By Patrick Verel

Women living in early America were not often given the opportunity to tell their stories. Thanks to Elaine Crane, Ph.D., their tales are now being told.

In her most recent book, Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores: Common Law and Common Folk in Early America (Cornell Press, 2011), Crane, a professor of history, examined six different legal cases filed in Rhode Island and Connecticut by people in the 17th and 18th centuries. They ranged from stories about attempted rape and domestic violence to a story about a ghost “testifying” in a trial and actually offering testimony that helped decide the case.

Crane unearthed the stories through file papers, which are documents about disputes that are archived at historical societies and libraries on the Eastern seaboard and in Bermuda. They’re invaluable because they give voice to those who were “pre-literate,” so to speak.
“They can’t read, and they can’t write, but in legal documents, a secretary is taking down their words. So you hear the words of people who you wouldn’t ordinarily get to know. You get ‘He said, she said,’ and a range of [common]language that does not appear in formal documents,” Crane said.

“My students find it’s shocking language, actually. They didn’t think 17th- and 18th- century people used such words.”

Although the stories are set in areas as disparate as New Amsterdam, New England, Maryland and Bermuda, together they illustrate an important point, said Crane: even the least articulate of Americans understood the law.

“They didn’t have to watch Law and Order,” Crane said. “They knew their rights and they demanded them, even if they couldn’t read or write.”

Her recent book is just the latest example of Crane’s focus on the role of women during Colonial times. One of her earlier books, Killed Strangely, the Death of Rebecca Cornell (Cornell University Press, 2002), looks at the only matricide case in Colonial America. Crane credits her interest in the subject to her work editing a critical edition of the journal of Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker, who lived in Philadelphia from 1735 to 1807. She has also published articles about John Adams’ wife, Abigail Adams.

“It’s hard to use the word ‘feminism’ to apply to early America, because the word didn’t exist back then. But I’m interested in what men do, and what women do, and the relationships between the two,” she said.

For her next book, Crane will focus on the story of Mary Ward, a woman from Connecticut who married Benedict Arnold, a Newport, R.I., resident whose grandson of the same name would go on to earn a dubious place in American history as a traitor. Ward was 18 years Arnold’s junior, and although the marriage was all right in the beginning, Crane said that records show it eventually fell apart when Ward started “playing around.”

“One would think, if one didn’t know better, that this would have been excoriated in Rhode Island, [as]this is 1738,” Crane said. “But it’s not.”

Crane also uncovered a conversation someone had overheard Ward having with Arnold, in which she reportedly said, “What are you getting so exited about? All the women do it.”
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘What could she be talking about?’ These are not the women I know from the 18th century.”

As it turns out, Crane discovered a cluster of reported adultery cases at exactly this time both in both Rhode Island and Connecticut. Crane said that the number of cases, in and of itself, was unusual. But, beyond her suspected adultery, Ward additionally decided at one point to poison Arnold. After several unsuccessful attempts to procure poison, she plied him with an “egg dram,” or an egg-based drink.

This episode is the basis for the name of Crane’s latest book project, The Poison Plot, as well as one of its chapters, “Eggs Benedict.” (Ward fails to murder Arnold. Although she is never prosecuted, they do get divorced, and, incredibly, she marries twice more.)

As to the fact that Ward was never prosecuted, Crane notes that common law at the time did not include punishment for “attempted” crimes.

“So I might speculate that the crime rate as we would interpret it was actually higher than historians have concluded—if one considers failed attempts,” she said.

Although the sensational details of the Ward-Benedict history make an entertaining yarn, they are but a framework for the fundamentals of the book’s focus on difficult aspects of women’s lives: attempted crimes, divorce, spousal violence (especially female), illegitimacy, infidelity and female dependence. Crane speculates that adultery during these centuries may have strong ties to the dependent status of women in marriage and the way an economic depression could have forced them to look elsewhere for security, among other things.
She hopes to work on The Poison Plot through a faculty fellowship. In the meantime, she’s teaching classes whose content is intertwined with her research, such as one called Gender Roles in Early America.

“I’m [also]teaching legal history in a seminar course I call Laws and Outlaws. We’ll read something and I’ll say ‘How do you feel about divorce in early America? Does this resonate? What questions do you have about this?’” she said.

“So we feed off each other. I think it’s been very helpful to me in my research, but it also gives students insights into the ways historians work.”