Michigan woman’s story of abuse forever changed America’s view of domestic violence
“All she wanted to do was leave.”
That’s how Barbara Niess-May, executive director of SafeHouse Center in Ann Arbor, described the case of Francine Hughes of Dansville, Michigan.
On March 9, 1977, Hughes ended 13 years of abuse from her husband James. She waited until he was asleep, poured gasoline around his bed and set it on fire. He died as a result.
Hughes was later charged with first-degree murder, but was found not guilty because of temporary insanity.
Francine Hughes Wilson passed away last week at the age of 69. Niess-May joined Stateside to discuss the impact of the trial on domestic violence prevention efforts.
Back in the early days of the domestic violence prevention movement, it was hard for the loose network of organizations to work together, Niess-May said. That changed when Francine Hughes’ case was made into a TV movie starring Farrah Fawcett. The movie was called The Burning Bed. The movie, Niess-May said, helped spur a national movement “to truly bring to light what was happening in many homes across the United States.”
Eventually, the case and the movie “spurred more programs, more shelters, more volunteerism, and more attention” to the issue of domestic violence.
From Niess-May’s perspective, the changes that Francine Hughes’ story brought to the culture are largely positive. Today, domestic violence shelters and legal reforms have not only helped survivors, but also decreased the number of assailants who wind up dead. Women who, like Hughes, endure “years of abuse and years of promises,” now have more options.
Still, Niess-May encourages everyone to watch The Burning Bed. “I don’t think people understand from where it is that we came, but still how far we have to go, because there are still some things in that film that exist today,” she said.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude to Francine for her willingness to be brave and to really push this case through and stay strong,” added Niess-May. “That had to have been so hard.”
The Burning Bed, based on the case of the late Michigan resident Francine Hughes