The prison system has been a controversial debate that has spanned the centuries. Since the 1700s, in which penal bondage and banishment gave way to the use of incarceration as a primary form of punishment, prison reformers such as John Howard and Jeremy Bentham have sought to highlight the brutality behind bars. From the United Kingdom to Europe, the United States to Australia, many reformers contrasted prisons across the globe in order to better inform their proposals.
Though nuances between the nations remain, many reforms implemented during the 19th century drastically changed the fate of women prisoners incarcerated worldwide. Perhaps most notably, male and female inmates no longer shared cells, reducing - yet not eliminating - the brothel-like practice that previously inhabited many stone walls. These reformed prison systems welcomed a growing female population in the 1920s; a rise caused in no small part by the many females across the globe arrested for their involvement in protesting their right to vote.
Though the population of women prisoners remained drastically less in comparison to men, prisons were no longer – as historian Philip Priestly described in 1985 - “a man’s world; made for men, by men.” What’s more, for some, their heinous crimes rivalled those of their male counterparts. Despite this, these female lawbreakers were not about to let their appearance drop in the name of crime and, as many of their mug shots are testament to, their faces and outfits tell the stories of glamorous yet bedraggled lives in which fur coats go hand-in-hand with felony.
As the child of criminals, Alice Diamond inevitably became one herself. Diamond was arrested for crimes like shoplifting and having a false identity. She later involved herself in the infamous Elephant and Castle Gang, a group of shoplifters and thugs, notorious for the intelligence and creativity of their crimes.
Essex-based Edith Thompson's husband was brutally stabbed and murdered. After discovering Thompson and her lover, Frederick Bywaters, had planned his death, Essex jurors found both guilty and sentenced them to be hanged in their respective prisons in 1923. Neither a media petition, nor her lover’s repeated confessions that he had acted alone, were enough to spare her life.
A fashion story based on the stories of real criminal women in the early 20th century, titled 'Jezebels' features in the new issue of PETRIe 67 - Out Now!
Words: Katy Shields and Elizabeth Neep