In the age of #MeToo, rape and sexual assault have been consistently in the news. Debates abound about what counts as rape, whose testimony we should believe, and too often, men with power and privilege get away with it. But though it feels pressing right now, none of those debates are new. Join Sarah and Marissa as they look for context for today’s debates in Sharon Block’s important book, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America.

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Transcript for Rape and Race in Early America

Written and researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins and Marissa Rhodes

Sarah: We don’t always do episodes inspired by current events – in fact, we haven’t done very many at all recently. It’s nice – for you and for us – to take a break from the stress of the new cycle and explore something a little different (although we somehow tend to bring back around to current events, don’t we?) But a few months ago, while we were eating pizza during a recording break, the four of us talked about the appalling spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings. I mentioned that the whole thing reminded me very powerfully of a book that Averill and I read in our mentor Susan Cahn’s Women’s History class: Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America. The parallels between what Sharon describes in her book and the rhetoric we heard on the news were really disturbing. At first, when I mentioned I wanted to an episode on the book, we weren’t sure – not so much that the episode would be bad, but because it would be so hard to keep thinking about rape and sexual power in such an intense way. But in the end, I decided it was just too important.

Marissa: So we should just start right from the top with a trigger warning. We’re going to be talking about lots of tough stuff. Some of it might be triggering, and most of it will definitely not be appropriate for little kids – so you might want to listen to this one with headphones.

I’m Sarah

and I’m Marissa

and we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Sarah: Right from the top, I just want to say that this is a dense book, with a lot in it, and we’ll just be scratching the surface here. We highly suggest you pick up this book however you can and give it some time.

In the introduction to Rape and Sexual Power, Sharon Block poses the question: does rape have a history? And if it does, how do we get ‘at’ it? This is an interesting place to start, because it sort of forces us to reckon with the fact that the word ‘rape’ means a wide variety of things, and that what we believe constitutes rape changes over time and space. Just as one example: up until the 1970s, most states did not consider it rape if a husband forced sex on his wife. Husbands could not rape their wives because it was understood that sex was a husband’s marital right. Even today, definitions of rape have changed even over my lifetime – we have much more nuanced ideas about what counts as consent than when I was in high school. So tracing a history of rape can be somewhat tricky because people in the past didn’t necessarily abide by our modern definitions of rape.

Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America
UNC Press

Marissa: Right – what we might consider rape today wouldn’t be considered rape then. So how did people in early America think about consent? Block says that there were no hard and fast distinctions between what could be “sex” and what could be “rape.” The only sanctioned sex was that that took place between husband and wife. Sex manuals like Conjugal Love; or Pleasures of the Marriage Bed Considered and Aristotle’s Masterpiece made it very clear that marriage was the only relationship that made sex acceptable, and that the purpose of having sex was to produce children. This was of course shaped by early Americans’ worldview, which was heavily influenced by Christian religious belief. Within their particular Christian framework, Americans believed that women were made (drawn from Adam’s rib) to serve men. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, declared in 1758 that women were “designed to gratify our passions.”

Sarah: The idea that women were made for men’s pleasure was important to how early Americans thought about sex and rape. Men were always understood as active: they were, by the nature, the pursuers, and women were the receivers. Sex was often described in terms of military strategy – men had to campaign to seize their desired object, while women were careful to protect their defenses. A woman who was considered ‘promiscuous’ was described as ‘surrendering her citadel.” One story that Block shares is a fictional exchange between a military officer and a young widow. The officer grabbed the young woman, and the young woman asked whether he “fought “after the French way, taking towns before you declare war?” What she’s kind of saying there is are you accustomed to having sex with someone before marriage?!

Marissa: So what this meant was that women were basically incapable of giving consent because they were so bound by their need to be chaste. So this made the line between consensual sex and rape really murky. Men might have to use some force in order to get any woman to have sex with them because women never desired sex. At the same time, people also believed that sometimes men were just not capable to controlling their urges. A fabulous example of this is William Byrd. Byrd was a plantation owner in Virginia in the late 17th early 18th century. He was sort of a quintessential colonial elite white guy, involved in everything – he dabbled in Greek and Latin, wrote some histories and sort of cultural studies, and was important in Virginia colonial politics. Byrd was also a garbage human being: he beat his slaves regularly and brutally, and had sex with every woman in his vicinity. We know this because he recorded his sexual exploits in his diary. He’s constantly ‘flourishing’ this woman and ‘saluting’ that woman.

