“The Burning Bed” Recalls the Case That Changed How Law Enforcement Treats Domestic Violence
By Anna Boots
For thirteen years, Francine Hughes’s husband, James (Mickey) Hughes, beat her routinely. Something as small as the inflection of a word would set him off: he’d pin her down in a chair and pummel her. They divorced in 1971, but, later that same year, he moved back in. “She did try to get away,” her son, James Hughes, remembers in “The Burning Bed,” a new short documentary from Retro Report. “But he would also tell her, ‘There is nowhere you can go, bitch, that I won’t find you.’ ”
One night, in 1977, Mickey subjected Hughes to a particularly humiliating beating. “Smashing food in the kitchen, dumping out the garbage, rubbing it into my hair, hitting me,” Hughes recalled in a television interview, years later. “I thought, I’m never coming back, never, and then I thought, Because there won’t be anything to come back to. That’s when I decided I would burn everything.” When Mickey fell asleep, drunk, that night, Hughes doused his bed in gasoline, lit it on fire, packed her four children into her car, and drove away as flames engulfed the house. Hughes was then charged with the murder of her ex-husband.
Hughes’s story has been told before—the new “Burning Bed” documentary borrows its title from the journalist Faith McNulty’s 1980 book about the Hugheses and from the 1984 TV-movie adaptation, starring Farrah Fawcett. The documentary emphasizes how groundbreaking Hughes’s case was. Lee Atkinson, who was an assistant prosecutor in her case, says that, at the time, police officers would not arrest someone for a misdemeanor unless they saw the crime committed. For Hughes, this policy meant that the police came to her house repeatedly and did not arrest Mickey. “Does she have bruises? Yes. Does she look like she’s been abused? Yes. The police will take a report, but they wouldn’t make an arrest,” he says. At a time when the criminal-justice system failed to deal with domestic violence because—as an “Evening News” broadcast put it—“traditionally, wife-beating has been considered a family affair,” Hughes’s case initiated a sea change, forcing a long-suppressed conversation about domestic violence in America.