Mary Mullholland: Emotional History

Recently, there has been an attempt by some bloggers to engage with the emotional content of their academic work. Failure to engage with the emotional content of one’s work is academically respectable, but risks overlooking some of the significance of the content. Vic Gatrell in his Hanging Tree made this point, and Lesley Hulonce and Helen Rogers have both contributed to this debate.[1] The advantage of blogging on such a topic is that is allows one to float ideas in a speculative way, without the same commitment that an academic publication might demand, but still engaging with elements of the discourse.

I have looked in my own work for topics that might allow me to address the emotional. I need to take a long view, for example a life story. Otherwise the narrative risks becoming as simplistic as Benefits Street.  I offer here one person, Mary Mulholland, whom I have chased through the archives. [2]


Mary was born in 1821, in Newry, County Down, Ireland, but I have not found her in any records until 1855, when she was arrested for theft. Mary had stolen a shawl from a shop in Whitehaven, but was not caught until ten days later when she tried to pawn it. The pawn broker said he recognised it as stolen property, whereupon Mary offered to give him six shillings if he would say nothing. Mary then ran off, but was later brought to court to receive two months in Carlisle Gaol. Mary was a well-known thief, for in 1857, when she was sentenced to six months for stealing boots from a shop, the judge was told that she was an old offender. Shop lifting was her preferred crime. In 1860, Mary entered the convict system when she was caught stealing potatoes at the market in Whitehaven. Reading the details of the case as reported in the local press, Mary seems to have been targeted by the police, for a detective was tracking her when she was caught. Here is report:

Inspector Douglas, a detective in the county police force, was on duty in the market …. He saw the prisoner go to Mr Irving’s stand. She looked up the street and then looked down, and taking up something put it under her shawl and walked away. He followed her and asked her what she had under her shawl; she said she had nothing, but on lifting her shawl he found a bag of potatoes there. She said that she had a bag and she had bought them. She afterwards said they were not her own when she found she was going to be taken into custody. Before the magistrates the prisoner said “thought the potatoes were mine.” … The Jury returned verdict of Guilty, and two former convictions for felony having been proved, the prisoner was sentenced four years penal servitude. She was removed from the dock shrieking. 6 July 1860,  Carlisle Journal p.6

 Four years sounds excessive for stealing fourteen pounds of potatoes, but this was a time when concerns about the perceived problem of habitual offenders was exercising the public and the press, who were concerned about the ending of transportation. Repeat offenders like Mary faced longer terms and the rigours of the convict system; a few years earlier and she might well have avoided a charge on indictment for the theft of such a low value item as potatoes.[3] Mary was not reformed by the experience. She returned to Whitehaven, where she was charged with stealing a pound of butter in 1865: she was discharged this time, but caught again for theft, of three twill shirts, in 1869. This offence earned Mary a sentence of seven years penal servitude, a tariff that seems ridiculously high by modern standards.

Mary was released in 1873, and returned to Whitehaven. Her next offences were selling beer without a licence, 1 month (1875) and stealing 1 pound of butter, 1 month (1876). Mary’s most serious offence was in 1880, when she was caught stealing ‘from the person’ a woman’s purse containing 9 shillings. Pickpocketing attracted heavy sentences, so Mary got seven years penal servitude. She was released under licence in November 1884.Mary last appears in the record in 1890:

MARY MULHOLLAND, 60, [sic] of no occupation, reads and writes imperfectly, pleaded guilty having stolen four and a half pounds of bacon, the property Walter Wilson, at Whitehaven… The Chairman, in passing sentence, said the prisoner had undergone terms of four years’, of seven years’, and again of seven years’ penal servitude. The Judges pronounced very strongly against sending people back to penal servitude for trifling offences, and on this occasion the Court had decided to take lenient course with the prisoner and sentence her to four months’ imprisonment. She must understand, however, that the practice of the Court was to somewhat punish persons who showed like the prisoner that they could not live without committing offences.


 11 Apr 1890,  Carlisle Journal

This does show a change of attitude since Mary’s four year sentence in 1860 for stealing potatoes. By 1890, the futility of lengthy penal sentences was generally accepted. This sentence is the last record I have found of her. It may be that Mary died soon after, for I have not been able to find her in the census of 1891, nor have I found her in the local press.

This bare list of offences creates an image of a determined and unrepentant thief, one of the ‘criminal classes,’ ‘underclass’ or the ‘residuum’.[4] This is a narrative that would suit the agenda of Charles Murray and all those who fulminate from a position of ignorance on their chosen topic of ‘benefit scroungers’, but this interpretation does not do Mary any justice. However, the prison records are so detailed that they allow Mary to begin to emerge as a person; they give details that we are unlikely to discover about any other types of person in the nineteenth century. For example, she was healthy, just four feet ten inches tall, described by the medical officer as ‘spare and muscular’ and weighed between 120 and 100 pounds. Mary was physically and mentally fit and free from disease and was a Roman Catholic. The prison photo (1880) shows a apparently calm and neat woman, with very little sign that she has lived fifty eight years. Whether this is a reliable image of Mary I cannot say, but it does bring an emotional clout to her narrative.