Sarah: We get a glimpse of how colonial Americans thought about men’s sexuality by looking at how Byrd behaved – or maybe we should say misbehaved. In October 1709, he writes in his diary about staying in a tavern in Williamsburg and calling for a serving girl to come in and attend him. When the “wench” came in, he grabbed her, groping and kissing her, “for which,” he says, “God forgive me.” Later on, he writes about having a dinner party, and when everyone retired to their bedrooms, he followed someone named “Mrs. Chiswell” to her room, “kissing her on the bed until she was angry.” Poor Mrs. Byrd was not very happy about this: “my wife was uneasy about this and cried when the company was gone.” Afterward, he noted that he neglected to say his prayers that night, “which I should not have done, because I ought to beg pardon for the lust I had for another man’s wife.” This, to me, is really telling: the failing is that he wasn’t able to control himself and that he effectively trespassed on another man’s territory. It’s not understood as a violation of that woman’s consent.

(also, lol, “I danced my dance”) 

Marissa: There’s another example from William Byrd that illustrates how some early Americans thought about consent. Byrd described one encounter he observed where the “woman struggled just enough to make her Admirer more eager,” indicating that denying consent or resisting could actually be interpreted as enticing – a woman might perform chastity so well that it would act as a turn-on for an eager suitor. He also talked about a woman who “would certainly have been ravish’t if her timely consent had not prevented the Violence.” In other words, the rape wasn’t averted because she was able to get the guy to leave her alone, but because she eventually gave in and consented.

Sarah: Sharon Block shares example after example of men resorting to rape after being rejected by women. In one deeply disturbing example, a man named Patrick Kennedy propositioned a woman for sex in 1777. When she refused, he “struck her and said he would have it.” Kennedy then tied her to a tree and raped her. It was clear that the encounter could have resulted in consensual sex if the woman hadn’t refused – in other words, the blame wasn’t really on the man, but on the woman. The law also held women responsible, or at least partly responsible, in their own attacks.  Courts paid close attention to how women spoke and acted during encounters that they characterized as rapes. When Mary Jinkins claimed that a man had tried to rape her, the court punished her attacker – but also her – for public lewdness.

Marissa: Women were also trapped by the conflicting roles they were expected to play. On the one hand, women might be seen as filling a ‘temptress’ role, where men were drawn to and tempted by their sexuality. On the other hand, women were expected to be the ones that regulated men’s sexual desire, keeping both parties chaste. A poem called The Maiden’s Complaint” from 1736 sums this up nicely: “poor girls are left if they deny/ And if they yield undone.” This wasn’t quite the same way of thinking about women’s sexuality that would later be propagated by the Victorians, who believed that ‘good’ (read: white middle class) women were cold and didn’t desire sex at all. Early Americans believed that women did have sexual desire and were capable of enjoying sex. But it was in their nature to be the protectors of chastity – so women were bound by their nature to say no, but they might actually mean yes.

Sarah: For instance, a story from 1798 described a situation where a man forced a young woman to drink with him until she was really drunk, then had sex with her with her (drunken) consent. When she went home the next day, her parents were livid, yelling at her that she was ruined. She replied “I wish I was to be ruined so every night of my life, and live to the age of Methuselam!” So she had to be coerced into consenting, but once she did, she was glad she had. Another very telling poem was entitled Modern Chastity; or An Agreeable Rape. The poem makes the argument that since women are bound by their own natural chastity, but secretly desire sex, it’s incumbent upon men to use force to get them to get what they really – secretly – want. Block sums this up so well –she says that women’s sexual role was “always resisting, therefore never really resisting.” This just feels so, so relevant to me, even 200 and more years later – don’t you think this is how a lot of men thinking about sex?

