Resource

Seduction Suits

Two court cases illustrate how women’s sexuality is adjudicated in the new court system.

Content Warning: This resource addresses sexual assault.

The Trial of Captain James Dunn 

The Trial of Captain James Dunn for an assault, with intent to seduce Sylvia Patterson, a Black woman, the wife of James Patterson: held at Matling’s long room, before referees, appointed by consent of parties, December 15, 1808 (New-York: printed for the reporter, 1809). New-York Historical Society Library.

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Summary

Elizabeth Brown was next called. She said she knew Pattersons wife, who had lived in a back house near her, nearly a year previous to last may. She knew nothing bad of her; her husband and she appeared to live peaceably together; she heard of no disturbances in the house except at the time of this assault; she had occasion to see them almost every day. Sylvia was sick the latter part of last winter, and witness understood that she had the rheumatism, she was daily in the habit of coming into witnesses store, and sometimes taking a glass of gin. She believed that John Scott, who occupied a room upstairs, and Patterson, lived very peaceably together; Patterson got his living by sawing wood, and his wife was always dressed genteel.

. . .

Elizabeth Brown was the next witness. She said she knew Patterson’s wife Sylvia for at least a year before the assault. She had never heard anything bad about her. Sylvia lived peacefully with her husband. The only time she heard a disturbance at the house is when Sylvia was assaulted. Elizabeth said she saw Sylvia and her husband almost every day. She said Sylvia was sick with arthritis last winter. She came to Elizabeth’s store every day and sometimes drank a glass of gin for the pain. Elizabeth said that Sylvia’s husband and their neighbor John Scott got along well. Sylvia’s husband made money cutting wood. Sylvia was always properly dressed.

. . .

Catherine Egbertson was sworn, who said she saw a woman in the hospital that looked like Sylvia; who behaved very improperly in pulling up her clothes and showing the sores on her legs, which looked like the venereal disease. Witness is fully persuaded that it was not the rheumatism.

. . .

Catherine Egbertson was the next witness. She said she saw a woman at the hospital who looked like Sylvia. She says the woman pulled up her dress and showed off sores that looked like a sexually transmitted infection. Catherine was sure that Sylvia never had arthritis.

. . .

Verdict for the plaintiff, ONE dollar, with costs of suit. The court ruled in favor of Sylvia and her husband. They awarded him one dollar and the cost of his court fees.

The Trial of Captain James Dunn for an assault, with intent to seduce Sylvia Patterson, a Black woman, the wife of James Patterson: held at Matling’s long room, before referees, appointed by consent of parties, December 15, 1808 (New-York: printed for the reporter, 1809). New-York Historical Society Library.

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A case was tried in the city of New-York last week, between Sarah Moran and William Dawes. It was an action brought by a mother for the seduction of her daughter. A strong case was made out, and it being proved to the satisfaction of the Jury that the offender was worth from $0 to $40,000 they gave a verdict against him for $9000. Another action is pending in the same case, in which the young lady is plaintiff. Last week, there was a trial in the case of Sarah Moran v. William Dawes. Sarah is a mother who sued Dawes for seducing her daughter. She had a strong case, and the jury awarded her $9,000. The daughter had also sued Dawes.

“Circuit Court, January 11,” Dutchess Observer (Poughkeepsie, N.Y.). Library of Congress.
Transcription, New-York Historical Society.

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Background

The problem of how to deal with sexual misconduct existed long before the United States was founded. But the new U.S. legal system did not make any changes to better protect American women. The legal system adopted the English custom of assuming a woman was lying about sexual assault unless she could prove it. This custom stemmed from the belief that if a woman was caught having sex with a man outside of marriage, she would claim it was rape to protect her reputation. It did not consider the serious social and emotional consequences women faced if they had been sexually assaulted. As a result, very few women won cases against their attackers and even fewer reported attacks.

About the Resources

These two sources illustrate how race and social class could affect the experience and outcome of a woman seeking justice in a sexual misconduct case. The Trial of Captain James Dunn details the court proceedings in a sexual assault case from 1809. The case was very unusual for the time because the victim was a free Black woman named Sylvia Patterson and the defendant was a white man. It should be noted that Sylvia’s husband witnessed the attack, and he was the person who pressed charges. This was allowed because under coverture Sylvia was his personal property. Even with her husband’s support and testimony, Sylvia still had to provide witnesses to prove she was a respectable woman who would not have slept with her attacker. Captain Dunn’s lawyers tried to prove that she was a woman who had sex outside of marriage and had once contracted a sexually transmitted infection. The court ruled in her favor.

The newspaper article covers a court case from 1825. Sarah Moran sued William Dawes for sleeping with her daughter. Sarah did not press criminal charges. This may be because she knew the relationship was consensual or it may be that she understood that it would be too difficult to prove it was not consensual. Sarah sued William for money. She claimed that her daughter’s reputation was ruined and that she would never be able to arrange a good marriage for her. Since marriage was the only way for most women to secure their financial future, the jury awarded her $9,000 (nearly $250,000 today). Sarah’s daughter’s race and social class made it easier for the jury to pity her. And Sarah’s economic resources made the lawsuit possible in the first place.

Vocabulary

  • consensual: Agreed to by both participants.
  • coverture: A common law practice where women fell under the legal and economic oversight of their husbands upon marriage.

Discussion Questions

  • What do the events of James Dunn’s trial reveal about attitudes toward free Black women in the early United States?
  • Why was Sarah Moran’s lawsuit successful? What privileges did she have that Sylvia Patterson did not?
  • How do these cases make you feel? How do you think women in early America felt about these cases?
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Suggested Activities

  • For more information about how the legal status of women in the United States shaped these cases, see Coverture and Reaffirming Coverture.
  • Teach this source together with Novel for a New Era and Life Story: Asenath Smith for a larger lesson about Federal period attitudes towards sex and the consequences of these attitudes for women.
  • The attitudes towards sexual misconduct established in the Federal period still inform the outcomes of cases today. Ask students to identify a recent example of a highly publicized sexual misconduct case and compare and contrast it with these early American examples. What has changed? What has remained the same?

Themes

POWER AND POLITICS

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