Francine Hughes Wilson, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity after setting her abusive ex-husband on fire as he slept in 1977, a homicide dramatized in the TV movie “The Burning Bed” that directed national attention toward domestic violence, died March 22 in Sheffield, Ala. She was 69.
Her family confirmed her death and said the cause was complications from pneumonia.
Four decades ago, Francine Hughes of Dansville, Mich., was a cause celebre, the subject of national news stories detailing the agony she endured during her 13-year relationship with James “Mickey” Hughes and the desperate lengths to which she went to end it.
The case became a textbook example of a condition experts dubbed “battered-woman syndrome.” Feminists parsed Mrs. Wilson’s successful “temporary insanity” defense, debating whether the verdict represented a victory or a defeat for their cause. Some men expressed concern that her acquittal might invite violence among aggrieved women.
Thousands saw the 1984 NBC-TV movie, based on a 1980 book by Faith McNulty, that starred Farrah Fawcett as Mrs. Wilson in one of the actress’s most acclaimed dramatic roles. The film, along with coverage of Mrs. Wilson’s case, was credited with dramatically altering public perceptions of domestic violence — redefining it as a crime rather than a private affair and spurring the establishment of shelters across the United States.
Mrs. Wilson had left high school to marry Hughes when she was 16. The abuse began on their honeymoon, she recounted, when her husband accused her of dressing too revealingly and tore off her clothing. They divorced in 1971, but Hughes continued to live with her and their four children after their legal separation.
A car accident left Hughes in need of care, which Mrs. Wilson provided despite his heavy drinking and regular beatings. According to McNulty’s book, Hughes strangled their daughter’s kitten in front of her, choked his wife, destroyed furniture and tore telephones from walls.
She chose not to press charges against him, fearing that she might further incite his anger. Professionals provided little concrete help, offering her assertiveness training and tranquilizers.
“For a long time I took it because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Mrs. Wilson told The Washington Post in 1980. “I thought, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Then you lose your self-esteem. I was a beaten-down, scared animal. There was no help.”
By March 9, 1977, she had reached a breaking point. That day, police responded to her report of a domestic dispute and would later testify that Hughes had warned his wife that “it was all over” for her because she had called the authorities for help.
Intoxicated, he became enraged when she began to prepare TV dinners, Mrs. Wilson said. He threw food and plates to the floor and soiled her hair with the mess when she began to clean it up. At one point, he demanded that she burn the textbooks for a secretarial program she had begun. At another, he ordered her to have sex with him.
“If you think things were bad before,” she recalled her husband saying, “they’re gonna be worse now. I’m gonna make your life so miserable . . . ”
Several hours later, Hughes fell asleep.
“I was as calm as though I were doing an ordinary thing,” Mrs. Wilson told The Post. “This was the easiest thing I had ever done. I picked up the gas can and unscrewed the lid and went into the bedroom. I stood still for a moment, hesitating, and a voice urged me on. It whispered, ‘Do it! Do it! Do it!’ I sloshed the gasoline on the floor. If I saw Mickey lying there, I don’t remember it. I don’t believe I looked at him at all.”
“Only then,” she continued, “did it hit me. ‘My God, what are you doing!’ The fumes of gas caught with a roar and a rush of air slammed the door with tremendous force, almost catching my hand. I ran for my life.”
Mrs. Wilson left the house with her children and immediately reported to a police station, where she turned herself in.
At trial, her attorney, Arjen Greydanus, sought to win an acquittal “on a self-defense theory, but seen through the eyes of a woman, not a man,” he told the Lansing State Journal years later. He said he argued the insanity defense — the theory that years of abuse, culminating with the episode the day of the homicide, had brought about a temporary psychological break — in case jurors could not agree that she acted in self-defense against a sleeping man.
The acquittal by a jury of 10 women and two men came on Nov. 3, 1977. At the end of the trial, Mrs. Wilson was asked if she regarded herself as a liberated woman.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been liberated,” she said, according to the Journal, “but I’d like to.”
Francine Moran — she was named for a French singer her mother had heard on the radio — was born in Stockbridge, Mich., on Aug. 17, 1947. She recalled her father, a farmworker, as an abusive alcoholic. Her mother, she said, taught her that “you did what was best for your husband.”
Francine was attracted to Hughes because of what she described as his sophistication. “He had his own car,” she told People magazine in 1984, “and most people I knew didn’t.” Speaking to the Lansing newspaper, an acquaintance described their marriage as mutually violent.
After Hughes’s death and her acquittal, she admitted to drinking and using drugs. In 1980, she married Robert Wilson, a country musician who had served a prison sentence for armed robbery, People reported. Mrs. Wilson worked as a licensed practical nurse, and they made a home in Tennessee before Wilson’s death in 2015. At the time of her death, Mrs. Wilson lived in Leighton, Ala.
Survivors include four children from her first marriage, Christy Hughes, Jim Hughes, Dana Hughes and Nicole Hughes; a granddaughter she adopted, Molly Wilson; two brothers; two sisters; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Wilson said she never regarded herself as a hero to women, as some feminists presented her. “I thought that was kind of funny,” she told The Post in 1980. “I don’t know what they expect of me. I was just a housewife then. And I’m just a housewife now.”
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