Marissa: Men, Block says, “created consent” for women who had not done so for themselves by interpreting their body language, actions, and words as evidence of their willingness. This often mean that men could argue that they might be guilty of fornication, but not of rape. Emmanuel Lewis tried to make this argument when on trial for child rape in 1734. He insisted that the child, a five year old girl, had indicated her consent by adjusting her clothing and remaining calm instead of crying. Another man, Ephraim Wheeler, argued that his daughter, who he had raped (in our definition of the word) justified his actions this way: “From the awe and respect, which a child naturally feels toward a parent, [perhaps she] did not make so violent and persevering resistance to the outrage, which he though she must have done had she been totally opposed.” The court made a distinction between her lack of desire and her lack of consent – maybe she wasn’t enthusiastic, but she also didn’t fight back very hard.

Sarah: So how could a woman definitively indicate that she did not consent to an encounter? The only real way was to assert that they would rather be dead than be raped. Women in 18th century novels regularly declared that they would rather die or be killed than defiled. Court records also show that real women echoed these sentiments. in 1728, Elizabeth Painter told an attacker that “she would rather he should dash our her brains and stamp her into the ground” than have him rape her. In 1729, Anne Eastworthy told a man not to “abuse me thus, but rather kill me!” On a fairly straightforward level, this shows us that women were supposed to value their sexual purity over even their own lives, but on another level, I think it’s really important to note that this was also the only want to effectively prove that you did not consent. You couldn’t just say no, or try to run away, or remove yourself from the situation – you had to beg for death.

Marissa: This is a really, really old idea. The ancient legend of the Roman of Lucretia is perhaps the most famous iteration of this idea. Lucretia was the wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, a relative of the Roman king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. One day, Collatinus invited the king’s son, Tarquin, to his home. Tarquin snuck into Lucretia’s bedroom and told her that she had two choices: she could either consent to let him have sex with her, or he would murder her and one of her slaves, after which he would position their bodies to make it appear as though she had been having an affair with her slave – shaming her widower husband in the process. Lucretia had no real choice and was raped. The next day, she dressed in black, and went to her father, who was a prefect, and fell at his feet, weeping and calling on him and his court for vengeance. While the men discussed what actions to take, she pulled out a dagger and stabbed herself in the heart, dying in her father’s arms. Her suicide sparked the overthrow of the Roman monarchy and the transition to the Roman republic.

Monogrammist IW, Lucretia 1525

Sarah: Over the centuries, Lucretia’s rape and suicide were almost fetishized, particularly in art. Numerous paintings depict Lucretia, often semi-nude, breasts exposed, knife blade poised by her tender, enticing skin. Others depict her naked, trying to fight off Tarquin as he attempts to rape her. One sculpture, made in 1804 by Spanish artist Damia Campeny, is particularly fascinating to me. It depicts Lucretia dead, with the knife she used to commit suicide at her feet. She is laying limply in a chair, one of her breasts exposed, nipple aroused. Her dress is made of extremely thin fabric (obviously, carved in marble, not actual fabric) and it clings to each graceful curve of her frame. Her right hand is on her thigh, just inches away from her vulva. It is so sexualized. It reminds me of the ways that women’s corpses are depicted in medical illustrations – dead but still sexually enticing, always molded by and for a male gaze. Even though she’s dead, she’s beautiful and perfect – which, of course, she could no longer be if she were still alive, since Tarquin had defiled her.

Damilà Campeny, Dead Lucretia, 1804

Marissa: In the eighteenth century, though, the most famous example of a woman putting death before the dishonor of rape came from the 1748 English novel Clarissa: The History of a Young Lady, by Samuel Richardson. In the novel, young Clarissa Harlowe is the young daughter of a nouveau riche family desperate for a land and titles to go with their cash. When Clarissa becomes attached to Robert Lovelace, an heir to an earldom, it causes all sorts of family strife, as the marriage has the potential to provide Clarissa, but not the rest of the family, with a title, as well as some land deeded to Clarissa directly leaving the Harlowe family. Clarissa escapes the Harlowes with Lovelace, trying to escape another marriage that her brother has arranged. Lovelace, though, turns out to be a complete jerk, and Clarissa repeatedly refuses to marry him even though he’s effectively keeping him prisoner. Lovelace finally decides that if he rapes Clarissa, it will ‘ruin’ her and she’ll have no other prospects except him. The plan backfires, though, and Clarissa is more determined than ever to not marry him, and more or less wills herself to die. She gets sick and sort of just … fades away, of course always perfectly beautiful and in complete control of her faculties, and, of course, her virtue.

