Killing Clio
“The Inflamed Egotism of Women:” Emma Simpson and the Limits of the Unwritten Law

“The Inflamed Egotism of Women:” Emma Simpson and the Limits of the Unwritten Law

Let me just admit it now—I’ve never listened to Serial.Or, rather, I never finished listening. Sure, I started it—after all, I did have an iPod, internet access, and a pretty NPR-happy social circle in fall of 2014—but I stopped after episode 1. Whatever it was that drew in historic millions of listeners, prompting critics to dub Serial everything from a “breakout hit” to “a true cultural phenomenon,” it missed me. Or maybe I missed it?

But we’re all living in a post-Serial world now, and even without listening to Sarah Koenig’s investigation into the troubled case of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed, I’ve been carried along by the rising tide of popular interest in true crime and the justice system that so lopsidedly addresses it in a twenty-first century in which social justice movements urge us to look more closely at the ways in which race, gender, religion, class, sexuality, and other axes of privilege and oppression shape the ways in which people kill, die, work, fight, argue, fuck, study, cheat, survive, and, in a word, live.

Here at Nursing Clio, we think a lot about all of these things, but we reach for answers through the channels of medical history and feminist studies. So why have we decided to devote our summer to reading and writing about true crime? Why apply, if you will, a Koeingian approach to discourse analysis in the history of science and gender?

Crime, like medicine, is a matter of life and death, but if medicine is the toolkit through which we hope to resolve human pain and loss, crime is the wrench in the works, at once a source of and a response to suffering. Crime, if you want to get philosophical about it, is medicine gone wrong—healing in reverse. It’s also a construct on which we’ve hung a great deal of heavy cultural baggage, from gendered moralities to religious anxieties to racial profiles. It’s a wrong that we increasingly hope to see righted through biomedical technology, as DNA testing and blood spatter analysis feature heavily in our documentaries and podcasts as the keys to solving the unsolved. It’s a testing ground for our deepest cultural beliefs, fears, and imbalances, and it’s a rich new lens for our study of the cultural, social, and political contexts of gender and medicine in the past and present.

Killing Clio begins today, with a literal bang (thanks, Rachel Boyle!). We’ll be posting a new essay every Thursday, so stick around and stay tuned for our summer of crime.

— RE Fulton, Series Editor


At the end of an alimony hearing in Chicago in 1919, Emma Simpson brandished a gun and fatally shot her husband in a courtroom full of witnesses. Simpson had repeatedly accused her spouse of a romantic affair with his brother’s sister-in-law, and by 1919 the couple was immersed in a heated divorce. Outside the courthouse after the shooting, she reportedly smiled, waved for photographers, and remarked:

[gblockquote]I will need no attorney—the new unwritten law, which does not permit a married man to love another woman, will be my defense. It will save me. I will tell my whole story to the jury and they will free me. I am perfectly confident of that.1[/gblockquote]

The “old” unwritten law was the de facto acquittal of men who killed their wives’ lovers throughout the nineteenth century. At the turn of the twentieth century, women accused of murdering their unfaithful partners invoked a “new” unwritten law that justified their actions. Well before the infamous cases that inspired the musical Chicago, dozens of middle- and upper-class white women in Chicago successfully secured acquittal by juries who saw them as respectable, vulnerable women victimized by their own hysteria.2 When Emma Simpson brazenly shot her husband in 1919, she represented the well-established archetype of a husband slayer. At the same time, her case demonstrates the limits of the unwritten law in a Progressive Era climate with changing gender expectations and an increased emphasis on scientific professionalism.

Belvedere Daily Republican, Apr 25, 1919. (©

Hysterical Victim or Dangerous New Woman?

When a seemingly respectable, white middle-class woman like Simpson turned violent, one explanation leapt to the imaginations of the courts, the press, and the jury: she must be hysterical. During her trial, Simpson played the part of the respectable but emotionally unstable woman. The Chicago Tribune remarked that she wore a “white linen suit, the whitest of shoes, and the black straw sailor hat with long, figured veil”; her subsequent outfits continued to alternate between virginal white and mourning black.3 Over the course of the trial, she covered her eyes every time the state’s attorney instructed a witness to point to Simpson as the person who did the shooting.4 When the prosecution presented the gun she used to shoot her husband, the defendant leapt to her feet, pointed at the gun, and yelled to “take it away” before fainting.5 Her final outbursts took place during the prosecutor’s closing statement, exclaiming that her husband was “all right” until his extramarital lover “got hold of him!”6 Although never taking the stand, Simpson’s courtroom performance solidified her expected role as the respectable but troubled husband-slayer.

