1960): 105; Catherine Augusta Mills, "Implications of Repeal of Louisiana Civil Code Article 1481," Louisiana Law Review 48 (1988): 1206; Bowman, "A Feminist Proposal to Bring Back Common Law Marriage," 724.

(17.) Kimberly S. Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769-1803 (Durham, 1997), 90-97. Also see Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge, 1992), chap. 6.

(18.) See Hortense Powdermaker, After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (New York, 1939), 149; John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (New York, 1937), 153; E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States (1939; repr., Notre Dame, 2001), 133-34.

(19.) See Katherine M. Franke, "Becoming a Citizen: Reconstruction Era Regulation of African American Marriages," Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 11 (1999): 252; Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black & White: Family and Community in the Slave South (New York, 1996), 161; Hendrik Hartog, Man & Wife in America: A History (Cambridge, 2000), 93; Cott, Public Vows, 32-35.

(20.) Stevenson, Life in Black & White, 227-234.

(21.) Anthony E. Kaye, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (Chapel Hill, 2007), 52; Stevenson, Life in Black & White, 233; Franke, "Becoming a Citizen," 256, 262-63; Goran Lind, Common Law Marriage: A Legal Institution for Cohabitation (New York, 2008), 162.

(22.) Powdermaker, After Freedom, 149, 152, 153.

(23.) Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, 153.

(24.) Cott, Public Vows, 83-84.

(25.) See Laura F. Edwards, "'The Marriage Covenant is at the Foundation of All Our Rights': The Politics of Slave Marriages in North Carolina after Emancipation," Law and History Review 14 (1996): 85, 96, 108; Franke, "Becoming a Citizen," 253-57, 303, 307; Hartog, Man & Wife in America, 99; Cott, Public Vows, 93-96.

(26.) Max Rheinstein, "The Law of Divorce and the Problem of Marriage Stability," Vanderbilt Law Review 9 (1956): 644; Franke, "Becoming a Citizen," 278.

(27.) See Franke, "Becoming a Citizen," 289.

(28.) Franke, "Becoming a Citizen," 278; Moore V. Capitol Glass & Supply Co., et al, 25 So. 2d 248 (March 11, 1946); Thompson v. Vestal Lumber & Mfg, Co, 208 La. 83 (December 11, 1944).

(29.) "Louisiana Designees Race on the Ballot," Stanford Law Review 15 (1963): 341 n. 5; Loren Miller, "Race, Poverty, and the Law," California Law Review 54 (1966): 400.

(30.) Anders Walker, "Legislating Virtue: How Segregationists Discussed Racial Discrimination as Moral Reform Following Brown v. Board of Education," Duke Law Journal 47 (1997): 404.

(31.) See Walker, "Legislating Virtue." 404-420; Weyrauch, "Informal and Formal Marriage," 96-97; Mills, "Implications of Repeal of Louisiana Civil Code Article 1481," 1213; Bowman, "A Feminist Proposal to Bring Back (Common Law Marriage," 744-45.

(32.) The figures for men were comparable. See United States Department of Commerce, Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940: Population, IV (Washington, DC, 1943), 894-895. For a related discussion, see Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States, 129-131 n. 7.

(33.) New Orleans Item, January 26, 1939. For similar accounts, see New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 27, 1929; New Orleans Times-Picayune, November 3, 1930.

(34.) "Statement of Martha English relative to one Bessie Walker cutting which resulted in the Death of her Common Law Husband, Rogers Matthews," January 14, 1938. Transcripts of Statements; "Statement of Anna Bates relative to one Bessie Walker cutting which resulted in the death of her Common Law Husband, Rogers Matthews," January 14, 1938, Transcripts of Statements.

(35.) "Report of Homicide of Rogers Matthews," January 14, 1938, Homicide Reports; New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 15, 1938.

(36.) See, for example, Louisiana Weakly, July 15, 1939; Louisiana Weekly, October 14, 1939; Louisiana Weekly, January 2, 1943.

