Twenty-nine women entered the Yuma Territorial Prison in Yuma, Arizona from 1878 to 1909. Popular histories immortalize these women as the “fiends,” “members of the underworld” or “she-devils” who served time in the “hellhole on the Colorado.” On this surface, this work tells these women's stories, exploring the crimes they were accused and/or convicted of, their experiences in front of jurors and judges and their lives behind prison walls. My goal, however, is not simply to reconstruct their lives—it is to tell a new legal history of Arizona, one that reinvisions the role of the law, punishment, the media and women in the nation building process. A study of legal statutes, Superior and Justice Court documents, prison records and correspondence and newspaper articles demonstrates that these women were far more than criminals “getting their due,” they were products of a male dominated legal and justice system that relied on criminalization and punishment to legitimize its existence and enact gendered and social control. They were also agents of change who used the law and gender ideologies designed to disempower them to exercise their rights and redefine their relationship with territorial society.1
These women's arrests, convictions and incarcerations occurred during a tense time in Arizona’s history, a time prior to statehood before ethnic and gendered boundaries had crystallized and most people still considered Arizona to be a wild and lawless frontier. Although the 1880s had seen the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad through Tucson, economic incorporation and Euro-American migration, and had brought government institutions to the territory, racial and gendered boundaries remained porous and national ties tenuous. In an attempt to gain control, Euro-American politicians, businessmen, journalists and government officials pushing for national inclusion increasingly relied on legal statutes, print media and institutions of law and punishment as apparatuses for creating the socioeconomic, gendered and racial hierarchy needed for incorporation into the nation state.
These men were members of a state legal culture that used the law as an avenue for promoting Euro-American dominance by connecting whiteness and masculinity to full citizenship through legal restrictions on the rights of ethnic minorities and women, and, often, through their criminalization and punishment. These practices, in combination with social discrimination, defined the boundaries of citizenship and transformed a relatively fluid social structure in Arizona into a racially stratified one, relegating ethnic-Mexicans, Chinese, African Americans and members of different indigenous groups to the lower rungs. Euro-American politicians, judicial officials and lawmakers simultaneously used the law to make social and cultural issues such marriage, divorce and access to a woman’s body a concern of the state. They created miscegenation laws, divorce statutes and criminal codes as means to assert control over women and further solidify gender and racial boundaries.
The newspaper stories written about these women highlight the crucial role the press played in furthering these men’s goals, acting as the mouthpiece through which Euro-American men defined and reinforced ethnic and gendered boundaries, often under the guise of bringing “order” and “justice” to the region, or as defenders of the “weak.” In the Arizona Territory, editors and journalists used the print media to create order in the state through the promotion or vilification certain social values, behaviors (especially criminal behaviors) and cultural practices. The media constructed stories on criminal activity in a manner that incited public fear and called for the region to be brought under the legal control of the government.
Euro-American men did not monopolize the nation building process in Arizona, however. Women from all ethnic backgrounds, including female criminals, consciously and unconsciously played an important role in delineating ethnic and gendered boundaries. Some Euro-American women, through their adoption of the role of “civilizer,” actively defined the racialized and gendered boundaries of citizenship, and in turn, power. They did so through the “othering” and exclusion of minority and working class women and through implementing a racial hierarchy through community betterment work, anti-Chinese campaigns and cultural and religion education. Female criminals of all ethnicities played an unconscious role in the process; unwittingly becoming the foils against which Euro-American civilized society defined itself. Newspapers used their criminal behavior and transgression of gender roles to call for patriarchal control and define boundaries of acceptability.
Female criminals of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds also formed a popular legal culture that used the law as an avenue for helping define, and sometimes defy, the legal establishment of a racial and gendered hierarchy. Although their backgrounds and tactics were disparate, they used legal contact zones such as lawyers’ offices, judge’s chambers, courtrooms and the prison to assert their citizenship rights. Gender played an important role in this process, impacting a woman’s ability to obtain early release more than their ethnic backgrounds. Women willingly conformed to the ideals of proper womanhood to convince officials they were “ladies” fit for release. For many, newspapers also worked to their advantage, with loved ones and supporters using the media to portray these women as reformed, playing on the public’s pre-existing doubts about the incarceration of women in the prison and garnering sympathy. These women may have entered the prison as “fiends” and “members of the underworld,” but they exited as “ladies” deserving of societal protection.
1The terminology used to describe female criminals and the Yuma Territorial Prison is taken from numerous territorial newspaper articles and is often reprinted in popular histories, prison guidebooks and websites such as Jane Eppinga, “Hellhole on the Colorado,” American Cowboy (Nov/Dec 1997), 89,
http://books.google.com/books?id=oCAAAAMBAJ&dq=Elena+Estrada+Yuma+Territorial+Prison&hl=en &ei=JzSnTvziC43AtgephYXDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAA# v=onepage&q=Elena%20Estrada%20Yuma%20Territorial%20Prison&f=false [Accessed October 30, 2011]; Marti Murphy, The Prison Chronicle: Yuma Territorial Prison’s Colorful Past (Arizona State Parks, 1999); Ben T. Traywick, ed., Frail Prisoners in the Yuma Territorial Prison (Tombstone: Red Marie, 1997).
|Advisor:||Meeks, Eric V., Deeds, Susan|
|Commitee:||Banks, Cyndi, Danielson, Leilah C., Deeds, Susan M.|
|School:||Northern Arizona University|
|School Location:||United States -- Arizona|
|Source:||DAI-A 73/04, Dissertation Abstracts International|
|Subjects:||American history, Womens studies, Modern history, Criminology|
|Keywords:||Arizona Territory, Crime, Gender, Race|
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