Faculty Pub Night with Cara Anzilotti: What You Missed

Today’s post was written by library student ambassador Fabio Cabezas. Fabio is a junior management major. 

It was an honor to be an event correspondent for the Faculty Pub Night featuring Cara Anzilotti, Associate Professor of History, and her new book She Devil in the City of Angels. Before the event, I had the chance to talk to attendees. While many students were there to receive class credit, it was refreshing to meet some who were genuinely drawn to the substance of the presentation and its important message.

In her book, Anzilotti examined attitudes towards women in 19th century Los Angeles and, more generally, in the country at that time. According to Anzilotti, women were portrayed as gentle and passive whereas men were perceived as the opposite: domineering, hard-working, and assertive. Additionally, women were often viewed as society’s moral guardians. Their presence was necessary to temper the baser instincts of their sons and husbands. Women were not seen as capable of murder, violent crime, or any other sort of “problematic” behavior to which society believed only men could be prone. Unfortunately, Hattie Woolsteen, a Los Angeles woman who almost certainly murdered her lover, Charles Harlan (and left his body stabbed, beaten, and burned in Compton in 1888), didn’t fit the stereotype.

Woolsteen gave an account detailing how Harlan killed himself after imploring her to leave and run away with him. The police chief at the time didn’t believe her story. For one, Harlan had been right-handed and the gunshot wound was on the left side of his body. The police continued to question Woolsteen and her story kept changing. Woolsteen likely gave at least six different accounts of Harlan’s death. By the time she went to court, the official story of the murder was that Harlan had attempted to rape Woolsteen. In turn, she tried to shoot herself, discharging the pistol three times and killing Harlan instead. Woolsteen’s lawyers successfully erased the validity of her previous confessions claiming that they had been coerced by the police. The newspapers at the time made Harlan and Police Chief Darcy out to be the villains.

In fact, the truth did not really matter. Society could not shed its beliefs surrounding gender and the idea that women were gentle, calm and morally superior to men, making it impossible to accept that a women could be capable of murder. The jury acquitted Woolsteen within ten minutes of deliberation. The newspapers set up Chief Darcy as a villain for refusing to let the matter go. As a result, his reputation was destroyed, preventing him from gainful employment ever again. They even attacked Harlan’s wife, blaming her for being unable to curb her husband’s baser instincts.

Anzilotti’s story of these events was both thought-provoking and saddening. After the event, I had the opportunity to speak with attendees. Everyone that I talked to had gleaned at least one valuable piece of information from the presentation: from learning about the absurd justice system of 1888 to how Victorian society dealt with events that contradicted their worldview.

Thank you, Fabio, for sharing your experience and reflections with us! If you are a student interested in being an event correspondent at a library event, contact John Jackson, Head of Outreach and Communications for the William H. Hannon Library.