John Wood Sweet, The Sewing Girl’s Tale
Renowned historian John Sweet offers a riveting Revolutionary Era drama of the first published rape trial in American history and its long, shattering aftermath, revealing how much has changed over two centuries—and how much has not.
“In 1793, in New York City, in a 15-hour rape trial followed by 15 minutes of jury deliberations, six powerful attorneys representing a man of privilege did all they could to turn 17-year-old Lanah Sawyer into someone who didn’t matter. In The Sewing Girl’s Tale, historian John Wood Sweet provides a masterful counter. In a brilliant reconstruction of one of the most telling criminal cases in American history, he brings to life not only Sawyer, but all the malevolent forces aligned against her, including one Alexander Hamilton. Lanah Sawyer and her story mattered—then, and now.”
—Ken Armstrong, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter and coauthor of Unbelievable
“The Sewing Girl’s Tale is a masterful narrative history, featuring a remarkable combination of riveting drama and world-class scholarship. The Sewing Girl’s Tale is a mystery, a true crime tale, a courtroom drama, and a scathing analysis of a society stacked against young women. John Sweet has written a story of sex and power that is both vividly historic and ripped from the headlines.”
—Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Madam and The Most Famous Man in America
On a moonless night in the summer of 1793 a crime was committed in the back room of a New York brothel—the kind of crime that even victims usually kept secret. Instead, seventeen-year-old seamstress Lanah Sawyer did what virtually no one in US history had done before: she charged a gentleman with rape.
Her accusation sparked a raw courtroom drama and a relentless struggle for vindication that threatened both Lanah’s and her assailant’s lives. The trial exposed a predatory sexual underworld, sparked riots in the streets, and ignited a vigorous debate about class privilege and sexual double standards. The ongoing conflict attracted the nation’s top lawyers, including Alexander Hamilton, and shaped the development of American law. The crime and its consequences became a kind of parable about the power of seduction and the limits of justice. Eventually, Lanah Sawyer did succeed in holding her assailant accountable—but at a terrible cost to herself.
Based on rigorous historical detective work, this book takes us from a chance encounter in the street into the sanctuaries of the city’s elite, the shadows of its brothels, and the despair of its debtors’ prison. The Sewing Girl’s Tale shows that if our laws and our culture were changed by a persistent young woman and the power of words two hundred years ago, they can be changed again.
John Wood Sweet is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the former director of UNC’s Program in Sexuality Studies. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, the National Humanities Center, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at UNC, and the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale, among others. His first book, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730–1830, was a finalist for the Frederick Douglass Prize. He was named a Top Young Historian by the History News Network and has served as an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer.