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Book Review: “The Sewing Girl’s Tale,” by John Wood Sweet

But the real assist came from the 17th-century lawyer Sir Matthew Hale, whose jurisprudence dominated the trial. Sir William Blackstone’s “Commentaries” on English criminal law supplied the Colonies and later new country with a basic understanding of many crimes, and Blackstone incorporated Hale’s ideas of what renders a rape prosecution plausible. According to Sweet, Hale, who was deeply anxious about malicious women bringing false accusations against innocent men, believed “the question was not simply whether a woman had been forced to have sex against her will but also whether her reputation was good enough, whether she had resisted vigorously enough, whether she had cried out loudly enough, whether she had sustained sufficiently conspicuous physical injuries and whether she had reported the crime soon enough.” Nearly every defense attorney funneled his questions through the Hale framework. And when it was the judge’s turn to instruct the jury in advance of their deliberations, he declared Hale’s ideas “just” and thus, as Sweet writes, completed “the transformation of Hale’s commentaries from suggestions written by a retired jurist into rigid rules that defined the nature of settled law and that were binding on the jurors.”

Perhaps we can’t imagine a defense attorney today saying, as one of Bedlow’s did: “Was it prudent to pick up a man in the streets, and become instantly acquainted with him? … Was it discreet to go on the Battery with this stranger, and amuse herself with him beyond midnight?” But rape myths persist: that a woman must do everything she can to repel her attacker, or that her resistance is a critical factor in determining the rapist’s culpability.

This is not Hale’s only legacy. The reader might recognize his name from Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade and permitting states (and the federal government) to criminalize abortion without apparent limit or exception. In the opinion, Justice Samuel Alito cites Hale’s treatise eight times as evidence that abortion was considered a crime at the time of the Constitution’s writing. Thus, according to the court, the Constitution cannot contain a right to choose to terminate pregnancy. The Dobbs opinion is undoubtedly correct about Hale’s status at the founding, and Sweet’s book confirms it. But the book also provides an opportunity, set apart from the heated politics of abortion regulation, to reflect on the power we give today to legal authorities whose views about basic matters — like what it means for a man to sexually assault women — are so different from what we think, or want to think we think, now.

The acquittal did not mark the end of the story. Sawyer and John Callahan, her stepfather, did not give up: Like modern litigants frustrated in criminal court, they turned to civil court. Exploiting the patriarchal laws of the day, Callahan sued Bedlow for seduction — a contrived claim, man against man, that Bedlow’s seduction of Sawyer cost Callahan losses of her labor. This is the first known time a seduction suit was used for redress in New York after a rape trial, and it worked; the jury awarded Callahan staggering punitive damages — 1,800 pounds, or $4,500 — enough money for Callahan “to buy the house he rented on Gold Street and half a dozen like it” and land Bedlow in debtors’ prison.

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