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Review: ‘The Sewing Girl’s Tale,’ by John Wood Sweet

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On the evening of Aug. 25, 1793, Lanah Sawyer, a 17-year-old seamstress, was out walking in Lower Manhattan when she was accosted by men who catcalled and frightened her, begins the true story recounted by John Wood Sweet in “The Sewing Girl’s Tale.”

She was rescued by a “gallant gentleman [who] had bright blue eyes, rosy red lips, and a sly smile.” He insisted on escorting her to her door and suggested that the pair should go walking some evening. Sawyer was initially reluctant but eventually agreed. But when she and the man who had called himself “lawyer Smith” went out that night, he dragged her into a brothel and raped her.

Sweet, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, explains that we know Sawyer’s story because, “Like many lower-class or enslaved women, [Lanah Sawyer] entered the historical record as a result of damage done to her by a man — a man she resisted and stood up against.”

“Lawyer Smith” was actually Harry Bedlow, the son of a wealthy family. Bedlow had a reputation as a “rake,” a sexual predator. But Bedlow presented himself to Sawyer as someone else, a sensitive gentleman who had defended her against those she thought would do her harm. This was a major issue in the trials that followed, specifically whether Sawyer should have known that her assailant was Bedlow and thus avoided walking with him.

“In the hours, days, and weeks to come, Lanah would have to tell her story again, and again, to men and women — mostly men — who would stand in judgment of her. At each juncture, their responses would determine her range of options. At each stage, she would face the possibility of denial and disempowerment — and the possibility of gaining another, ever more powerful ally. Her challenge would be to convince them to believe her story; to convince them to care.”

As Wood carefully lays out and skillfully argues, Sawyer’s power would rely on her ability to convince men to act on her behalf. Her stepfather became her ally in going to the authorities, but his intention was to punish Bedlow for the blow to his own honor.

During the trial, law books written by Matthew Hale and William Blackstone influenced the rules regarding evidence in a rape case. Both jurists saw the crime as very serious, but they also cautioned that women had many motivations for lying about such charges. The misogyny implicit in “women lie about rape” was the first barrier Sawyer would need to overcome. Wood provides fascinating social, cultural and historical context for Bedlow’s prosecution. He explores gossip, the gutter press and her working-class status that played a part in how Sawyer’s story was received.

The result is a masterful and sweeping account of life in 1790s America, where the tensions between classes, the role of the men who enslaved people in determining justice and the enforcement of patriarchal gender roles would each play a part in Sawyer and Bedlow’s fates. The book also provides additional context for understanding the hurdles in present-day America where even now, 60% of rapes are never reported, and only 6% of rapists ever serve a day in jail.

Lorraine Berry is a writer in Oregon.

The Sewing Girl’s Tale

By: John Wood Sweet.

Publisher: Henry Holt, 384 pages, $29.99.