National Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Area family’s 1977 tragedy changed laws on domestic violence
by Tina Cole-Mullins
First of two parts
On March 9, 1977, I heard a knock on our door and voices. My childlike curiosity led me to leave the warm security of my bed.
Walking quietly down the hallway to the living room, my sleep-filled eyes struggled to focus and I saw it was the teenage boy from next door.
With some hesitation, he begins to speak to my parents.
“There’s a fire at your brother Mickey’s house. They think he’s dead.”
My mother lets out a heartfelt cry of anguish, and my father pulls her into his arms just before she collapses to the floor. The teen goes on to say, “It seems Francine did it. She turned herself in at the Mason jail.”
This was how we learned of the death of my mother’s brother, James “Mickey” Hughes. His wife, Francine Hughes, was hysterical when she arrived at the front gate of the Ingham County Jail stating, “I did it, I did it. I set the house on fire with my husband sleeping in bed.”
She took the action after years of abuse by Mickey Hughes and was acquitted at her October 1977 trial. Her story would be told first as a book and later in 1984 as “The Burning Bed,” a TV movie starring Farrah Fawcett.
One woman’s choice touched off change, gathering and uniting the unheard voices of abused women across the nation. Domestic violence laws began to change, almost overnight. These laws included events and changes that led to this writer’s placement within the foster care system for a short time after the trial ended. While nothing I experienced or recall compares to that of my cousins, the pain the family endured from this historic tragedy and the effects left in its wake, often go overlooked.
This tragic local event on March 9, 1977, not only marked a change in domestic violence laws, but left a lasting legacy within my family and personal life as well.
‘The Burning Bed’
On Oct. 8, 1984, people spent their prime time viewing Farrah Fawcett in her most dramatic role in “The Burning Bed.” My mother, father and I tuned in to an emotional remembrance of that tragic night.
“The Burning Bed” portrays many aspects of my family life. Family members felt within it there were truths, half-truths and some blatant lies because of Hollywood and media sensationalism.
One thing was undisputed — the suffering of the woman and children within the family. This suffering was unrestricted to the children involved. Alcoholism, abuse, neglect and poverty affected the family as well.
“Where do you go with six kids? There wasn’t any place to go back then!” Esta Cole, this writer’s mother and the sister of Mickey Hughes speaks out on the record. She’s not speaking on the abuse and situation of her brother, but the abuse at the hand of her husband, my father.
Interest remains decades later
James “Jimmy” Hughes shares his chilling account with Scott Michaels of the “New Yorker: Retro Report The Domestic Violence Case That Turned Outrage into Reaction” a mini-documentary released August 2020 and viewable on YouTube.
“My dad was really punching her that night. Really bloodied her up bad that night,” Jimmy Hughes says. “And my mom decided she’d had enough. She put us in the car, went back in the house. Came back out in a rush, crying, all us kids are screaming, and I remember looking back, just like this (as he gestures in a recent mini-documentary), and seeing flames through the trees. And that’s how it began.”
Christy speaks out
The eldest of the Hughes children, Christy Hughes, agreed to speak on record for the first time in over four decades.
“I remember wanting to block everything: Reporters that came to call after that, my Grandma Hazel (Francine’s mother) complaining, people and children at school, with all those factors, I just started to block everything,” Christy Hughes said.
She now admits as an adult she has a hard time remembering some parts. So I keep my questions respectful and brief, reminding her to only answer what she felt comfortable in sharing.
Q. In the book and movie “The Burning Bed” your mother, Francine, is reported to say she wanted to leave your father Mickey after a car accident that almost killed him. In response, Francine said, “How could I leave, what would the kids think if I walked away and left him now?”
Q. As a grown woman now yourself with a child, would you have handled yourself differently?
A. “Raising a daughter in the ’70s with an abuser was not the same. No, it wouldn’t have been the same, you know. The person who is the receptor of abuse needs to be separated from the abuser, I believe. Not always so easy, and we have resources for that now.”
Q. Do you feel there could have been a different outcome?
A. “Should have and have ought to be. If there were some laws in place then, (as) there is now, no one would have died, namely my dad.”
Coming in November: Part II: How domestic violence laws have changed in the last four decades.
Reporter’s Note: Some events are firsthand accounts, family accounts and statements within the “New Yorker: Retro Report The Domestic Violence Case That Turned Outrage into Reaction,” viewable at: www.retroreport.org/video/the-case-that-changed-how-the-country-thought-about-domestic-violence/.
(Can out the info below in a separate box with the article.)
How to find help
An average of 1 in every 4 women and 1 in every 10 men experience some form of domestic violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s also known as intimate partner violence. In many cases, men are even less likely to report the assault.
- Call 911 if you are in immediate danger.
- Michigan Domestic Violence Resources can be found at:
National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). toll free, 24 hours
- Ingham County
Lansing – EVE/End Violent Encounters
Phone: 517-372-5976 Crisis: 517-372-5572
- Livingston County
Howell – LACASA
Phone: 517-548-1350 Crisis: 313-522-2725
- Jackson County
Jackson – AWARE Inc.
Phone: 517-783-1638 Crisis: 517-783-2861
- Washtenaw County
Ann Arbor DV Project / SafeHouse Center
Phone: 734-973-0242 Crisis: 734-995-5444
Each year about 10 million people become victims of domestic violence. And unfortunately, COVID has added further strain to those in abuse situations. For those on the road to recovery, one of the most difficult challenges in finding independence from an abusive situation is solving for housing safety and security when leaving an abuser.
With all of this in mind, our team felt it was important to create the guide Securing Housing After Domestic Violence:
Our guide includes:
- Actionable steps for creating a plan to leave
- Financial and housing resources for different stages
- And even legal resources to help you know your rights