This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Performative Rhetoric and the Early American Female Criminal




Lewis, Amelia

Type of Degree





Female criminals, in a variety of ways, entered into public discourse and utilized forms of performance in order to leave their mark upon a culture that often severely limited the ways or extent to which women could engage with it. A label such as criminal is meant to erase, but can also become a moment of powerful cultural subversion. In this dissertation, I provide a closer examination of performance in female criminals in order to start untangling a complicated negotiation of identity. Analyzing the rhetoric surrounding those deemed female criminals through this lens allows us to enhance our discourse about the ways women communicated, expressed agency, and maintained a voice even under stringent methods of control and effacement. I examine the gendered performance of criminality in eighteenth-century American texts through the intersection of performance and rhetoric in order to deconstruct the idea of a dominant cultural narrative. My first section explores the Salem witch trials where witches took the central focus of a community in turmoil from war, economic issues, and religious strife. Their bodies intertwine with rhetoric during the trials to create meaningful texts of fear and control. My second section examines eighteenth-century infanticide narratives that had ministers attempting to adapt the voice of the female criminal to be suitable as a warning for the community. My third section analyzes how this same process can be read through the example of Elizabeth Wilson whose texts span all the possibilities of female crime literature in this time period in America from trial narrative to fictionalized sentimental account. Though often controlled by a dominant voice, such as ministers or leaders of the community, female bodies and behavior also became the vehicle through which women gain visibility and, at times, a voice.