- Dangerous to Know: Women, Crime, and Notoriety in the Early Republic, and: The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York
Americans' insatiable appetite for sex and violence is nothing new. Long before 24-hour cable networks and the Internet, printers and publishers served up the crude, lewd, and criminal. Indian-captivity narratives, true-crime accounts, confessions of the condemned, sex manuals, and bawdy verse have enjoyed a steady audience since at least the Colonial era. Meant for personal and public consumption, they were tacked to tavern walls, sold in plain wrappers from under the bookseller's counter, folded in coat pockets, traded among friends. Two new books contribute to our understanding of the more sordid side of print culture in the first half of the nineteenth century.
In Dangerous to Know: Women, Crime, and Notoriety in the Early Republic, Susan Branson brings us an account of sex and violence in an era marked by political unrest, social instability, and economic uncertainty. It is a story centered on Ann Carson and Mary Clarke, two women who, like many others, struggled to be good wives, support their families, and simply survive in a society especially inhospitable to women. The book reconstructs the biographies of Carson and Clarke [End Page 511] (no easy task, given the relative anonymity of even well-known women) and recounts the series of events that ultimately led to their notoriety. The narrative is multilayered, detailing the perilous economic existence of many women at the time, how the lives of Carson and Clarke became inextricably intertwined, and the role print culture played in sensationalizing their stories.
In some ways Clarke's and Carson's lives were extraordinary, captivating the public for nearly two decades, and their stories remain just as interesting nearly two centuries later. Yet in many other ways these women's lives were all too ordinary, reflective of the social and legal strictures that hampered women at the time regardless of pedigree or personal achievement. Ann Carson spent her early years living in comfortable gentility, the daughter of a respected sea captain. By the time she was 15 years old, her parents' accrued debts were such that they were no longer able to care for her or her older sister. Relinquishing their role as protective parents, they married off their daughters to ease their financial burdens.
Ann Carson's husband John (a seaman like her father) drank away his commissions and had nothing to show for his service upon returning after long absences. The enterprising Carson was able to support herself, her three children, and her parents by opening a shop selling chinaware and supplementing her income by sewing military uniforms during the War of 1812. For a while, she was able to make a go of it, not only maintaining her family but repaying all of her husband's debts. By the early spring of 1815 it had been almost three years since Carson had seen or heard from her husband. Rumors were that his ship had been lost at sea. Believing he was dead, she moved on with her life, choosing for a mate Richard Smith among her many suitors. The couple made a life together in Philadelphia, that is, until Carson's first husband returned and insisted on reclaiming what was his—his wife, his house, his family, and the china shop. Carson struggled to keep the peace and keep the men apart, but an argument one night ended when Smith fatally shot John Carson in the face. Smith was charged with murder, and Ann Carson as an accessory. Thus began her descent into the criminal underworld and a career in the public spotlight.
Like Ann Carson's, Mary Clarke's life once held personal and professional promise. She...