Review of “The Sewing Girl’s Tale” by John Wood Sweet – Non-Fiction Account of 1st Published Rape Trial in America

This non-fiction account of the first published rape trial in American history begins in the early hours of September 5, 1793, when a 17-year-old New York girl named Lanah Sawyer was taken to a brothel and raped by 26-year-old Harry Bedlow, a man known to many as a “rake.” A “rake” at the time, the author explains, “was a very specific kind of man: an elite sexual predator.” Lanah had heard of this Bedlow, but when she encountered him on the street, he identified himself as “lawyer Smith.” And in fact, while taking Lanah on a walk, he behaved like “a gallant gentleman” – that is, until Lanah wanted to go home. Instead, he forced her to a bawdy house, where he raped Lanah, setting her on course for “a world of scandal and shame from which she might never emerge.”

At around 8 o’clock a.m. that same morning, Bedlow left the brothel, and told Lanah to do the same. Lanah covered up her blood-stained underwear, sewed her outer clothes back together (this took her two hours), and set out for home. But she was angry, and determined not to let her story end the way it did for other girls thus defiled.

John Sweet, an historian of Early America and the former director of University of North Carolina’s interdisciplinary Program in Sexuality Studies, specializes in the social and cultural histories of race, gender, and sexuality during the periods before and after the American Revolution. He has done meticulous research for this account, which is backed up by an extensive appendix and footnotes.

Lanah Sawyer reported the crime, and Henry Bedlow was put on trial a month later for the capital charge of rape. An English lawyer with an interest in rape prosecutions attended the trial and took notes, producing the first published report of such a trial in the United States.

At that time, women could not serve on juries, and thus Bedlow’s was made up only of men. The trial lasted only one day, but almost fifteen hours. Six prominent men serving as Bedlow’s defense lawyers concentrated on smearing Lanah Sawyer, suggesting she should not have let herself be picked up by Bedlow, she had not resisted enough, and even that she had not sustained sufficiently conspicuous physical injuries. (As Sweet points out, one of Bedlow’s attorneys essentially was making the point that an insufficient “no” means “yes.”) Moreover, Bedlow’s attorneys argued, playing on common stereotypes to the members of the jury, who were all men of property and standing, women from Sawyer’s “same condition of life” (i.e., poor people”) were known to “morally loose and sexually profligate.” Bedlow was an innocent man, they charged, seduced by a loose woman, thus having his “public character” impugned.

1793 or 1999, doesn’t seem to matter

Bedlow was found not guilty after a jury deliberation of only 15 minutes.

Anger over the proceedings of the trial, especially by the lower classes, erupted into riots. But the crowd’s anger was directed at brothels and especially the female bawdy-house keepers. The rioters were eventually forced to disperse by “a group of citizens dedicated to ‘good government’ as well as a troop of elite “’Light Dragoons.’” But as Sweet observes, “the protesters echoed the example of Bedlow’s defense lawyers, blaming the bad behavior on the wrongdoing of women.”

Lanah Sawyer did not give up after Bedlow’s acquittal. She and her stepfather John Callahan turned to civil court, suing Bedlow for costing him the loss of Lanah’s labor. In this, they were successful, and a jury awarded Callahan punitive damages — 1,800 pounds, or $4,500 — enough money for Callahan “to buy the house he rented on Gold Street and half a dozen like it” and to land Bedlow in debtors’ prison.

In an Epilogue, Sweet reports that “The notion that women reporting sexual assaults were the real aggressors – and that the men accused were the real victims – contributed to a narrowing of rape law.” A trend also was started “toward sensationalizing crimes involving the rape, murder, or seduction of young women.”

Not much has changed.

Studies have shown that misogyny remains pervasive, and that even many women have internalized the biases against women so prevalent in the world. In fact, it is getting worse.

Data via National Sexual Violence Resource Center reporting from the US DOJ

RAINN/ Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network publishes statistics on rape and other forms of sexual assault in the U.S., although they contend the numbers are thought to be low because not all sexual assaults are ever reported, either because of threats, or because of fear of having to endure the violation(s) again in court, or the assumption that, like Lanah, they won’t be believed. Nevertheless, RAINN notes, based on what is reported, that 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Like Lanah Sawyer, females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. 60% of rapes/sexual assaults are not reported to police, according to a statistical average of the past 5 years.  Those rapists, of course, never spend a day in prison.  Factoring in unreported rapes, only about 6% of rapists ever serve a day in jail.

Evaluation: This well-told story, which includes maps and photos, is absorbing and reads like a novel in spite of the documentary qualities of the book. The gender conflicts that punctuated this case still operate in society today, and this book helps understand how assumptions about the roles of men and women became solidified in early America. It is an excellent book, one that is essential for those interested in the evolution (or lack thereof) of gender roles and the consequences of them.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2022

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1 Response to Review of “The Sewing Girl’s Tale” by John Wood Sweet – Non-Fiction Account of 1st Published Rape Trial in America

  1. What a horrible story. You’re so right that not much has changed, which is exhausting to think about, all the years between then and now. I suppose I’m glad she won in civil court, and I hope she felt some vindication from that. This poor baby.

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