Sarah: The trope of women who were able to use extreme willpower to either die or to fight back against their attackers were a regular trope in early American literature. I’m not going to profile each and every one but I just have to share this one, which is called A Very Surprising Narrative of a Young Woman, Who Was Discovered in the Gloomy Mansion of a Rocky Cave! (and yes, the exclamation point is in the original title!) In this story, published in Vermont in 1796, a young women falls in love with a respectable young man, but her father refused to bless the union, so the couple ran away. Fearing her father would hurt them, they hid out in the Vermont wilderness, only to be captured by Native Americans, who murdered her ‘lover.’ The woman somehow managed to escape, and ran even further into the woods – when a giant finds her and makes her live with him in his ‘gloomy cave.’ He says that she will have to sleep with him, but rather than let that happen, the young woman somehow manages to chew through her bindings, then chops up the giant with an axe into tiny pieces, hides him in the woods, and lives alone in the cave for nine years. Of course, eventually her dad finds her, forgives her, and gives her a bunch of money.

Marissa: The Very Surprising Narrative is wacky, but it also uses a very common early American narrative device that teaches that women should fight back to the literal death to prevent a rape, and kill themselves or at least will themselves to die if they are raped. If a woman did not behave in very particular ways, it served as proof that a sexual assault wasn’t rape. It couldn’t be rape, for instance, if a woman gave in to a man, such as in another novel, called The Coquette, in which the main character, the flirtatious Eliza, is warned “if she will play with a lion, let her beware of his paw.” When Eliza is sexually used the man she hoped to marry (but who marries another ) she is at fault for her own downfall. Women were expected to police not only their own sexual behavior, but men’s sexual behavior, too.

Sarah: This translated into another recognizable facet of early American rape: men in positions of privilege were able to coerce and manipulate women into essentially giving up and giving in, therefore avoiding the obvious cries of rape. Early American recognized a forceful, violent assault by a stranger as obvious rape – but when a young woman was coerced into sex with a family member, or a master gave his enslaved woman no choice? That didn’t really seem like rape to early Americans. Even though I think we’re fairly used to hearing about the sexual access that white slavers had over enslaved women – which sounds terrible, I know – but something that Block does that I don’t think we see as much in history is other kinds of really horrifying sexual coercion, specifically between fathers, or father-figures, and daughters. Fathers or stepfathers who were called out for abusing their daughters often asserted their rights as head of household.

Marissa: For instance, when James Weller was confronted for assaulting his stepdaughter, he laughed and said “who has a better right?” When one woman tried to stop her husband from abducting their daughter so he could sexually abuse her without interference, he responded that “as a father, he had the right to command her to go.” I mentioned Ephraim Wheeler before (he raped his daughter and claimed she consented) – when he was on trial for rape, he testified that he took his daughter Betsey into the woods and instructed her that “if he would kill her if she did not” lie down on the ground, then forcibly threw her onto the ground and raped her. Yet his lawyer still argued that Betsey was complicit, even willing, because she hadn’t fought hard enough to avoid going into the woods with her father, saying “Why did she go into the woods with him, without being dragged by violence? Would you not strongly suspect that these transactions were not much against her will?”

Sarah: Men also had essentially unlimited access to their wives. There were no laws or strictures against what we would now call marital rape. The bonds of marriage sanctioned sexual relations between husband and wife, and it was understood that men had a right to their wives’ bodies. And because marital rape basically did not exist, it’s impossible to trace it historically, which I think is super telling: this silence is powerful evidence of the power that men had over their wives.

