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Jedediah Rogers UHQ Blog, Utah Historical Society

Spring 2021 Utah Historical Quarterly

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Most editions of Utah Historical Quarterly don’t begin life as a special issue—that is, one for which the editors solicit articles on a certain topic. Rather, we usually group articles together based on any number of factors, including content. From time to time, however, a few manuscripts come across our desks that clearly speak to one another. That is what happened with the current edition of UHQ, which features three articles on a decidedly sensational topic: women who murdered their husbands or lovers. The main characters in these articles are Amanda Olson, the working-class daughter of Swedish immigrants; Annie Bradley, a young mother who became entangled with a senator; and Josie Kensler, a farm wife who married at fourteen. The spring number is rounded out by revisiting a UHQ classic on “mountain common law,” which directly bears on the subject of gender, violence, and sexuality. As a group, the articles cover a relatively short time span, from the 1850s to 1907.

As one study puts it, “the careful investigation of murder reveals much about the crime and the society in which the crime occurred.”[i] Accordingly, the stories of Olson, Bradley, Kensler, and the wielders of mountain law are filled with a concern for the protection—and policing—of sexuality and female behavior, a concern that can be seen in the use of the “unwritten law” and the idealization of womanhood according to nineteenth-century standards. They also show the tremendous role that newspapers played in the shaping of public opinion and the execution of justice. Finally, Kensler’s time in the Idaho State Penitentiary demonstrates the dangers and inequities women might encounter in a prison system created for men.

Well you might ask what is meant by the “unwritten law.” This was a belief, current in America at least throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s, that if a man caught another man engaged in some form of sexual impropriety with his wife, daughter, or sister, then he could rightfully take that fellow’s life. As Kenneth L. Cannon II established forty years ago, this extralegal concept—called “mountain common law” by George A. Smith—swayed many a Utah jury. The unwritten law, as some nineteenth-century Utahns argued, made it clear that Utah’s men would protect feminine virtue. Yet this was hardly a Utah phenomenon. The unwritten law flourished because many Americans placed a high premium on sexual purity but also perceived women as weak. Then, as the century turned, talk began of a “new unwritten law”: one that justified a woman for killing a man who had grossly mistreated her. Juries proved themselves willing to acquit women who invoked the new unwritten law against the men who had misused them—as did Olson and Bradley—and it provided society with a palliative method for dealing with rape and abuse. Not coincidentally, the attorney Orlando W. Powers represented both Olson and Bradley by using the insanity defense and, less overtly, the unwritten law.

These cases—the crimes themselves, their coverage in the press, and the ensuing trials—hinged on expressions of what a woman should be and how society should deal with womanhood and sexuality. Much has been made of the classic Victorian woman, she who was submissive, domestic, religious, and pure, and the concept of “true womanhood” runs throughout this issue. Attorneys and reporters alike served up depictions of Bradley as a dedicated mother and of Olson as the beloved daughter of a pious, humble home. Conversely, Kensler’s history of infidelity apparently gave her neighbors reason to suspect her of foul play. Perhaps the willingness of jurors to see Olson and Bradley as respectable, if misguided, women saved them from the death penalty, while Kensler’s reputation as a slattern and a flirt shaded opinion in the other direction.

If the stories within these pages share anything beyond sex and murder, it is the outsized role of the press in amplifying them: and that probably because of all the sex and murder. Newspapers far and wide knew they had a hit in the dramatic accounts of illicit relationships, young women, and vengeance. In the 1860s and 1870s, the Deseret News and Salt Lake Herald emphatically took the part of men seeking extralegal justice, while the Salt Lake Tribune held the opposing view. During 1907, articles about the Bradley affair appeared in newspapers from all but two of the United States, several Canadian provinces, and even Australia—which might be expected when a senator was shot by his lover.[ii] Meanwhile, newspapers in a handful of states covered the murder of John Kensler. And the judge presiding over Olson’s case took local reporters to task for the opportunistic timing of their stories. The media both played these cases up and, in part, helped to define how the reading public perceived them.

