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


But the real help came from 17th-century barrister Sir Matthew Hale, whose case law dominated the trial. Sir William Blackstone’s “Comments” on English criminal law provided the colonies and later the new country with a basic understanding of many crimes, and Blackstone incorporated Hale’s ideas on what makes a rape prosecution plausible. According to Sweet, Hale, who was deeply concerned about malicious women making false accusations against innocent men, believed that “the issue was not simply whether a woman had been forced to have sex against her will, but also if her reputation was good enough, if she resisted vigorously enough, if she screamed loud enough, if she suffered sufficiently visible physical injuries, and if she reported the crime soon enough. defense channeled their questions through the Hale frame. And when it was the judge’s turn to instruct the jury before their deliberations, he declared Hale’s ideas “correct” and so, as Sweet writes, ended ” the transformation of Hale’s comments from suggestions written by a retired jurist into rigid rules that defined the nature of established law and were binding on jurors”.

Perhaps we can’t imagine a defense attorney today saying, as one of the Bedlows did, “Was it safe to pick up a man from the street and instantly make his acquaintance?” …Was it safe to go to the Drums with this stranger, and have fun with him beyond midnight? But rape myths persist: that a woman must do all she can to fend off her attacker, or that her resistance is a critical factor in determining the rapist’s guilt.

That’s not Hale’s only legacy. The reader may recognize his name in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and allowing states (and the federal government) to criminalize abortion without limits or apparent exceptions. In the opinion, Judge Samuel Alito cites Hale’s treatise eight times as evidence that abortion was considered a crime at the time the Constitution was drafted. Thus, according to the Court, the Constitution cannot contain a right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. Dobbs’ opinion is undoubtedly correct as to Hale’s status at the founding, and Sweet’s book confirms this. But the book also offers an opportunity, away from the heated politics of abortion regulation, to reflect on the power we now give to legal authorities whose opinions on fundamental issues – such as what 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, his father-in-law, did not give up: like modern litigants frustrated in the criminal courts, they turned to the civil courts. Exploiting the patriarchal laws of the time, Callahan sued Bedlow for seduction – a contrived, man-vs-man claim that Bedlow’s seduction of Sawyer cost Callahan losses of his work. This is the first time a seduction suit has been used to seek 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 lands Bedlow in debtors’ jail.

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