The sewing girl's tale : a story of crime and consequences in revolutionary America

by Sweet, John Wood, 1966-

Format: Print Book 2022
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New York Times Editors' Choice

Renowned historian John Wood Sweet's The Sewing Girl's Tale presents a riveting Revolutionary Era drama of the first published rape trial in American history and its long, shattering aftermath, revealing how much has changed over two centuries--and how much has not.

On a moonless night in the summer of 1793 a crime was committed in the back room of a New York brothel--the kind of crime that even victims usually kept secret. Instead, seventeen-year-old seamstress Lanah Sawyer did what virtually no one in US history had done before: she charged a gentleman with rape.

Her accusation sparked a raw courtroom drama and a relentless struggle for vindication that threatened both Lanah's and her assailant's lives. The trial exposed a predatory sexual underworld, sparked riots in the streets, and ignited a vigorous debate about class privilege and sexual double standards. The ongoing conflict attracted the nation's top lawyers, including Alexander Hamilton, and shaped the development of American law. The crime and its consequences became a kind of parable about the power of seduction and the limits of justice. Eventually, Lanah Sawyer did succeed in holding her assailant accountable--but at a terrible cost to herself.

Based on rigorous historical detective work, this book takes us from a chance encounter in the street into the sanctuaries of the city's elite, the shadows of its brothels, and the despair of its debtors' prison. The Sewing Girl's Tale shows that if our laws and our culture were changed by a persistent young woman and the power of words two hundred years ago, they can be changed again.

Includes photographs

Published Reviews
Booklist Review: "Sweet (Bodies Politic, 2003) unravels the politics, social history, and trial surrounding the rape of Lanah Sawyer. The 17-year-old seamstress met Harry Bedlow, a man nearly 10 years her senior widely known around New York City as a rake, in the summer of 1793. After being sexually assaulted in a back room of a brothel, Lanah did something that very few women in Revolutionary-era America did: she brought Bedlow to trial. The ensuing trial and not-guilty verdict rocked the city, leading to everything from Lanah's stepfather filing additional lawsuits to riots in the city, where protesters tore down the site of the assault. The history of Manhattan, Revolutionary-era politics, class differences, and the social history of sex, marriage, and assault in the times bolster the tale, creating an incredibly immersive, highly readable exploration of an important moment in American history, perfect for readers of true crime, history, women's history, and narrative nonfiction alike."
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Publisher's Weekly Review: "The story behind the 1793 rape trial of Harry Bedlow, the scion of two "prosperous, old Dutch families" in New York City, is untangled in this immersive chronicle. Sweet (Bodies Politic), history professor at the University of North Carolina, details how 26-year-old Bedlow, who had a reputation as a "very great rake," lied about his identity to 17-year-old seamstress Lanah Sawyer before abducting and assaulting her in a "bawdy house." Lanah struggled to convince her family about the truth of her ordeal, yet Bedlow was eventually charged with rape and brought to trial, where prosecutors cast him "as a symbol of the debauchery and luxury of an aristocratic order overthrown by the revolution, and Lanah Sawyer and her peers--hardworking, modest, and unpretentious--as the true representatives of republican virtue." The jury acquitted Bedlow of the crime, and even though Lanah's stepfather eventually won a "seduction lawsuit" against him, collecting the settlement proved difficult. Embellishing the thin historical record with lengthy discussions about Revolutionary era politics, contemporaneous romance novels, the development of Manhattan, Alexander Hamilton's alleged affair with Maria Reynolds, and other matters, Sweet paints an evocative portrait of 18th-century New York. The result is a vivid addition to the history of sexual politics in America. (July)"
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Additional Information
Subjects Bedlow, Henry -- Trials, litigation, etc.
Sawyer, Lanah, -- approximately 1776-
Trials (Rape) -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 18th century.
Rape -- Social aspects -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 18th century.
Publisher New York :Henry Holt and Company,2022
Edition First edition.
Language English
Description 365 pages : illustrations (some color), map ; 25 cm
Bibliography Notes Includes bibliographical references (pages 287-347) and index.
ISBN 9781250761965
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