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The Beautiful Female Murder Victim: Literary Genres and Courtship Practices in the Origins of a Cultural Motif, 1590-1850

Daniel A. Cohen
Journal of Social History
Vol. 31, No. 2 (Winter, 1997), pp. 277-306
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3789940
Page Count: 30
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The Beautiful Female Murder Victim: Literary Genres and Courtship Practices in the Origins of a Cultural Motif, 1590-1850
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Abstract

This essay, at once interdisciplinary and comparative, traces the origins of the popular cultural motif of the "beautiful female murder victim" in America's early republic. First, it explores the literary origins of that motif in early modern court romances, murder ballads, sentimental novels, and trial reports. Although three of those four literary genres had become rooted in British popular culture by the mid-seventeenth century, none seems to have achieved a secure foothold in American print culture until near the end of the eighteenth century-coinciding almost precisely with the American advent of the "beautiful female murder victim." Second, this essay probes the social origins of that motif in a cluster of murders of young women by young men in both Great Britain and the United States after about 1790. It speculatively links that small upsurge of courtshiprelated homicides to much broader shifts in popular sexual behavior reflected in changing rates of premarital pregnancy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries-patterns long noted by historical demographers of both Europe and North America, and often linked by them to a posited breakdown of "traditional" rural courtship practices and the development of more "modern" attitudes and behaviors.

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