By 1919, however, the archetype of the hysterical husband-slayer faced increasing scrutiny. Many women’s rights activists and allied lawyers increasingly advocated for equal punishment rather than special protection for women. Feminist calls for equal treatment worked hand-in-hand with misogynistic characterizations of the New Woman who favored fame and fashionable violence over domestic tranquility. Simpson directly challenged that image by proclaiming her dislike for divorce, cigarettes, and hair dye—all infamous features associated with the New Woman.7 In a Progressive Era city that wanted to punish violent women out of both misogyny and a sense of equality, however, Simpson could not call upon the unwritten law through her own performance alone. She needed an expensive and charismatic lawyer: Clarence Darrow.

Clarence Darrow’s Defense

Darrow had already successfully defended two husband slayers by the time he launched his full-fledged temporary insanity defense of Emma Simpson.8 He deployed an impressive line-up of expert physicians, representing the traditional practice of psychiatry as well as more in-vogue specialists of nervous and mental diseases. He also questioned a host of lay witnesses, inquiring about the color of Simpson’s face when she killed her husband and “whether or not her eyes were wild.”9 Darrow’s approach relied on both informal and formal assessments of Simpson’s mental frailty, effectively drawing on the persistent cultural power of hysteria while upholding scientific professionalism and elevating his role as attorney.

In Darrow’s final plea to the men of the jury, he explicitly made an appeal to traditional gender roles by admonishing them on their responsibilities as men. He reminded jurors that “more consideration should be shown for a woman than a man” and that “you’ve been asked to treat a man and a woman the same—but you can’t. No manly man can.”10 Meanwhile, an anonymous editorial in the Chicago Tribune criticized the “sloppy,” “sexual sentimentality of male juries” who only encouraged “the inflamed egotism of women to destroy life.”11 Like Emma Simpson, the men of the jury found themselves in a historical moment with contested gender roles: did strong men protect frail, hysterical ladies or punish unruly women?

The Verdict

The jury ultimately deemed Simpson temporarily insane at the time of the murder. Rather than delivering a full acquittal, the verdict affirmed Darrow’s temporary insanity defense. The judge sentenced Simpson to the Elgin State Hospital, where she remained for fifty-one days before being declared sane and released.12 Although Simpson invoked a familiar cultural refrain of a visibly hysterical woman deserving acquittal, she had to contend with the Progressive Era pressure to deliver equal punishment to dangerous women and rely on professionals to officially determine legal and medical insanity.

A woman like Simpson could previously depend on her identity and courtroom performance to secure acquittal, but by 1919 she needed a skilled lawyer and a certified legal defense to avoid the penitentiary. Even then, the court delivered her into the hands of medical professionals based on the legal argument that she was temporarily insane. The Progressive Era push for professionalism and gender equality limited middle-class women’s ability to shape their own fate by appealing to the unwritten law, rendering Emma Simpson’s prediction false that she could “tell my whole story to the jury and they will free me.”


  1. “Taunted Wife Shoots Husband in Courtroom,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 26, 1919. Return to text.
  2. Juries rarely extended the unwritten law to black and ethnic working-class women. However, in the early twentieth century, middle-class black women increasingly secured acquittal by appealing to the unwritten law in the early twentieth century. Return to text.
  3. Maude Martin Evers, “Mrs. Simpson Found Insane: Faces Asylum,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 26, 1919; Maude Martin Evers, “Simpson Widow Quails Before Pointing Hands,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 19, 1919. Return to text.
  4. Maude Martin Evers, “Simpson Widow Quails Before Pointing Hands,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 19, 1919. Return to text.
  5. “Mrs Simpson Insane 2 Years, Says Witness,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 20, 1919. Return to text.
  6. Maude Martin Evers, “Mrs. Simpson Found Insane: Faces Asylum,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 26, 1919. Return to text.
  7. Maude Martin Evers, “Mrs. Simpson Sees Value in Life in Jail,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 10, 1919. Return to text.
  8. “Miss Josephine Polk Faces Trial for Murder,” The Chicago Defender, December 7, 1918; “Mrs. Van Keuren Not Guilty of Husband’s Murder,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 15, 1914. Return to text.
  9. Maude Martin Evers, “Simpson Widow Quails Before Pointing Hands,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 19, 1919. Return to text.
  10. Maude Martin Evers, “Mrs. Simpson Found Insane: Faces Asylum,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 26, 1919. Return to text.
  11. “Killing Husbands,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 28, 1919. Return to text.
  12. Maude Martin Evers, “Mrs. Simpson Found Insane; Faces Asylum,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 26, 1919; “Mrs. Simpson is Declared Sane; Given Liberty,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 22, 1919. Return to text.

Dr. Rachel Boyle is a public historian and co-founder of Omnia History, a public history collaborative that uses the past to promote social change. Her research focuses on gender, space, and violence in Chicago and the Midwest.