Drop Dead Gorgeous: Pathologising Dead and Deadly Women
by Anna Jenkin
On the 3rd July 1755 Marie Catherine Taperet was executed in the Place de Grêve in central Paris. Taperet had been found guilty of enlisting her lover to murder her husband. Taperet’s execution had been delayed twice, the first time because she was pregnant with her lover’s baby at the time of sentencing, the second because she claimed to have gotten pregnant again, just four days after giving birth to her son. Taperet was, it seems, immensely beautiful, and therefore even though she had been in solitary confinement in the days following the birth, no one questioned the possibility that a prison guard could easily have found her impossible to resist. After four months, however, it was clear that no baby was forthcoming and so her execution was rescheduled for the final time. She was hung by the neck until dead with a handkerchief over her face leading many in the crowd to believe that it wasn’t Taperet on the scaffold.1
‘On the 5th July 1756 I was in Paris at the house of M Hérissant … I was shown into his study where I saw, in a glass case, Madame Lescombat (her married name) in the négligé in which she had been taken to the scaffold. She was upright in a case, her feet and legs bare and slightly swollen … she has lovely arms, very beautiful hands and a very fine, white complexion … she has a lovely chest, although the skin seemed slightly veiny; her throat was covered. Regarding her head, it was a little plump, her black varnish eyes resembled her own, as did her eyebrows and eyelids, her nose was a little squashed, scarlet lips, her mouth small and beautiful, her face a little round, in general she seemed affronted, as she often did when alive.’2
The object being described here is almost certainly a wax reproduction of Taperet, as wax modelling of famous people was becoming increasingly popular in Paris during the eighteenth century. What is surprising about Guellette’s account is not so much that he came across such an object in his friend’s study, but the way he describes it. Most notable is his use of the present tense: ‘she has lovely arms’ and his focus on her most feminine features; her arms, ankles and chest. As Taperet was hailed a great beauty in life, so she was in death. Indeed she was not the first murderess in France to be considered beautiful after death: in 1699 observers at the execution of Angélique Tiquet, also for enlisting someone to kill her husband, announced that ‘nothing was more beautiful’ than her head when it had been severed from her body.3 It would seem that in France, but also to a certain extent in England, the murderess was being beautified in death. The above print of Mary Blandy, who poisoned her father believing she was administering him with a ‘love potion’ given to her by her fiancé, was deemed controversial for the alluring display of her ankles. Ironically, Blandy was far from beautiful, she was an old maid when her fiancé wooed her for her money, and it is only in the context of her death that we find direct connections to her beauty and sexuality; she famously asked that the executioner not hang her too high, for the sake of her modesty.4
Half a century before phrenology and over a 100 years before Ceasare Lombroso’s writing on the physiognomy of the female criminal, we can see in these descriptions and images an attempt to understand the phenomenon of female crime. For the authors and artists of these representations the violent agency of female murder is undermined by focusing on the weaknesses of the female body. The contrast between the murderous crimes of these women and their frail, beautiful female forms makes them more accessible. It also emphasises the perceived danger of marrying a beautiful woman. But on the other hand, some representations, especially in England, sought to define the criminal female body in the other extreme. Rather than emphasising their female weakness they were shown as monsters, extraordinarily brutal and strong, and most interestingly, as men. In Hogarth’s 1733 painting of mass-murderess Sarah Malcolm, attention is focused upon her masculine forearms, the same arms used to stab three women to death. Malcolm appears here much older than her 22 years, reflecting a societal mistrust of women above childbearing age. Women who had reached the menopause no longer had any biological utility, and in old age could often become burdens on community, for this reason they were often shown to be monstrous, in earlier centuries as witches and by this time as murderers.
The most deadly and hated post-menopausal woman of this period was Elizabeth Brownrigg. Her crime, the murder of a young girl in her care by whipping her naked over a series of days , was deemed so incomprehensible and so incompatible with Brownrigg’s occupation as a midwife, that the only way to rationalise such crimes was to depict her as a man. Indeed, following Elizabeth Brownrigg’s execution her body was kept with the hope of proving her to be a man. The skeleton was displayed in a niche at the Royal College of Surgeons for many years. What is most striking is that after her execution in 2002, a sample of the DNA of serial killer Aileen Wuornos was kept on file for the same purpose.
In the eighteenth-century medical world, female physiognomy was incompatible with the act of murder. Commentators either focused entirely on the murderesses’ feminine features, especially when they were at their most passive as corpses, or they believed them to be men.
1 The most comprehensive study on this case is Pierre Figerou’s1921 La Belle Madame Lescombat
2 Thomas-Simon Gueullette, Sur l’échafaud: histoire des larrons et d’assassins (1721-1766) ed P. Bastien (Mercure de France, 2010), p.199
3 Causes célèbres et intéressantes, avec les jugemens qui les ont decides, Tome IV Paris (1750)
© Anna Jenkin, all rights reserved.