Her behaviour in gaol was good, even though she endured penal servitude at a time when the regime was particularly draconian. According to her prison record, Mary was held in the 1870s under the separate system.  Only twice was she sanctioned, for talking during exercise. Otherwise throughout her time in the convict system Mary gained full marks for work and conduct.

Mary had had ten children, seven of whom were living when she was convicted in 1880. She had been married to John Mulholland, but was a widow by 1880. I have not found John in the census or newspapers, but have been able to find most of her children. The children I have traced are: Thomas, born 1852; Charlotte, b. 1852; Anne, b. 1854; Mary, b. 1862; Hannah, b. 1865. They worked in the local industry, John as a miner, the girls as coal pickers or factory operatives.  Whilst in gaol, she wrote as regularly as was allowed to them, and received replies. It was her family that drew her back to Whitehaven every time she was released. When in gaol in the early 1870s, her younger children stayed with their brother, her son, Thomas, who was a coal miner. In the 1881 census, Mary’s children were just a few doors away from her daughter Anne Moore, who was a widow with children of her own.[5] Mary wrote to them every time she was permitted, and received replies just as frequently. I do not doubt that the letters were read to all the family. A letter from daughter Hannah arrived for Mary at Millbank in September 1880, but was not ‘refused, not due’.


Mary  can be seen as a metonym for Victorian industrial Britain. She was one of the Irish who came to Cumbria and found work in the iron and coal industries, and in construction. The Great Hunger is the context of her migration. Mary’s  family lived and survived in the poor quality housing near their work. Rather than seeing Mary as a petty criminal, I prefer to think of her as a woman who was keen to survive and to do what she could for her family, a mother of ten children, who did what she thought was necessary to provide. The family stuck together when she was in gaol, and she returned to them every time. If one looks only at the list of convictions, Mary is easily represented as a serial shop-lifter, but the family context deepens the narrative and presents a fuller, more human picture. It might be easy to give a Benefits Street verdict on Mary, but this would be unfair. It is interesting that Mary and her family contributed to the wealth of the Lowther family. If one is seeking to identify social parasites, a far better candidate than Mary must be Hugh Lowther, who enjoyed and squandered the wealth that came from mining and industry in Cumbria, without ever doing anything worthy or virtuous. (See Sutherland, D., 1965. The yellow earl; the life of Hugh Lowther, 5th earl of Lonsdale, K. G., G. C. V. O., 1857-1944.)

Guy Woolnough – @GuyWoolnough

[1] Helen Rogers, Conviction: stories from a nineteenth-century prison.; see also

Lesley Hulonce, Workhouse Tales.

Gatrell, V.A.C., 1994. The hanging tree: execution and the English people, 1770-1868. OUP.

Modernity: a Problematic Category in the History of Emotions, Barbara H. Rosenwein, History and Theory V. 53, Iss. 1, pp 69–78, Feb 2014

[2] As I write this I have just received a CFP for a conference which aims to address just these issues. A Life as a Lens, University of Roehampton, London, 12 Sept 2014:

[3] Most minor offences were heard summarily at Petty Sessions, where sentences were always less than 12 months, and often much shorter. The advantage of summary convictions for the prosecutor was that the proceedings were much cheaper, but after the establishment of a police force (Cumbria, 1856) decisions about how to proceed were increasing made by police. In this case, it seems that the constabulary decided to catch and deal with Mary by sending her upon indictment to the Quarter Sessions, where penalties could be much higher.

[4] See Godfrey, B.S., Lawrence, P., Williams, C., 2008. History and crime Sage. Pp81-99.

[5] They lived on Brandywell Steps, which was poor housing on the steep hillside near the mines.

Russian Female Criminals: Physiology, Responsibility and Sexuality

In pre-revolutionary Russia women were defined primarily by their relationships with men. Within this patriarchal society women were constantly subject to male rule: to the Tsar first and foremost; their father before marriage; and their husband thereafter. Religion reinforced the subordination of women; some pre-revolutionary churchmen arguing that women were relegated to the domestic sphere through “divine design” due to their inferior intellect.[1] Therefore, female involvement in criminal activity was dangerous. It not only violated the law, but subverted patriarchal notions of appropriate feminine behaviour. Female criminals were often depicted as masculine, as they allegedly rejected the typically passive nature characteristic of their gender. Criminologists in the nineteenth-century sought to uncover reasons for female crime, explaining that women’s physiology and lesser intelligence voided their powers of reasoning. In addition, they noted female sexuality as paramount to deviance, as women’s primitive nature often caused them to act irrationally, particularly during menstruation or pregnancy.

