- Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness
Elizabeth Smith-Pryor’s new book takes on a difficult task: it analyzes the spectacle surrounding the attempts of Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander, the scion of a wealthy New York family, to annul his October 1924 marriage to Alice Jones, a domestic with mixed Anglo and Caribbean ancestry, and it argues that these events have much to tell us about American conceptions of race in the 1920s. The complexity of her project comes first from the web of race-, class-, and gender-based innuendo that shaped both the resulting trial and the massive press coverage surrounding it. But equally difficult is the fact that, in both subject and general argument, Smith-Pryor revisits ground studied in Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone’s popular 2001 Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White, which received strong reviews in periodicals ranging from Law and History Review to Essence. Property Rites has notable value, but in the end unevenly confronts both challenges.
Smith-Pryor’s narrative of the trial and precipitating events is compelling: she usefully contrasts the pre-trial lives of Jones and Rhinelander, follows them through a three-year courtship, and recognizes the larger forces that pushed Rhinelander’s family to fight for an annulment soon after the couple wed and Jones’s race became public fodder. She delineates the complex past of the Jones family—Alice’s mother was white, her father was a darker-skinned West Indian with African ancestry, both were English immigrants, one sister married an African American man, and one sister married a white Italian American—with care and skill. She similarly details Rhinelander’s “nervous disorders,” the early loss of his mother, and his privileged upbringing. Smith-Pryor’s account of the trial centers on the argument that, per her title, constructions of race were tightly bound to and by conceptions of class, and especially property; she astutely recognizes that “the protection of whiteness” and white property created, for example, compelling reasons for seeking an annulment— which would mark the marriage as, in essence, never having happened—instead of a divorce. She thus analyzes both Rhinelander’s attorney’s claims that Jones hid her race and Jones’s attorney’s admission of Jones’s mixed ancestry, assertions that Jones never lied, and arguments that Rhinelander should have known about Jones’s race, given his interactions with her family and the couple’s premarital sexual relationship. Smith-Pryor deftly weaves together diverse sources and contexts—ranging from material on the Great Migration to analysis of the lurid stories and modified photographs of the trial that newspapers created to titillate readers. Her account of the complex courtroom positioning of the parties, their attorneys, and the judge, vis-à-vis a series of conflicted higher court rulings on just what constituted whiteness—which culminated in Jones’s attorney “exhibiting” her body to the jury—is especially thoughtful.
There are, however, some weaknesses in these efforts. As skilled as Smith-Pryor is at looking at the moment, she seems more hesitant to look at the hours that preceded that moment. She repeatedly expresses surprise that race, or the “hiding” thereof, [End Page 300] was assumed to be a material issue, and this somewhat naïve conclusion is complicated by the book’s relatively thin sense of the ways race and materiality functioned in the nineteenth-century American legal system—ground explored by scholars like Paul Finkelman, Ariela Gross, and Jeannine Marie DeLombard. Smith-Pryor, like Lewis and Ardizzone before her, is also too quick in considering the hour after the moment. While Rhinelander died only a decade after losing the trial and Jones’s long later life seems to have been almost hermetic, the seemingly endless legal maneuvers after the trial—such as Rhinelander’s attempts to obtain an “easy” Nevada divorce; the events leading to a settlement allowing that divorce to be finalized; Jones’s suits and threats of suits against Rhinelander...