Brown University Library

"She is More to be Pitied than Censured"


Women, Sexuality and Murder in 19th Century America

An exhibition from the collections of the John Hay Library
April 1 - May 15 1996


Sarah Cornell

The exhibition at the John Hay Library focuses on sexual scandals and murders in 19th century America that involved women in a significant way: as victims, as perpetrators, or as involved bystanders. The books, pamphlets, and broadsides on display reflect period attitudes on adultery, abortion and contraception, domestic abuse, and illegitimacy. Most noteworthy, perhaps, is how closely many of these events mirror contemporary issues concerning women, sexuality, and murder.

A scandal of particular interest locally is the death of Sarah Cornell, a pregnant factory girl of Fall River, Massachusetts, and the trial of the Rev. Ephraim Avery for her murder. In Boston, the trial of Albert Tirrell for the murder of Maria Bickford is noteworthy for the successful employment of the defense of sleepwalking.

New York, with its rapidly evolving urban culture and expanding population, was the scene of a number of well-known murder cases in the 19th century. The murder of the beautiful prostitute Ellen Jewett was widely reported in the developing penny press in the 1830s; the mysterious death of the "beautiful cigar girl" Mary Rogers a few years later caused an even greater public furor, and attracted the attention of Edgar Allan Poe, whose story The mystery of Marie Roget was based on the case. Mary's death, like that of dressmaker Alice A. Bowlsby is one of a number of "murders" that were most probably abortions gone awry.

The case of Abby McFarland and Albert Richardson occupied the attention of the popular press in the late 1860s. Richardson was shot by Abby's former husband in the offices of the New York Tribune; on his deathbed, Richardson was married to Abby by the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher. A few years later, Beecher himself became involved in a public sexual triangle in the so-called Beecher-Tilton scandal, in which Theodore Tilton sued Beecher over an alleged affair with Tilton's wife Elizabeth.

The illustration is from Brief and impartial narrative of the life of Sarah M. Cornell, who was found dead (suspended by the neck, and suspected to have been murdered) near Fall River, Mass., December 22, 1832. Written by one who early knew her. (New York: Printed for and published by G. Williams, 1833?), in the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays.


"She is more to be pitied than censured"
References


First Murder




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