Alexander Smyth. A Rape in the Early Republic: Gender and Legal Culture in an 1806 Virginia Trial. Edited by Randall L. Hall. New Directions In Southern History Series. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2017. 136 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8131-6952-1.
Reviewed by Lisa A. Francavilla (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series and Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters)
Published on H-Early-America (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Kelly K. Sharp (Furman University)
In mid-January 1806, Sidney Major Hanson left her home in the mountainous region of Tazewell County, Virginia, to consult the local justice of the peace, Hezekiah Whitt, at his home roughly one mile away. Carrying her absent husband’s copy of The New Virginia Justice and accompanied by their trusted neighbor, John Deskins, Hanson intended to use the law to hold another man responsible for slandering her. Along the way, lewd talk and an attempted kiss from Deskins prompted Hanson to jump from the horse they both rode. When she tried to run, Deskins caught her, threw her to the ground, threatened to kill her, and, holding her wrists in one hand and silencing her screams with the other, raped her. But if Deskins thought that his threats against the “diminutive” Hanson would secure her silence, he soon learned how wrong he was (p. 87). Within minutes of arriving at the Whitt home, Hanson first informed Mrs. Whitt and then her husband, the justice, that Deskins had “sorely abused her” and she was prepared to “swear the rape” against him (p. 38).
Details of the subsequent trial of Deskins, first published by prosecuting attorney Alexander Smyth in 1811, are presented now as A Rape in the Early Republic: Gender and Legal Culture in an 1806 Virginia Trial, skillfully edited by Randal L. Hall. Such a thorough record of a rape trial for this early period is a rarity, as Hall points out, and historians are generally forced to rely on the watered-down clerical notations in court order books. But, as Hall explains, Smyth was an ambitious man who relished opportunities for self-promotion, and when prominent men requested that he “favor the public with a report of his [Deskins’s] case,” Smyth was only too willing to gratify them (p. 29). Smyth’s subsequent account of the trial was drawn from his transcript of the testimony of witnesses gathered by Hanson and Deskins, arguments made by the panel of six attorneys set to defend Deskins, and Smyth’s own closing arguments.
Hall rightly recognized that Smyth’s unique account offers readers several topics for exploration and discussion. Some of these will be all too familiar, particularly that once Deskins confessed to having had intercourse with Hanson, the focus of the trial turned almost entirely to examining Hanson’s character. Witnesses were called to prove or disprove her morality, veracity, piety, and chastity as well as to support or refute suggestions that her behavior and choices led Deskins to rape her, or that she was lying about having given her consent. In arguments challenging the reliability of these witnesses, lawyers on both sides argued that old grudges based in economic class conflict might have motivated some to step forward. A Rape in the Early Republic also invites discussion of race and law, for example, when Smyth argued that the testimony of some of the witnesses for the defense should be discredited because “the general reputation of the country” was that they were “mulattoes.” Smyth subsequently recorded in his notes that “that was refused to be admitted by the court” (p. 48). Other details in Smyth’s account of the trial provide similarly intriguing topics, like social mobility, ambition, and aspiration; the place of cultural traditions in the evolution of formal legal processes; arguments about whether women were to receive equal protection under the law; the role of elite white men in the shaping of community morality; the articulation of gendered behavior; alcohol and the recreational activities of men and women; print and the dissemination of information; and hints of the interactions between free whites and enslaved blacks. Lastly, this edited work also contributes to larger debates about the evaluation of primary source material.
Hall offers Smyth’s materials thoughtfully, avoiding imposing much of his own interpretation of them but rather wrapping them in just enough information to make the primary source itself useful and accessible to readers. His brief introduction provides historical context and his discreet use of intertextual annotations, though somewhat intrusive, are concise and effective. Taken together with his open-ended discussion questions and additional selected readings sections, Hall’s slim volume makes a valuable resource for use in the upper-undergraduate classroom and graduate seminar and anyone with an interest in the study of early nineteenth-century gender, society, and the law.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-early-america.
Lisa A. Francavilla. Review of Smyth, Alexander, A Rape in the Early Republic: Gender and Legal Culture in an 1806 Virginia Trial.
H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews.
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