“I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag. I loved her too much for that.” Those are the words of 89-year-old Philip Williamson, who last week received a suspended two-year prison sentence for the manslaughter of his 83-year-old wife Josephine.
A retired teacher, Josephine was suffering from dementia and becoming increasingly dependent on her husband, who had terminal cancer. Philip claims to have been following his wife downstairs when “something took over me and I pushed her”. Once she had reached the bottom, he also strangled her. The judge presiding over the case, Joanna Cutts QC, accepted that in killing Josephine Philip “felt this was the only way to limit or prevent her suffering”.
Philip Williamson is not the first husband to make such a decision on behalf of an elderly wife suffering from dementia. In December last year Ronald King, 87, shot dead his wife Rita, 81, at the care home where she lived. King told staff that his wife “had suffered enough”. He was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, in what the investigating police officer described as “a particularly sad and tragic case”. Other cases, such as that of Angus Mayer and his late wife Margaret, who had Alzheimer’s, have yet to come to court.
The combination of an ageing population, government cuts and weakening social support networks mean that the UK is facing a care crisis. People who, like Philip Williamson, are elderly and infirm themselves, are under immense pressure to take care of loved ones, knowing all the while that their situation can only get worse. And yet there is more to this than just the desperate cry of the devoted carer at the end of his tether. We don’t want to think about the care crisis unless we have to. Usually we’d rather look away. But when the alternative is examining each and every social context in which male violence against women occurs, focussing all our attention on saintly husbands who kill out of love can feel like an easy option.
In their study When Men Murder Women, Dobash and Dobash point out that while many murders and murder-suicides amongst elderly couples are described as “mercy killings” and “suicide pacts”, “emerging evidence challenges the terms”. One of the largest studies comes from Florida, comparing 171 cases of homicide-suicide of those over age 55 with those under this age:
“The study revealed that over three-quarters of the homicide-suicides among the elderly involved the killing of a woman by a male partner. In many cases, jealousy, possessiveness, and separation were apparent, but the researchers concluded that an understanding of these deaths required a consideration of a multiplicity of factors such as alcohol, adverse life events, relationship issues, psychosocial and cultural issues, and “environmental” factors such as the availability of guns.”
There is rarely one clear causal factor – she was ill, I wanted to end her suffering – but a mix of factors including “a history of discord, abuse, and sometimes violence; illness of one or both partners; alcohol abuse and suicidal ideation of the perpetrator” (both Philip Williamson and Angus Mayer attempted suicide in the aftermath of their wives’ deaths). While the above example is focused on the US, they argue that “research in this area from Europe and Canada reveals similar patterns”. In Europe, 15 per cent of all victims of murder-suicide are women over 65.
In May last year Edward Perring, 79, killed his wife Gloria,76, and then himself. This is how the Daily Mail reported it:
“A devoted husband murdered his wife then killed himself after becoming stressed about how long it was taking builders to finish renovation works at his home, an inquest heard.
Edward Perring, 79, and wife Gloria, 76, were described as a ‘loving normal couple’ with no history of violence or illnesses.
But without warning, Edward, known as Ted, brutally slashed his wife’s throat before stabbing her several times in the chest and leaving her for dead in their bedroom.”
Gloria Perring was not ill. Unlike Josephine Williamson or Rita King, she is not forced to play the role of the sick animal that the self-sacrificing hero must put out of its misery. Her husband killed her for other reasons – stress about building work, mental illness, anger – whatever the reason, he is not around to tell us and Gloria herself remains dead. The Mail notes that according to the couple’s GP “there was no indication that there had ever been any domestic violence in the marriage” (unless, of course, you count the violent stabbing at the end). Whatever his justifications may have been, just like Philip Williamson and Ronald King, Edward Perring still manages to be seen as “devoted” not just in spite of, but somehow because of the extremes of violence he was prepared to inflict on a woman he loved.
When looking at the violent death of Josephine Williamson, I do not think we need to choose between whether it was an act of male violence or a symptom of inadequate care provision for the elderly. It was both. Moreover, the two are not unrelated. The devaluing of care work – and the belief that society should divide neatly into the carers, who have no needs of their own, and the cared-for – are fundamental to the maintenance of male dominance. Old age pushes men out of the public sphere – “their” space – and confronts them with many of the expectations that women have had to struggle with all their lives. And when traditional marriage and rigid economic structures still treat wives as unpaid, unrecognised domestic resources, we should fear for their safety when they are perceived to be, not only no longer useful, but a burden on those for whom they are expected to care.
To describe one’s own wife, as Philip Williamson did, as a “decrepit old hag” in waiting is not love. It is misogyny. It is not impossible for the two to co-exist but for the safety and dignity of older women, we must not buy into narratives which turn violent deaths into loving mercy killings.
Thanks to Karen Ingala Smith and the Counting Dead Women project for data supplied for this piece.