A century ago, women were enjoying new freedoms brought about by America’s first sexual revolution.
But as they ventured out of the demure Victorian era and into automobiles, dance halls, workplaces shared by men and unsupervised dates at movie theaters or cafes — perhaps even partaking in alcohol — women were also becoming victims of what took decades to be recognized as acquaintance rape.
“There was a dark side to the sexual revolution, and some of the spaces where the so-called sexual revolution was taking place … were also sites for new forms of sexual violence and sexual coercion,” said Brian Donovan, an associate professor of sociology at KU.
“Women didn’t benefit from it to the extent that men did.”
Donovan explores rape and other sex crimes of the early 1900s in his new book, "Respectability on Trial: Sex Crimes in New York City, 1900-1918.” The book, which came out in October, is based on Donovan’s research of thousands of pages of court transcripts archived at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Donovan concludes that rape victims today face a lot of the same sociological hurdles they did then.
“Currently there is such a big gap between the number of incidents of rape and the number that are reported and the number that make it to trial,” Donovan said, “and that’s certainly true in the turn of the century.”
He said assumptions about how women should behave — especially in the post-Victorian decades — made it more difficult to convict men of sex crimes. Defense attorneys and jurors questioned women they did not perceive as physically fighting back hard enough, and tried to paint them as previously promiscuous or morally unchaste to undermine the credibility of their rape claims. Also, poor people were viewed as more culpable than their wealthy counterparts.
“Rape culture still prevents justice from being served,” Donovan said. “These kind of cultural considerations about who is a good victim still shape the way rape prosecutions proceed.”
Donovan first discovered John Jay College's trove of transcripts while researching a case for his 2006 book, “White Slave Crusades: Race, Gender, and Anti-vice Activism, 1887-1917.”
For his new book, he set out to retrieve all the collection’s sex crime transcripts, ultimately collecting and reading transcripts from 75 cases totaling about 16,000 pages, he said.
The crimes therein fell into four categories, each given a section in “Respectability on Trial”: first-degree rape, seduction, forced prostitution and sodomy.
Although the sodomy cases were mostly men having sex with other men, Donovan said, victims in the other cases were overwhelmingly poor European female immigrants who needed interpreters in court because they did not speak English. Of all 75 cases, only a couple ever made the news.
“There are scholars that look at some of the more sensational or popular trials at the turn of the century,” Donovan said. “What I think is fascinating about these trials is that they are of ordinary New Yorkers. So you can get a glimpse into the life of typically lower class immigrants that you can’t get through other documents.”
The first-degree rape cases Donovan examined usually involved heavy force, injuries and even multiple assailants.
In his book he writes that “winnable” rape prosecutions at the time required third-party evidence, testimony of extreme violence, proof that the victim physically fought her attacker — and verification of her previous chastity, either physical or moral.
“The standards for first-degree rape were so high, especially in New York City, during this time that only these extreme cases made it to trial,” Donovan said. “Knowing the assailant was often a sign of consent during this time period.”
In one case from the book, a 23-year-old woman named May Davis brought rape charges against Samuel Morrick, who she said attacked her in her apartment when he came to pick her up for their third date.
She testified during the 1918 trial that once inside the apartment, Morrick told her he’d come to “get his satisfaction.” After she told him she wasn’t “that kind of girl” and asked him to leave, he threw her on the floor, pinned her and strangled her until she passed out and began bleeding from the ears, then raped her. A police officer testified he found Davis with her right eye discolored and completely closed, and blood all over her face and oozing from one of her ears.
“Morrick’s attorney painted Davis as a sexual instigator and implied that she consented to having intercourse with the defendant,” the book said.
Davis kissed and touched Morrick on previous dates and should have known his intentions when she accepted his invitation to go to a show and take a cab with him for their second date, the defense attorney argued. Morrick’s attorney further discredited Davis because she fell unconscious and was thus unable to recount all details of the attack.
In an era where knowing one’s attacker “foreclosed any chance of seeking redress for sexual assault as sexual assault,” seduction laws sometimes provided “a sort of back-door way” to prosecute what’s now called acquaintance rape, Donovan said. He said early 20th century seduction cases addressed the crime decades before the 1970s anti-rape movement drew attention to it.
The now-defunct criminal statute of seduction was charged when a woman of previously “chaste character” had sex with a man who’d promised to marry her, on that condition, and the man went back on his promise of marriage, Donovan said.
Convictions of seduction helped restore the reputation of a young woman — which often hinged on virginity — or even secure the afore-promised marriage, Donovan said. If women did not report the crime themselves, sometimes their fathers or brothers would. Donovan said a seduction case also could serve as a “proxy rape trial.”
Seduction cases highlighted in Donovan’s book involve victims accusing men they were dating or were even engaged to.
In graphic dialogue from courtroom transcripts, several women recount telling the men no, pushing them away and even being dragged to a bedroom and screaming out. Some brought seduction charges after learning they were pregnant and being pressured by the men to have abortions, which were illegal but widely performed.
“Prosecutors tended to regard victims’ accounts of stranger rape as more credible and convictable than instances of date rape, despite the overwhelming prevalence of the latter crime,” the book says.
One seduction case from the book that did not succeed was that of Mary Keegan.
The 26-year-old woman brought seduction charges against a 40-year-old man named Thomas Hawkins, whom she met in 1917, according to the book. Hawkins had promised to marry her and soon after took her to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, where court records stated she “permitted” him to perpetrate an act of sexual intercourse with her.
The jury acquitted Hawkins after 30 minutes of deliberation. It appeared his attorney successfully argued that the prosecution failed to show Keegan was morally chaste enough to be a believable victim.
The man’s attorney called witnesses who said they’d seen Keegan “automobiling” and visiting roadhouses in the company of men — and that she drank whiskey and danced to piano music.
“As in rape trials, the seduction victim who pressed charges exposed herself to a full range of insults regarding her behavior, morality, and virtue,” Donovan wrote.
Donovan said he believes New York City’s early 1900s sex crime trials hold sociological lessons that apply today.
“This historical research is important because it forces us to consider the forms of gendered thinking that saturated legal decision-making at the turn of the century and that still influence legal decision making around sex crimes,” Donovan said. “Also it shows how far we’ve come in some areas, but it also shows how little we’ve come in 100 years.”