On March 9, 1977, Francine Hughes decided that she had had enough. Thirteen years of verbal and physical abuse from her hard-drinking, fitfully employed husband, James Hughes, known as Mickey, had led to a horrendous fight at their home in Dansville, Mich.
That afternoon, Mr. Hughes began beating her. He refused to let her make dinner for their children. After ripping up the textbooks from her secretarial courses, he demanded that she burn them and drop out of school.
She called the police. Two officers came, observed the situation and left. They could do nothing, they said, since they had not witnessed any violence themselves.
She took the three of her four children who were home, drove to the Ingham County Jail in Mason, and reported what she had done. By the time firefighters reached the house, it was engulfed in flames and Mr. Hughes was dead of smoke inhalation. Ms. Hughes was charged with first-degree murder.
In November, a jury of 10 women and two men took five hours to pronounce Ms. Hughes not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.
The case, widely reported, helped transform the public’s understanding of domestic violence. It became a cause célèbre when “The Burning Bed,” a 1980 book by the New Yorker writer Faith McNulty, was made into a television movie with the same title in 1984, with Farrah Fawcett as Francine and Paul Le Mat as Mickey. It was seen on NBC by more than 75 million viewers.
“Burning-bed syndrome” entered the national lexicon. Social service agencies and police departments across the country began pursuing more aggressive policies to prevent spousal abuse. The number of shelters for battered women grew from a mere handful in 1977 to nearly 700 the year “The Burning Bed” was televised.
Ms. Hughes, who used the last name Wilson after marrying Robert Wilson in 1980, died on March 22 in Sheffield, Ala. She was 69.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, her son Jim said.
Francine Moran was born on Aug. 17, 1947, in Stockbridge, Mich., and grew up in nearby Jackson. Her father, Walter, described in some sources as a farmworker and in others as a factory worker, was a heavy drinker who abused his wife, the former Hazel Fleming, a waitress. The family struggled financially.Francine dropped out of Jackson High School in the 10th grade to marry Mr. Hughes, a dropout three years her senior. “I thought he was so sophisticated,” she told People magazine in 1984. “He had his own car, and most people I knew didn’t.” The newlyweds moved in with Mr. Hughes’s parents in Dansville.
The beatings started within weeks. Jealous and possessive, Mr. Hughes accused his wife of dressing indecently, made her take off her blouse and slacks and tore her clothes to pieces. The pattern was set.
In 1971, Ms. Hughes obtained a divorce to qualify for welfare benefits. Mr. Hughes remained very much in the picture, even after moving out, returning for sex and to dole out beatings. When he suffered a near-fatal car accident, Ms. Hughes agreed to take him in and nurse him back to health.
“For a long time I took it because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do,” she 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. I thought, ‘It doesn’t matter to anyone. It’s just something I have to accept.’”
After the trial, Ms. Hughes returned to Jackson and held various low-skill jobs before marrying Mr. Wilson, who was on parole after serving more than 10 years of a 30-year armed-robbery sentence in the state prison in Jackson. He died in 2015.
Besides her son, she is survived by another son, Dana; her daughters Christy Hughes and Nicole Kimbrough; her sisters Diane Griffin and Kathleen Fought; her brothers Bob and David; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
After moving with Mr. Wilson to Tennessee, she enrolled in a nursing school in Shelbyville, earning certification as a practical nurse. She worked in nursing homes and as a private caregiver, most recently near her home in Leighton, Ala. For a time she ran a nursing agency with her husband.
Although hailed as a feminist heroine, she shied from publicity. “People still look at me like they are trying to figure me out,” she told People. “I don’t feel like I have to explain myself to anybody, and I don’t need pity or sympathy. I’m just an ordinary person.”