The Bolsheviks swept away the imperial criminal code after the October revolution, and replaced it with more progressive legislation. In the period 1917-1922, Russia experienced immense societal upheaval with revolution, famine and Civil War. Gender relations had been transformed by the Family Code of 1918, which granted women equality in the law and transferred the legal status of marriage from the church to the state. Additionally, the Code abolished the concept of illegitimacy, as fathers would be required to provide financial support for children born both in and out of wedlock. Divorce became legal and easily obtainable from 1920 and abortion was legalised in the same year, theoretically abolishing pre-revolutionary notions of feminine acceptability. Soviet criminologists recognised crime as a reflection of social, economic and political developments, and examined crime in relation to these changes in the Soviet Union.

This article will explore female criminology across the revolutionary divide, examining how female criminal activity was explained in the context of two incredibly different regimes.

Criminology emerged as a discipline in nineteenth-century Russia as part of a wider process of modernisation and push for societal improvement from the economically dominant. Industrialisation brought about widespread urban migration, a phenomenon which evoked concern over social disorder and rising levels of crime in the new densely populated cities of the Empire. One influential criminological concept in imperial Russia was Lombroso’s ‘born criminal’, which reasoned that criminality is evolutionary, and that criminals can be identified by specific physical defects. In The Female Offender (1895), Lombroso emphasised particular defects found in Russia female offenders and prostitutes, such as anomalous teeth, projecting ears and a flat nose.[2]


Plate I ‘Physiognomy of Russian Female Offenders’[3]

Lombroso’s female offenders frequently deviated from traditional perceptions of beauty, their facial anomalies rendering them masculine and marginalized. This concept remained prevalent, the forensic anthropologist Tarnovskaya examined 150 illiterate female criminals in central Russia in 1892 for physical defects, and compared them with 50 ‘honest women’. She found that 82 criminal women displayed abnormalities of the skull, oxycephaly or strabismus, compared with only 2 ‘honest women’.[4] It appears that their physical defects set them apart as criminal and distant from the female archetype.

Soviet criminology moved away from the concept of criminal atavism, as the nature of Marxism rejects one singular definition of ‘criminal’, instead regarding the definition as relative to a particular society. The Criminal Code of the Soviet Union defined the criminal as “socially dangerous person” who committed acts that endangered socialist society.[5] Between 1921-1928 criminological institutes were established in a number of cities, including Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Rostov. By late 1923 a permanent criminological clinic was founded in a Moscow prison, and 1925 saw the establishment of the State Institute of the Study of Crime and the Criminal. This period could be described as the “peak of criminology’s professionalization in early Soviet Russia”, as criminology became central to the state apparatus.[6]

Regardless of regime, female criminals rarely bore full responsibility for their crimes. Responsibility was deflected for various reasons, often through a belief in the pliability or irrationality of the female character. Although infanticide made up 25% of female homicide convictions from 1874-1913, many women were tried for the lesser offence of ‘concealing an infant’s body’, suggesting that courts often believed these women were acting irrationally and the crime unintentional.[7] Coverage in the 1867 Court Herald of the arsonist Felka Sergeeva from Zmievka, Ryazan Province saw her accused under the criminal code of attempted arson and intentional burning of grain, but found her not guilty.[8] Her lack of conviction could imply that women, especially in rural Russia, were not regarded as socially dangerous and in need of imprisonment, as they acted foolishly and could be easily controlled. Conviction rates of women in imperial Russia are considerably low: one source recorded a high of only 14.2% between 1874-1912.[9] These figures, combined with the heavily publicised 1878 acquittal of Vera Zasulich, suggest that women often escaped justice because of the apparent weakness of their gender.

The deflection of female responsibility for crime continued into the 1920s, as women were continually defined by their “susceptibility to external influences” during periods of political and economic turmoil.[10] This is evident in the case of Natsia E, who in 1923 castrated her husband in a moment of “temporary insanity” after he infected her with venereal disease, and had all criminal charges against her dismissed.[11] Male influence was frequently cited as a cause for female crime, as women were apparently too ignorant to reject their biological function through a crime such as infanticide, without external influence from husbands or lovers. Additionally, five Leningrad researchers explored the influence of cinema on female criminal activity, criticising the “glorification of negative heroes and overemphasis on sexuality” often found in films, which could encourage women’s deviance.[12]

 In terms of Soviet statistics, women committed significantly fewer crimes than men and in 1926 only 28.4% of female offenders were imprisoned, compared with 41.7% of men.[13] Furthermore, women’s ‘weaker’ nature in Soviet statistics for recidivism, as in 1924 the number of women with two or more convictions exceeded men, demonstrating their difficulty in returning to normal life after entering the criminal world.[14] Overall, women were evidently regarded as ‘less criminal’ than men across the revolutionary divide, due to prevailing patriarchal assumptions about their nature and physiology. However, women’s lack of resolve meant that once they had begun on a path of legality, they were destined to continue.