(37.) "Statement of Bessie Walker relative to her cutting Rogers Matthews," January 13, 1938, Transcripts of Statements.

(38.) "Statement of Valaria Taylor relative to the murder of Edward Beco," July 16, 1941, Transcripts of Statements.

(39.) "Statement of Eugene Morris (alias Chummy) relative to the murder of Willie Brown and Hazel Lang (alias Cockle Lindy)," February 12, 1941, Transcript of Statements.

(40.) "Statement of Harry Moore relative to the murder of one Dorothy Stewart," June 17, 1933, Transcripts of Statements.

(41.) According to studies by Todd K Shackelford and Douglas A. Brownridge, women in cohabiting relationship are murdered at about nine times the rate of (formally) married women. See Shackelford, "Cohabitation, Marriage, and Murder: Woman-Killing by Male Romantic Partners," Aggressive Behavior 27 (2001): 284, 285, 290; Brownridge, "Understanding Women's Heightened Risk of Violence in Common-Law Unions," 626. Also see Kersti Yllo and Murray A. Straus, "Interpersonal Violence Among Cohabiting Couples," Family Relations 30 (1981): 343; Cynthia Grant Bowman, "Social Science and Legal Policy: The Case of Heterosexual Cohabitation," Journal of Law and Family Studies 9 (2007): 27.

(42.) "Statement of Vivian Williams relative to Eva Jackson being shot by her Husband [sic] Louis Jackson," May 5, 1945, Transcripts of Statements.

(43.) See, for example, "Report of Homicide of Serenia Jordan Hose," May 8, 1939, Homicide Reports; Louisiana Weekly, May, 13, 1939.

(44.) Louisiana Weekly, July 22, 1939.

(45.) "Report of Homicide of Mabel DeQuire," July 15, 1939, Homicide Reports.

(46.) See, for example, "Report of Homicide of Velma Piemas," November 3, 1931, Homicide Reports.

(47.) "Report of Homicide of Stephen Christian," December 31, 1939," Homicide Reports.

(48.) "Report of Homicide of Laura Smith," July 11, 1931, Homicide Reports.

(49.) Though I am not framing such seemingly minor triggers in the context of a "subculture of violence," Marvin E. Wolfgang's influential and controversial book, Patterns in Criminal Homicide, emphasized that "trivial" disagreements typically sparked homicides. See Pattems in Criminal Homicide (Philadelphia, 1958), 189.

(50.) Louisiana Weekly, January 16, 1943.

(51.) "Report of Homicide of Ethel Hopkins," June 26, 1945, Homicide Reports.

(52.) "Report of Homicide of James Taylor," May 14, 1939, Homicide Reports.

(53.) "Report of Homicide of Percy Payton," October 7, 1939, Homicide Reports.

(54.) "Statement of Martha Miller relative to the stabbing and fatally wounding of one Ben Johnson," July 3, 1945, Transcripts of Statements; "Statement of Camille Glover with relation to the stabbing death of her Common-in-law [sic] husband Dominick LeBeau," December 26, 1940, Transcripts of Statements; "Report of Homicide of Oscar Pierce," January 21, 1935, Homicide Reports.

(55.) Louisiana Weekly, May 20, 1939. Police records identified the killer as Ruby Alberta Alexander, while the newspaper called her Alberta Alexander. For the former, see "Report of Homicide of James Taylor," May 14, 1939, Homicide Reports.

(56.) For a few examples, see "Report of Homicide of Richard Small," July 9, 1939, Homicide Reports; "Report of Homicide of Willie Bingham," September 13, 1938, Homicide Reports; "Report of Homicide of Clarence Miller," September 1, 1925, Homicide Reports.

(57.) "Statement of Maggie Turner relative to having stabbed to death with an ice pick, her Common law [sic] husband Dock Richardson," May 19, 1935, Transcripts of Statements.

