restricted access 5 Bawdy Houses and Women of Ill Fame
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5 Bawdy Houses and Women of Ill Fame Free Black Women, Prostitution, and Family On July 9, 1821, the free woman of color Fanny Barnett came to the Albemarle County courthouse in Charlottesville to file a fifty-dollar recognizance guaranteeing her appearance at the next month’s county court to answer charges of a “breach of the peace and for a riotous and unlawful assembly .” The white resident Benjamin Austin acted as surety for Barnett, filing his own fifty-dollar bond for her appearance. Also charged for the same offense that day were the white men Edmund Wade, Joshua Grady, and Bennett Wheeler. Two whites—Andrew McKee and Solomon Ballard— posted security for those men. Finally, two white women, Nancy Riley and Betsey Wingfield, found themselves similarly charged with a breach of the peace. The indictment described all of them, white and black, as “not of good fame, nor of honest conversation, but evil doers, rioters, disturbers of the peace.” Although the details of the disturbance no longer remain in the records, the above indictment contains within it the outlines of a picture of one side of life in the little nineteenth-century town of Charlottesville. The people named in the court papers regarding the indictment were all neighbors, living and working close to one another. Andrew McKee, a white man, worked as a hatter. The blacksmith Joshua Grady, also white, cohabited with the free black woman Betsy Ann Farley. Nancy Riley and Betsey Wingfield were unmarried white women. Fanny Barnett, age thirty-five, was a free woman of color who owned little or no property. This episode in the summer of 1821 reveals far more, however, than simply disorderly interaction between free blacks and whites of the lower and middling sorts. Each of those charged managed to find a white man to come 140 Freedom Has a Face to the courthouse and pledge security for him or her. The whites Benjamin Austin, Solomon Ballard, Bennett Wheeler, and Andrew McKee clearly did not see Barnett, Riley, Wingfield, Grady, Wade, and Wheeler as “evil doers not of good fame” who were not to be trusted. Those recognizances, with the financial obligation inhering in them, demonstrate a certain level of trust among all of these people, including both a free black woman and a poor white man living with another free black woman as if husband and wife. Further, the incident represents the first documented contact among Fanny Barnett, Nancy Riley, and Betsey Wingfield. Justices of the Peace Opie Norris and John R. Jones, in filing the complaint, described the participants in the affray as “not of good fame, nor of honest conversation.” Surely involvement in disorderly conduct on a village street typically would not be enough to warrant such official opprobrium. Two legislative petitions from 1815 and 1818 suggest that at least for several years prior to 1821, town trustees had attempted unsuccessfully to control illicit activities (prostitution, gambling, and the like) on the outskirts of town. The first petition , rejected by the General Assembly in 1815, sought to extend town boundaries by a mile in order to bring “some houses of ill fame” within town jurisdiction “for the purpose of suppressing riots.” Three years later, town trustees once again petitioned the legislature, complaining of the “pernicious and evil consequences” of “large collections of negroes [gathering just outside of town] on the Sabbath . . . at houses and tippling shops.” The legislature once again rejected the petition. Fanny Barnett, Nancy Riley, and Betsey Wingfield—the three women involved in that 1821 affray—were no strangers to the neighborhood the Charlottesville trustees had sought to control. That criminal presentment in 1821 was only their first brush with the law. There would be others—and those paint a clearer picture of why the court condemned them in 1821. Just two years later, in October 1823, Betsey Wingfield and Nancy Riley would be tried by a called court. This time, they were “charged with keeping a house of ill fame, keeping a home for the entertainment of lewd and idle and dissolute persons of both colors.” The presentment against them stated rather plainly exactly what was going on at that house of entertainment. It termed the residence a “bawdy house” where Wingfield and Riley “unlawfully and wickedly did keep and maintain and with said house for filthy lucre and gain, divers and dissolute persons as with man as woman, both black & white, and whores.” Nancy Riley and Betsey Wingfield, poor and unmar- Bawdy Houses and Women of...


Subject Headings

  • Free African Americans -- Virginia -- Albemarle County -- History -- 19th century.
  • Free African Americans -- Virginia -- Albemarle County -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Albemarle County (Va.) -- Race relations.
  • Albemarle County (Va.) -- History -- 19th century.
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