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The Ogress, The Innocent, And The Madman: Narrative and Gender in Child Homicide Trials in New Zealand, 1870-1925

The murder of a child represents one of the most perplexing and unimaginable of crimes. This thesis, the first legal-historical investigation into child homicide in New Zealand, seeks to uncover some of the ways that people have ‘imagined’ and made sense of this complex crime in the past. The conclusions emerging from this study suggest that nineteenth and early twentieth-century observers of child homicide trials relied heavily on the interpretive power of familiar cultural narratives to convey meaning and achieve composure. Homicides involving children, though often disparate and deeply ambiguous events, were bounded by a narrow yet profoundly influential body of images, characters and representations. This repertoire of narrative conventions was not simply reflective of contemporary attitudes and understandings but worked actively to bolster and crystallise the meanings surrounding disturbing events. Utilising quantitative and qualitative methodologies, this study draws on a comprehensive dataset of reported child homicide incidents occurring in New Zealand between 1870 and 1925. Select cases from this database are considered as a set of narrative texts using gender as the primary category of analysis. The popular and legal discourses surrounding these incidents are analysed within a post-structuralist theoretical framework to examine the divergent representations of those who were implicated in the suspicious death of a child. The research includes an investigation of criminal data for evidence of quantitative patterning in criminal typologies and sentencing, as well as analysis of textual evidence such as trial transcripts, coronial inquest reports, parliamentary debates, and newspaper reporting and commentary. The findings of this study demonstrate that the discursive constructions of child homicide in nineteenth and early twentieth-century New Zealand were highly gendered. Ultimately, child murder was imagined as an offence perpetrated by mothers. However, the impact of gender on trial proceedings and outcomes was by no means straightforward or clear cut. Cultural understandings of race, class, morality, madness and criminality all fed into the narrative construction of murder events and were shaped and reformed in relation to each other. In unpacking the stories of child murder, this thesis exposes the highly constructed nature of criminal legal discourse within and beyond the courtroom, and provides a historical basis for a more nuanced critique of understandings of child homicide crime in the present.
Type of thesis
Powell, D. (2013). The Ogress, The Innocent, And The Madman: Narrative and Gender in Child Homicide Trials in New Zealand, 1870-1925 (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/7349
University of Waikato
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