Annie Bradley, Amanda Olson, and several of the men who pleaded “mountain common law” escaped prison or the gallows, if not notoriety. Josie Kensler did not. Along with her lover, Kensler was convicted of murder in 1897. That was, unfortunately, not the depth of her experience. Nineteenth-century prisons officials largely saw female criminals as aberrations and did not plan for their well-being. This was the setting Kensler entered in 1897. In the midst of her incarceration, a prison official impregnated Kensler; she was then forced her into a dangerous and illegal abortion. Nor was that the only trouble in her life. Kensler’s father married her off at age fourteen to the thirty-nine-year-old John Kensler who, according to Josie’s testimony, beat her. Little wonder she spent her teenage years in escapades. Surely the murdered John Kensler was a victim, but spare a thought for Josie, whose life was defined too often by hardship, discord, and abuse.

Many more parallels exist among these articles, including the meaning of seduction in law and public discourse, the perception of female “hysteria,” the use of the insanity defense, and abortion—four abortions, perhaps coerced, take place within these cases. Taken together, these stories demonstrate the difficult knot of experience that accompanied crimes of passion in Utah and the Intermountain West—and connect the region to larger national trends. Utahns were not alone in claiming the vigilante justice of an unwritten law. Like Olson, Bradley, and Kensler, when other American women of the era committed murder, they generally killed their relatives, husbands, and lovers. Like Kensler, women who entered nineteenth-century prisons did so after a life of misfortunes; and in their imprisonment, they faced additional suffering. Why read such miserable stuff? These histories are more than true crime: they give us a chance to consider how we can develop legal and compassionate means to deal with rape and abuse and remind us of the need for constructive answers to social and interpersonal troubles.[iii]

—Holly George

[i] Robert Asher, Lawrence B. Goodheart, and Alan Rogers, “Adjudicating Homicide: The Legal Framework and Social Norms,” in Murder on Trial, 1620–2002, ed. Asher, Goodheart, and Rogers (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 27.

[ii] search, with the search terms “Annie Bradley” AND “Arthur Brown,” for a date range of 1907, accessed December 18, 2020.

[iii] For further reading, see Jeffrey S. Adler, “‘I Loved Joe, but I Had to Shoot Him’: Homicide by Women in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 92, no. 3/4 (2002): 880–82, and “‘My Mother-in-Law Is to Blame, but I’ll Walk on Her Neck Yet’: Homicide in Late Nineteenth-Century Chicago,” Journal of Social History 31, no. 2 (1997): 253–76; Anne M. Butler, Gendered Justice in the American West: Women Prisoners in Men’s Penitentiaries (Urbana: University Of Illinois Press, 2000); L. Mara Dodge, “‘One Female Prisoner Is of More Trouble than Twenty Males’: Women Convicts in Illinois Prisons, 1835–1896,” Journal of Social History 32, no. 4 (1999): 907–930; Rosemary Gartner and Jim Phillips, “The Creffield-Mitchell Case, Seattle, 1906: The Unwritten Law in the Pacific Northwest,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 94, no. 2 (2003): 69–82; Carole Haber, The Trials of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder, and Insanity in the Victorian West (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Hendrik Hartog, “Lawyering, Husbands’ Rights, and ‘the Unwritten Law’ in Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of American History 84, no. 1 (1997): 67–96; Amanda Hendrix-Komoto “The Other Crime: Abortion and Contraception in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Utah,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 53, no. 1 (2020): 33–45; Robert M. Ireland, “The Libertine Must Die: Sexual Dishonor and the Unwritten Law in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” Journal of Social History 23 (Fall 1989): 28; Laura-Eve Moss, “‘He Has Ravished My Poor, Simple, Innocent Wife!’: Exploring the Meaning of Honor in the Murder Trials of George W. Cole,” in Murder on Trial, 210, 214; Sowande’ Mustakeem, “‘Armed with a Knife in Her Bosom’: Gender, Violence, and the Carceral Consequences of Rage in the Late 19th Century,” Journal of African American History 100, no. 3 (2015): 385–405.