Poisonous Mixtures: Gender, Race, Empire, and Cultural Authority in Antebellum Female Poisoner Literature

Doctoral Dissertation


This dissertation examines the literature of the female poisoner in nineteenth-century America, primarily in New England between 1840 and 1864. These narratives centered on women who, among other crimes and transgressions, poisoned their victims, often men, typically their domestic partners. The writers of these narratives, however, characterized the female poisoners’ crimes in radically divergent ways" from horrors to misfortunes to heroic acts" depending upon how they envisioned the distribution and shape of cultural authority within the nation. Female poisoner texts engaged with a literary tradition of the poisonous woman, which deployed poison as a metaphor for mixture" a crossing and blurring of gender, class, racial, generic, and national boundaries. Narratives of these mixtures could figure structures of power and identity that ran the gamut from heterogeneous possibilities for establishing more egalitarian modes of authority and androgynous forms of identity to hegemonic possibilities for rigidifying social hierarchy and clarifying boundaries of identity. In short, this literature enabled a debate about how power should be distributed in a “civilized"� society, what boundaries and structures constituted that civilization, and which configurations of race, class, and gender should wield hegemonic authority over it. This literature traversed multiple popular genres, and the dissertation tracks the female poisoner from the figure’s inception in published trial transcripts and newspaper coverage to the sensational ephemera I call "true"� female poisoner pamphlets to fiction and drama by luminaries of the American Renaissance such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The dissertation analyzes how the media affected the conversation and how the conversation affected the media as the female poisoner was adapted to address changing political concerns. Each chapter thus examines another step in the evolving conversation as the argument shuttled back and forth through these various media and literary communities. This movement expanded outward from local conflicts over elite New England masculinity in the trials (chapter one) to questions about racial and regional power between North and South in the pamphlets and Stowe’s work (chapters two and three) to a debate over empire and forms of imperial hegemony between Holmes and Hawthorne (chapter four).


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-06202005-105725

Author Sara Lynn Crosby
Advisor Sandra Gustafson
Contributor Glenn Hendler, Committee Member
Contributor Gail Bederman, Committee Member
Contributor Javier Rodriguez, Committee Member
Contributor Sandra Gustafson, Committee Chair
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline English
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2005-06-03

Submission Date 2005-06-20
  • United States of America

  • poisoners

  • crime

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes

  • gender

  • empire

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe

  • race

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility and Access Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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