(58.) Louisiana Weekly, July 15, 1939.

(59.) Some observers argued that African Americans carried weapons because the criminal justice system provided no protection. See Leroy G. Schultz, "Why the Negro Carries Weapons," Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 53 (1962): 479-81. For women carrying weapons in their clothing, see "Report of Homicide of Edward Francis," Jane 13, 1931, Homicide Reports; "Report of Homicide of Alex Jackson," July 2, 1945, Homicide Reports.

(60.) Louisiana Weekly, October 14, 1939.

(61.) "Statement of Beatrice Brown relative to the murder of Alex Jackson," July 1, 1945, Transcripts of Statements.

(62.) See Lind, Common Law Marriage, 150.

(63.) Louisiana Weekly, April 2, 1938; "Statement of Joe Neason relative to the murder of one Ernestine Caldwell," March 27, 1938, Transcripts of Witnesses.

(64.) Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, 270. For a related argument, see Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States, 379. Also see New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 7, 1928; "Statement of Veronica Baptiste relative to her sister one Inez Marselin being cut by one Josephine Augustine," December 24, 1942, Transcripts of Statements.

(65.) "Statement of Zelia Johnson relative to her Murdering [sic] Johnny McGee," May 17, 1930, Statement of Witnesses.

(66.) For an extraordinary analysis of the role of such symmetry in violent conflict (though not with regard to domestic violence), see Roger V. Gould, Collision of Wills: How Ambiguity about Social Rank Breeds Conflict (Chicago, 2003), 67-103.

(67.) "Statement of Mary Moses in relation to Sarah Gates stabbing her common law Husband [sic] Archie McGee," September 8, 1930, Transcripts of Statements; "Report of Homicide of Archie Gates," September 8, 1930, Homicide Reports; "Statement of Sarah Gates in relation to the stabbing of one Archie McGee," September 8, 1930, Transcripts of Statements.

(68.) "Report of Homicide of Andrew Brown," April 7, 1927, Homicide Reports.

(69.) Louisiana Weekly, April 2, 1938.

(70.) Analyzing modern data, Shackelford makes a similar point. See "Cohabitation, Marriage, and Murder," 290. Evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson make a related argument, suggesting that "perhaps the material investment in common-law unions is relatively low, and the women are therefore more likely to be on the lookout for alternatives, inspiring a more coercive pro-prietariness in their mates." See Daly and Wilson, Homicide, 213. Also see Brownridge, "Understanding Women's Heightened Risk of Violence in Common-Law Unions," 629.

(71.) "Statement of Harry Morre relative to the murder of one Dorothy Stewart," June 17, 1933, Transcripts of Statements. Linda Gordon found a similar pattern. See Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence (New York, 1988), 258-59. The quantitative evidence for this is not clear. The proportion of common-law partner killings surged during the depths of the Great Depression, though fights over money sparked lethal violence at the same proportion in informal and formal marriages.

(72.)"Statement of Joe Neason relative to the murder of one Ernestine Caldwell," March 27, 1938, Transcripts of Witnesses.

(73.) "Report of Homicide of Edmond Dolliole," May 13, 1939, Homicide Reports; Louisiana Weekly, May 20, 1939.

(74.) For an interesting explanation of the role of stepchildren in demestic violence, see Daly and Wilson, Homicide, 83-93.

(75.) See Shackelford, "Cohabitation, Marriage, and Murder," 290. For an example of such conflict, see "Statement of Catherine Brown relative to the fatal stabbing of one Emile Williams," April 12, 1942, Transcript of Witnesses.

(76.) "Statement of Martha English relative to one Bessie Walker cutting which resulted in the Death of her Common Law Husband, Rogers Matthews," January 14, 1938, Transcripts of Statements.

By Jeffrey S. Adler

University of Florida

Department of History

Gainesville, FL 32611
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Date:Sep 22, 2010
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