Marissa: The power that white men wielded not only in their ability to rape but in their ability to get away with it becomes even more clear when we contrast it with black men’s experience of rape accusations and trials. Between 1700 and 1800, of the 174 men that were executed for rape, 80% were black men. This is pretty jarring on its own, but what makes it even more striking is that the population in the East Coast in the early American era was predominantly white – meaning that this is totally disproportionate to the population. And, of course, as Block points out, there’s a racial disparity that’s even more disturbing: in 95% of rape cases that went to prosecution, the victim was white.

Sarah: We need to step back here for a moment to talk a bit about one of the most powerful, almost even foundational, American myths: the myth of the black rapist. If you’re familiar with the beloved novel To Kill a Mockingbird, you’re familiar with this myth at least on some level: the idea that black men are consumed, to the point of irrationality and uncontrollability, with the desire to rape white women. This was routinely the explanation given by whites to explain lynching – that the black male victim either had raped a white woman or had attempted to rape a white woman, and that white men, acting in their capacity as protector and defender of white womanhood, had no choice but to exact quick and definitive justice. But this was not true – and we don’t just know this through historical analysis, we know it through the investigative journalism of Ida B. Wells, who found that rape was used as a justification for lynching but that the actual underlying motive was often racist and economic intimidation. (A black person might have a grocery store that stole business from a white store, for instance.)

Marissa: The trope is extensive in 19th and early 20th century literature. Of course, To Kill A Mockingbird, published in 1960, is a very famous depiction of the myth, but it flips the myth on its head by making the story about trying to prove Tom Robinson, framed for rape, innocent. Most literature, of course, presented the myth uncritically, as a way to spread the idea that black men were dangerous and needed to be controlled, whether through extralegal methods (like lynching) or legal methods, like aggressive prosecution and strict sentencing. One of the most notorious purveyors of the myth was post-Civil War Southern writer Thomas Dixon, who famously wrote The Clansman, the book that was adapted by filmmaker DW Griffith into The Birth of a Nation. One of the main storylines in the film is when the lovely young (and of course, white) Flora Cameron is pursued through the woods by Gus, a freed slave and soldier. Although the censorship constraints made it so that Gus was not portrayed explicitly as trying to rape Flora, it’s heavily insinuate that that’s his intention.

Flora Cameron pursued by Gus. | Still from Birth of a Nation, 1915

Sarah: Side note here – this scene is markedly different from the original novel. In the novel, the young woman is named Marion. Four black men break into Marion’s home, and while the action isn’t described, it’s clear that Marion was gang raped. When Marion wakes up, she decides that her only option is to commit suicide – she’s ruined. She dons a white dress, and she and her mother walk out into the woods. When her mother asks if she’s afraid to die, Marion responds “No; death is sweet now. This shame I can never forget, nor will the world forget. Death is the only way.” Then she and her mother clasp hands and jump off the cliff. Of course, this is viciously racist garbage, but it also tells us something about how Thomas Dixon thought about rape. Marion is unredeemable, soiled, ruined. It actually didn’t occur to me until I was working on this episode that it also demonstrates exactly what Block is identifying in the 18th century – that the only way to really prove that a rape was a rape, and the only way to ‘redeem’ yourself after a rape, was to die. And this brings me to one other really critical component of the myth: it’s harming to women, too. The myth is ginned up as an excuse to police blacks, using the bodies of women as a kind of fulcrum – but it’s not actually about women at all. If anything, it positions women as dependents, even possessions, that white men must treasure and protect. This is not to say that white women have never been complicit – they absolutely have. Just take Carolyn Bryant, the white woman behind the Emmett Till case.

[[The myth is still with us – the story that was recently published about Liam Neeson recalling his friend who was raped by a ‘black bastard’ and how he roamed the streets hoping to find a black man so he could ‘kill him’]]

Marissa: But back the 18th century and Block’s statistics. Historians have often argued over when the myth of the black rapist first emerged, but one of the main theories has been that it was a creation of the post-Civil War era, when slavery was newly emancipated and there was pressing need to control free blacks. Block doesn’t disagree with this formulation, particularly because concepts of race were different in the 18th century than they were after the Civil War. Instead, she points out that while it didn’t rise to the cultural power of the later ‘myth,’ the idea became entrenched in the colonial period that black men were rapists and white men were not. As a general rule, blacks were charged and tried with rape disproportionately across the early American eastern seaboard, both North and South. And it’s important to see that this wasn’t just because black men were being targeted more often for rape charges, but because it white men’s ability to commit assaults and rapes was minimized. White men had power over women and girls that was often perceived, as we saw earlier, as a justification or an excuse for forced or coerced sex. Black men didn’t have that same power – any kind of illicit or forced sex was interpreted as rape.

