- A Rape in the Early Republic: Gender and Legal Culture in an 1806 Virginia Trial by Alexander Smyth
The study of women's history brings both the satisfaction of revealing stories of women's lives once hidden from public view and the frustration invoked by the struggle to locate those very stories. Frequently the invisibility of women's experiences in official records obstructs the historian's best search for information. Yet Randal L. Hall's edited 1806 trial record of John De-skins, as detailed through the recollection of the prosecuting attorney Alexander Smyth, offers a tantalizing glimpse into the adjudication of rape in the early nineteenth century and one woman's fight for justice. The account exposes historical themes both new and familiar to students of women's history.
Fortunate for historians, Virginia attorney and politician Alexander Smyth meticulously kept written records of all his public speeches and papers. His thorough description of the rape trial, including all the testimonies, closing arguments, and the sentencing, appeared in an 1811 publication of his collective writings. Hall recognized the significance of this rare find and structured A Rape in the Early Republic "in the hope that both students and scholars will use Smyth's work to bring insights to many topics" in the context of the developing legal system of southern Appalachia (ix). Hall includes an introduction providing the background of all persons involved in the case, especially the accused John Deskins and the victim, Sydney Hanson, and a discussion of the early legal history of Tazewell County, Virginia. Moreover, Hall identifies key themes that unfold throughout the trial, uncovering the intersection of race, class, and gender that influenced the case's path through the local justice system. A list of classroom discussion questions further highlights those themes for students.
The central historical theme of the rape trial, of course, is the one of gender. When Deskins admitted to having carnal knowledge of Hanson while her husband was away, the debate immediately turned to the issue of Hanson's consent. And her reputation went on trial along with Deskins. "Both the prosecution and the defense mercilessly relied on prevailing assumptions [End Page 185] about women's sexuality and the ingredients of good character. The courtroom itself was largely the province of men, so their vision of women held sway," explains Hall (17). The court's assault on Hanson's character will ring familiar to students of women's history. "She put herself in the way of temptation," argued the defense. "The law of nature is that the female cannot be forced without being greatly abused." Her face was not bruised, her cloths were not torn or even dirty, and her "hair lay perfectly smooth." Had she truly "hallooed" during the alleged attack, she would have been heard (59). The defense surmised that Mrs. Hanson had sexual relations with Deskins out of jealousy and revenge in response to her own husband's infidelities. She only desired to save her reputation by the false charge of rape.
Ultimately, it is Alexander Smyth's closing argument to the jury that may surprise modern students. Standard histories of this era often emphasize the adjudication of rape cases as a means to address the legal grievances of husbands and the "property damage" suffered as a consequence of a wife's sexual assault. Smyth, in contrast, sought justice for Sydney Hanson and all the victimized women she represented. "We have deprived them of liberty and property; let us at least maintain them the right of personal security," he asserted (96). The acquittal of a man clearly guilty of this heinous crime, justified through the character assignation of Mrs. Hanson, risked the safety of all women. Smyth asked the jury if they were prepared to bear such a responsibility: "Rapes will be committed; and justice being denied, they will be concealed by the sufferers. The cruel ravishers will at some distant day boast of their victories" (97). In...