Date of Award
Master of Science (MS)
Department of History
Amy . Wood
On the morning of July 10, 1882, a young prostitute named Theresa Sturla murdered her lover, Charles Stiles, on the sixth floor of the Palmer House in Chicago. During her trial four months later, Sturla’s attorney employed a dual argument of self-defense and insanity. He claimed that his client suffered from dysmenorrhea, or painful menstruation, and that she had gone temporarily insane at the time of the murder due to her defective reproductive system. According to the defense, Stiles’ abuse toward his mistress had exacerbated the disease and her only solution was to respond with violence. After a month-long trial, Sturla received a verdict of manslaughter and a one-year prison sentence. The murder and subsequent trial was a media sensation and ultimately came to embody a crisis of class and morals that was brewing in Chicago on the eve of the Progressive Era. Sturla’s story reveals that it was possible for a fallen woman to slay an abusive lover and, with the help of a skilled defense attorney, manipulate common notions of woman’s nature in order to garner sympathy from a male jury. The jury’s verdict and the opinions expressed in the Chicago media indicated that the majority of the public had faith that middle-class principles and Christian morality would prevail. The tragedy of Theresa Sturla also demonstrates the relative plasticity of the Victorian ideal of true womanhood, showing that upward social mobility was not out of reach for a “fallen woman.” However, the road to respectability for a woman like Sturla was paved in the blood of her abuser. By using this case as a lens, we might better understand the connections between womanhood, female sexuality, violence, and perceptions of insanity and morality in nineteenth-century America.
Engelman, Jake, "The Tragedy of Theresa Sturla: Murder, Insanity, and Womanhood on Trial in Nineteenth-Century Chicago" (2019). Theses and Dissertations. 1183.