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  • Interpretive Challenges Posed by the Gendered Performances of Early American Female Criminals
  • Amelia C. Lewis

The process of understanding, recovering, and researching early American female criminals is rife with complications.1 While writing my dissertation on female criminals and the nontraditional texts that we use to examine how these women communicated, expressed agency, and maintained a voice, I have often found myself coming up with more questions than answers. These questions present a theoretical problem of how to reconstruct a cultural narrative that includes female criminals when we do not have their own words with which to work.

Examining women’s texts often leads me to question how we read and analyze nonliterary texts such as trial transcripts, execution narratives, and other documents focused on these women. We face several interpretative challenges when trying to construct an accurate and complete narrative of any historical situation. This is compounded when the story of the woman’s life is told largely through fragments written by people other than the woman herself. The execution narrative “The Declaration and Confession of Esther Rodgers” serves as a telling case in point. In addition to the narrative of the twenty-one-year-old servant girl who was executed in 1701 for infanticide, the published text includes a sermon by John Rogers and two other execution narratives. The first-person narrative putatively came directly from Esther Rodgers, yet the narration frequently slips into third person, disrupting the first-person confession.

Many different voices constituted this execution narrative. Rev. Samuel Belcher wrote the introduction. Although no names are specifically attached to the later parts of the text, certain sections are attributed to ministers, including John Rogers, and to a woman who was supposedly a friend of Esther Rodgers during her imprisonment. All of these figures bring their own voices and agendas [End Page 38] to the table. For example, Belcher’s opening emphasizes how God’s forgiveness made Rodgers into a “Candidate of Heaven” (Rogers 95). This expresses the desire to convert those reading to God’s ways in order to make themselves, also, candidates for heaven and God’s grace. The rhetoric indicates an authorial voice that is distinct from that of twenty-one-year-old Esther Rodgers, who had very little education. The personal confession supposedly transcribed from her words closely mimics the rigid rhetoric of a Puritan minister, calling into question the degree to which Rodgers’s voice emerges in the midst of these other voices; the latter were privileged by their owners’ ability to write and more powerful social positions. However, it would be simplistic to conclude that Rodgers is just a figure being used by others and not an actual twenty-one-year old woman who is experiencing and engaging with the circumstances of her own life. Rodgers herself, unable to write her own separate narrative, had to depend on others to create the text we have today. This is the complicated situation that one must contend with in order to analyze a figure such as Rodgers accurately.

Performance theory provides a way to read Esther Rodgers’s narrative that illuminates the richness and complexity of the text, especially the narrative’s ending on the dramatic day of her execution. Joseph Roach writes:

The social processes of memory and forgetting, familiarly known as culture, may be carried out by a variety of performance events, from stage plays to sacred rites, from carnivals to the invisible performance rituals of everyday life. To perform in this sense means to bring forth, to make manifest, and to transmit. To perform also means, though often more secretly, to reinvent.


According to this definition, every moment is a potential opportunity for both cultural transmission and creation. Rituals involving female criminals, including trials and the texts associated with them, become liminal moments full of performative power.

Multiple members of the community who watched Rodgers’s performance at the time of her execution reportedly created this portion of the text. Those watching described her as “very grave and Christian from first to last” (Rogers 105). A large group of people followed, prayed for, and eventually watched her hang from a tree. Her final words, transcribed “by some there present...