Patriarchal notions of female sexuality also influenced both nineteenth-century and early Soviet criminology. Theories were numerous, lacked hard scientific evidence and were pre-occupied with women’s reproductive and sexual activity. Women were thought to be particularly irrational and prone to criminal activity when sexually aroused or menstruating. Tarnovskaya’s study Female Murderers (1901), classifies acts of murder as products of “maternal love”, “passion”, or “on the grounds of sex”, all linked to reproduction and female sexuality. [15] Criminologists continued to cite sexuality as a cause for crime into the 1920s. The physiatrist A. N. Ternet’eva detailed a case of a middle aged woman who was accused of embezzlement during the Soviet period after stealing and gambling money from her employer. Allegedly, this woman was found have a “pathologically heightened sexual drive with sadistic elements”, which would last until she entered menopause.[16] Rather than interrogate economic necessity or intelligence, her enjoyment of gambling is likened to sexual pleasure, demonstrating the link made between female sexuality and criminality. Likewise, kleptomania was often linked to the impulsivity of women during menstruation, as von Koerber reported on the “unbalanced and irritable” nature of kleptomaniacs in Pokrov prison, who suffer from “acute sexual excitement” causing them to act irrationally.[17]

Despite this, some women undeniably dismantled the irrational mould of the female criminal and engaged in criminal activity alone, or even as leaders. The birth of the women’s political movement in Russia led to the emergence of female political criminals, such as Sofia Perovskaya, Vera Figner and Vera Zasulich, who participated in, organised and led terrorist organisations. Other female criminals gained notoriety in both nineteenth-century and contemporary society. The high-profile thief Sofia Bluevstein (Sonka the Golden Hand) carried out several notable robberies before her incarnation in the penal colony on Sakhalin Island. She has since been immortalised by Graf Amori and Anton Chekhov in novel form, and depicted by Anastasia Mikulchina in a 12 part series ‘Сонька – Золотая ручка’ (2007) on Russian television.


‘Sonka the Golden Hand’ being put into irons, Sakhalin Island, Russia 1915.[18]

Siobhán Hearne

[1] V. Shevzov, ‘Mary and Women in Late Imperial Russian Orthodoxy’ in W. Rosslyn and A. Tosi (eds), Women in Nineteenth-Century Russia: Lives and Culture (Cambridge: Open Book 2012), pp. 83-84.

[2] C. Lombroso, The Female Offender (London: T Fisher Unwin 1895), pp. 80-81.

[3] Ibid, p. 76.

[4] П. Н. Тарновская, ‘Об органах чувств у преступниц и проституток’ в В. Авдеев (сост.) Русская расовая теория до 1917 года, Том 2 (ФЭРИ-В: 2002), p. 456.

[5] N. Berman and E. W. Burgess, ‘The Development of Criminological Research in the Soviet Union’, American Sociological Review, 2:2 (1937), pp.213-222.

[6] S. A. Kowalsky, Deviant Women: Female Crime and Criminology in Revolutionary Russia 1880-1930 (Chicago: Northern Illinois University Press 2009), p. 65.

[7] S. P. Frank, ‘Narratives Within Numbers: Women, Crime and Judicial Statistics in Imperial Russia, 1834-1913, Russian Review, 55.4 (October 1996), p. 555.

[8] C. Frierson, All Russia is Burning! A Cultural History of Fire and Arson in Late Imperial Russia (Seattle: University of Washington Press 2002), p. 130-131.

[9] Y. Gilinsky, ‘Women in Organised Crime in Russia’ in G. Fiandaca, Women in the Mafia: Female Roles in Organized Crime Structures (New York: Springer 2007), p. 228.

[10] S. A. Kowalsky, ‘Who’s Responsible for Female Crime? Gender, Deviance, and the Development of Soviet Social Norms in Revolutionary Russia’, Russian Review 62.3 (July 2003), p. 367.

[11] Kowalsky, Deviant Women, p. 4.

[12] L. Shelley, ‘Soviet Criminology After the Revolution’, The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973), 70.3 (Autumn 1979), p. 394.

[13] Kowalsky, ‘Who’s Responsible for Female Crime?’ p. 373

[14] Kowalsky, Deviant Women, p. 104.

[15] Н.  Шумский, Н. Калюжная, И. В. Ювенский, Женщины-Убийцы: Очерки судебной психиатрии. (Санкт-Петербург: 2004)

[16] Kowalsky, Deviant Women, p. 100.

[17] L. Koerber, Soviet Russia Fights Crime (London: Routledge 1934), p. 131.

[18] J. Klier, ‘Crime and Criminals’, YIVO Encyclopaedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 3 August 2010 <> (accessed 24th January 2014).