Sarah: There’s also some evidence that it was harder to prosecute white men for the capital crime of rape, and so white men’s rape trials often failed and charges were replaced with lesser charges of attempted rape or assault. For instance, John Adams defended a man in Massachusetts in 1768 against charges of attempted rape after his first trial, where he was tried for rape, resulted in no prosecution.  White men were often charged with lesser, non-capital crimes even when their crimes were sexual or violent in nature. In Maryland, for instance, a man named Henry Gray was charged with a breach of the peace when he pulled up a woman’s clothes and effectively sexually assaulted here. Particularly in the South, black men were also often charged with multiple crimes – a particularly powerful example has to do with what we might think of as breaking and entering or robbery. When a black man broke into a white person’s house, they were often charged not only for the robbery or attempted robbery, but also with attempted rape – since the violation of a white person’s house, which housed vulnerable white women, seemed like just the first step in a rape. This was a tactic that historians have already identified in the post-Civil War south, but Block argues that it had been happening for a century by the time that war ended. Sharon Block says this: “As with laws that set rape by slaves alongside other forms of rebellion, slaves’ economic transgressions could also be read as a sexual threat to the white establishment.”

Marissa: Of course, a significant part of this whole calculation – vulnerable white women, white male protectors, beastly black rapists – was the absence of black women. Very, very black women appear in court rape cases. It should go without saying that this did not mean that black women were raped at a lower rate; in fact, if we factor in the sexual terror that we know occurred within the institution of slavery, then the rate of rape for black women was probably higher. Yet, Block was able to find very few prosecuted rapes of black women. There were a few cases in 18th c. Massachusetts, perhaps because it was a culture still influenced by Puritan moral codes. For those Massachusetts cases, for instance, the men accused had also broken other moral norms – one man was a known drunkard, and the other was being lewd in public. Yet, the cases that did make it into the court system were revealing in themselves. In New York, one black man was convicted for raping a mixed race child, whereas another black man was acquitted for raping a 17 year old black woman. The difference in the victims’ ages seems like an important aspect of these two cases: the young child in the successful case likely not only made that case more egregious, but also escaped the victim-blaming that would have been applied to a black teenage girl, who would have been considered inherently licentious. Another New York City case is also telling: in 1808, a white man was tried ‘assault with intent to seduce.’ While the man was found guilty of the charge, the sentence was a fine of only one dollar. While the case was tried and the guilty party convicted, it’s clear that the all-white court deemed this black woman’s experience worth very little.

Sarah: All subjects in rape cases – victim and perpetrator – were judged based on their race. White men’s reputation was important. If he was known as a good character, it was often a mitigating factor in complicated cases, but a bad reputation often made it seem more likely that he had a committed such a crime. For black men, reputation could play a role, but it was his blackness that ruled the day. In 1817, the black defendant was described as “for a black man, uncommonly good.” Another said that the man’s character was “as good as that of a white man.” But even though he had a good reputation personally, the judge reminded the court that, no matter what these witnesses said, the man was from a “savage nation” and a race “fill of insolence and rapacity.” So even if he had a good reputation, he couldn’t escape his nature. White women’s reputation mostly hinged on their sexual purity – one rape victim actually provided a statement from her Quaker congregation attesting to the fact that she was not a whore.

Marissa: Black women, on the other hand, were assumed to be promiscuous no matter what. When Sylvia Patterson accused a James Dunn, a white man, of trying to rape her in the early 19th c. in NYC, the court fixated on Sylvia’s sexual history, and witnesses came to the court to testify that Sylvia was married to a man who had six wives, hung out with sex workers, and even ‘bared her legs in public.’ When the trial documents were published, the published version contained an illustration of something Sylvia mentioned in the trial – that James tried to bribe her husband with an expensive watch if they would not take the case to court. Except in the published version, James was handing the watch to Sylvia while he pulls up her dress, putting the interaction in the more murky category of coerced sex.

