Violence, gender, and the law in New York State, 1790--1860

Date of Completion

January 2003


History, United States|Sociology, Criminology and Penology




In the years between the ratification of the federal Constitution and the beginning of the Civil War, American society experienced fundamental changes in family relations, the criminal law, and public attitudes towards violence. In New York State these broad social changes were paralleled by: revision of the criminal laws, the development of reform campaigns against capital and corporal punishment, and the emergence of the temperance and women's rights movements. However, these progressive changes masked the reality of violence in the family and against women as spousal murder, rape, and assault incidents in New York State increased between 1790 and 1860. ^ Underlying these crime trends was an idealization of family and marital relations which at its core acknowledged that to secure proper order men had the right to inflict reasonable violence on their dependents and that unprotected and unrestrained female sexuality represented the greatest threat to domestic stability. The link between the state's crime trends, gender perceptions, familial ideals, and reform movements were profound and the consequences many. For example, the popularity of seduction tales and the acceptance of limited male violence undermined rape victims' chances of successfully prosecuting their assailants. Conversely, claims of seduction in many instances allowed women to escape the gallows for murdering or participating in the murder of their infants and their husbands. An analysis of the New York court and pardon records reveals that this was a transitional period for violence in the family and against women. Consequently, this study addresses the following questions: why did violence against and by women in New York increase between 1790 and 1860 when progressive changes in family relations, the criminal law, and a growing intolerance towards violence would have suggested the contrary? And why, if law and public opinion favored them, did women continue to meet with such partial and limited success in prosecuting assailants who beat and sexually assaulted them? Finally, how did perceptions of female sexuality and passiveness influence the prosecution of violent crimes committed by women? ^