The domestic violence victim who inspired The Burning Bed
Francine Hughes Wilson 1947–2017
On the night of March 9, 1977, Francine Hughes reached her breaking point. Earlier that day, her ex-husband James had beaten her, threatened her with a knife in front of their children, and ordered her to have sex with him—abusive behavior that had become routine over the past 13 years. But this time, she struck back. After James went to sleep, she poured gasoline on his bed and set it alight. “Only then,” she said, “did it hit me. ‘My God, what are you doing!’” She grabbed her children, drove to a county jail, and turned herself in. Hughes was charged with first-degree murder, but a jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. The high-profile case would inspire a best-selling book, The Burning Bed, and a 1984 TV movie of the same name starring Farrah Fawcett, bringing national attention to the issue of domestic violence.
Born in Stockbridge, Mich., Hughes left high school at 16 to marry James, said The Washington Post. “The abuse began on their honeymoon, she recounted, when her husband accused her of dressing too revealingly and tore off her clothing.” The couple divorced in 1971, but James continued to live with her and their four children, and doled out regular beatings.
Her murder trial and acquittal became national news and “helped transform the public’s understanding of domestic violence,” said The New York Times. “Burning-bed syndrome” entered the national lexicon, and the number of shelters for battered women in the U.S. grew from a handful in 1977 to nearly 700 in 1984. But Hughes, who married again in 1980 and later became a nurse, shied from publicity and refused to see herself as a feminist heroine. “I don’t need pity or sympathy,” she said. “I’m just an ordinary person.”