I was attracted to “The Battered Wife And Her Five Little Kids All Dressed In White”, a work of non-fiction by George Garrigues, because I was a battered wife for ten years. The fact that these events took place in the early 1900’s piqued my curiosity. I wondered how different things were in those days.
This is the story of Margaret Claire Beutinger and her husband, Christof Beutinger. On Tuesday, July 11th, 1916, Margaret shot Christof in the bedroom of their large home in Essex County, New Jersey. Two of their daughters were witnesses to the crime. What followed provides a picture of how women were viewed in those early years of the twentieth century.
Despite corroborated evidence of years of spousal abuse, Margaret was arrested and subsequently indicted for the murder of her husband. During their marriage, she had borne seven children, and five had survived. At one point she had divorced Christof but under the advice of a priest and a nun, and perhaps pressure, she had reunited with him. Despite all his promises, Christof never gave up drinking, gambling, and his abusive behavior. Also, he exhibited cruelty toward their children. Shortly before she shot him, Margaret had purchased a gun which she kept under a pillow in her bedroom.
The question that arose during her trial was whether she had premeditated the murder. While she had purchased the gun not long before firing the shots that killed her husband, years of abuse and fear for her life were certainly mitigating circumstances in acquiring a weapon to defend herself.
The laws related to self-defense were specific. Did Margaret have any recourse other than shooting her husband? Could she have escaped? Margaret’s testimony regarding the event varied somewhat. She stated that Christof had entered the bedroom twice before she was driven to defend herself. The two little girls were asleep in the bed and woke when they heard their parents shouting. Margaret fired five shots into her husband. In one report she stated she had drawn the pistol from beneath her pillow, in another, she said she took it from her dresser.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to Margaret’s freedom was the question of a woman’s rights. Did a woman have the right to her body or was she the property of her husband? At the time, only men were permitted on juries. This could be viewed as either an obstacle or a plus for the defendant. Certainly, her years of abuse should have counted toward her defense. The abuse was exceedingly violent and there were numerous medical reports to substantiate her claims. The week before the incident Christof had beaten her enough to give her a black eye.
But this trial wasn’t about marital abuse. It was also about women’s rights. The 19th amendment granting women the right to vote had not yet been ratified. This was the most interesting aspect of the book. I felt that the author did an excellent job of describing the social inequality of the day. There was evidence of the beginning shift in perceptions. Vivid descriptions of the torment Margaret experienced were presented. Her small children sat in the gallery behind the defense table. On the one hand, her perceived female fragility was highlighted. On the other hand, the right of a woman to her own body was put forth.
The author investigates the complexities of the evidence, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions. Was Margaret a cold-blooded killer or a wife driven to defend herself on fear of death?
The author presents a multi-dimensional picture that is compelling.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of women’s rights, law in the early twentieth century, and spousal abuse.