Regional History Museum Librarian, Olivia Terry, recommends The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Punishment in Revolutionary America by John Wood Sweet.
Lanah Sawyer is a name not known by many today. But on a summer evening in 1793, the seventeen-year-old seamstress is raped in a New York Brothel by a man above her in class. She does something nearly unthinkable for the period; she charges him with the crime.
The trial that ensued sent shock waves across Revolutionary America, sparking debates about class, power, and sexual double standards. But even when Lanah herself was alive and at the center of the monumental trial, her name and her story became an afterthought in the countless publications and arguments that sensationalized the trial. Soon, the story of her rape appeared to be no longer hers at all.
During the actual trial, the finger of blame was first unsurprisingly pointed at Lanah: Did she invite the attack? Did she fight back? Did she report it in a timely manner? Then, shortly after the verdict was announced, the finger moved to the woman who owned the brothel the crime occurred in, Mother Carey: Did Mother Carey lie in her witness account for the defense? What business did a woman have running a house that thrived on the destruction of feminine virtue? Blame spiraled into anger leading to mass riots that destroyed Mother Carey’s house and personal property, as well as other women’s homes who ran similar businesses.
Curiously though, the blame is never directed at the accused rapist Harry Bedlow, a man born into privilege, or the men who kept Mother Carey’s brothel open and thriving. In fact, Harry Bedlow goes on a campaign to retaliate against Lanah and her family, declaring himself a victim of character assassination. Eventually, Bedlow does face the consequences for his crime but not in the way expected.
John Wood Sweet makes this nonfiction just as captivating as a fictional drama by paying tremendous attention to historical details of the trial and the real people involved. He provides the political and social context of the time that reveal the complexities the case was entangled in.
Upon reading The Sewing Girl’s Tale, I was first struck by the egregiously apparent injustices of 18th century law. After finishing it, I thought about the parallels to today’s justice system and the social discourse surrounding rape cases.
Find The Sewing Girl in MAIN Nonfiction here.