Sarah: It should go without saying that many black men were convicted with ridiculous or obviously falsified evidence. In 1756, Hannah Beebe accused a slave of rape in Connecticut although she later admitted that she made up significant parts of her testimony; even with the fictional story, the slave was still convicted. In 1792 in Delaware, Elizabeth Truax admitted that even though she had no recollection, she was pretty sure an enslaved man had raped her. He was convicted. In 1819 Virginia, Elizabeth Smith accused a slave of rape, but then admitted that there had been no penetration. he was convicted anyway. On the other hand, courts expected women to provide lots of highly detailed evidence in their accusations against white men. Christiana Waggoner explained in detail how her rapist had pinned her and kept her legs propped open. But the justice of the peace announced that he couldn’t have accomplished the act in the way that Christiana described.

Marissa: Jane Mathers described her attack in disturbing detail. Her attacker, James Paxton, had grabbed Jane and “threw me down, pulled up my petticoats and put it into me – He put his hand on my mouth when I was screaming – I hallowed out – He swore he would do it and choaked me a little.” She was then cross examined and asked to provide even more detail. At least in her case the court took her seriously. Rebecca Fay also described her rape in painful detail – how the man had covered her face with his body to muffle her screams, how he closed the door to keep others from interfering, and how he assaulted her on a dining room table. Under cross examination, she described the sensations she experienced as he bruised and hurt her during the act. Despite her testimony, the court found her attacker not guilty.

Sarah: How did these cases typically end? Well, for a large number of white defendants, the cases were dismissed early on for one reason or another. White men often were given steep fines but almost always avoided the death penalty. Black men, on the other hand, were very regularly executed – 2/3rds of all black men convicted of rape faced the death penalty. In the South, it was a full 90%. It also wasn’t uncommon for the bodies of black men to be dismembered and displayed to serve as a warning to others. In 1739, a slave convicted of rape was executed and his body hung in chains in Maryland. In North Carolina, the decapitated heads of executed black rapists were placed on pikes at busy crossroads. When they avoided death, some had their bodies mutilated to leave the mark of their transgression on their body. After the Revolution, capital punishment became less common or accepted (as we discussed in our episode on the Auburn prison), and while white men’s rates of execution went down by about half – but black men’s rate of execution remained the same. In our Auburn episode, we also discussed that other physical punishments became less common, such as whipping or branding, but like execution. In the case of rape (probably other stuff too?) that was true only for white men – black men continued to be whipped and branded, meaning that they were the only ones that carried obvious marks of their sexual predation and criminality.

Marissa: So Block’s book shows that while the idea of black men as a sexual threat against white women takes on different forms, and carries different power, in the post-Civil War era, but that a kernel of it existed long, long before.

If this episode hit home, or if you need someone to talk to about rape or sexual assault, please contact the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network or RAINN crisis hotline at 800-656-HOPE or 800-656-4673. And if this episode just … pissed you off, you might consider donating to RAINN, and of course, VOTE!

We want to give a big THANK YOU to all of our patreon supporters, but especially our “Auger” and “Excavator” level patrons. Colin, Peggy, Christopher and Lauren — your patronage help keep this podcast going. Listener, if you are not yet a patron, you can go to to learn more.


Block, Sharon. Rape and Sexual Power in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Dixon, Thomas. The Clansman.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.

Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa Harlowe, or A History of a Young Lady.

Sommerville, Diane Miller. Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

1 Comment

Jesse Storr · March 2, 2020 at 1:18 pm

I am amazed at the lack of responses to this subject matter. Why is this the case? Why do we, even in 2020 to refuse to even comment and discuss this topic which has caused so much pain and current dysfunctional behavior we see in America today. Were sexual activities between slaves prior to 1865 part of the economic model used by slave owners? And were the same activities declared illegal after the the Civil War.

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