Nineteenth century feminists claimed to speak on behalf of the vulnerable from a position of empathy that made their perspectives uniquely valuable. But when Hester Vaughn killed her newborn baby, feminists’ rage at men far outweighed their sympathy for Vaughn’s dead infant.
The case of Philadelphia resident Hester Vaughn (variously spelt Vaughan), who was tried and convicted for first-degree murder in the death of her newborn baby, is one of the most infamous cases of infanticide in American history, not only because of the sensational nature of the crime but also because of the manner in which feminist leaders seized on the incident to advance their anti-male agenda. The History Channel’s website informs readers today that the trial “exposed sexual harassment in 1868” and that Hester Vaughn’s dead baby “became a symbol in the fight for equal rights.” As we will see, it wasn’t quite that simple.
The details of Vaughn’s story are lost in history. But the facts about the murder of her infant were beyond a reasonable doubt. According to the coroner at Vaughn’s trial, which took place in July of 1868, her baby’s skull had been crushed with a blunt instrument and its tiny body severely beaten (see Sarah Barringer Gordon, “Law and Everyday Death: Infanticide and the Backlash against Woman’s Rights after the Civil War” in Lives in the Law, p. 55).
No one but Vaughan could have committed the crime, as Vaughan was alone in her boarding house room following the baby’s birth, having denied she was pregnant and refused offers of assistance. Vaughn was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.
There was nothing unusual in this young woman’s crime. Infanticide was common in the 19th century English-speaking world, as elsewhere. Exact numbers of the dead are impossible to determine, but the crime was frequent enough to alarm medical authorities and for the subject to figure in many popular novels of the time, including foremost English writer George Eliot’s 1859 novel Adam Bede, in which sympathy is evoked for the child-killer Hetty Sorrel.
Feminist historian Constance Backhouse reports that “Infanticide was an unsavoury but surprisingly common feature of life” in nineteenth-century North America (Petticoats and Prejudice, p. 113). Law Professor Sarah Barringer Gordon, who has written a comprehensive article on the Vaughn case, reports that “In 19th century Philadelphia, thousands of dead newborns were found in alleys, ash heaps, privies, rivers, and so on. Doubtless many more were never discovered, or if found, never reported or recorded. One historian has even speculated that women may actually have [committed more murders] than men, if infanticides are added into the total number of other forms of homicide” (“Law and Everyday Death,” in Lives in the Law, p. 63). This essay draws heavily on Professor Gordon’s account of the Vaughn trial and its aftermath.
What was unusual in the case of Hester Vaughn was the severity of her sentence—death by hanging—which may have resulted from the unambiguous nature of the killing. Infanticide was a crime rarely prosecuted and even more rarely punished, as juries were disinclined to pronounce guilty verdicts on the often-forlorn women brought before them, especially when it was possible that the baby may have died accidentally or of natural causes. Professor of History Ann R. Higginbotham gives examples from 19th century London to show that “juries were extraordinarily reluctant to convict women accused of murdering their illegitimate infants,” often out of sympathy for the women’s difficult circumstances (“Sin of the Age: Infanticide and Illegitimacy in Victorian London,” p. 329).
The judge in the Vaughn case seemed to feel the need to justify his harsh penalty, telling the courtroom that infanticide had become so common that at least one woman needed to be made an example of. Vaughn was taken into custody to a Philadelphia jail to await her execution. As we will see, however, it’s unlikely her death sentence was ever to be carried out (there had not been a woman hanged in Philadelphia since 1737); and Vaughn was eventually pardoned and released.
But while she was still being held in jail, American feminist leaders began to agitate on behalf of Vaughn, creating an emotionally compelling story that presented Vaughn as a victim of forces beyond her control.
Benefiting from the fact that relatively little was known about Vaughn, feminists collaborated to portray her as a classic victim heroine in a narrative of wronged innocence. In the pages of their feminist newspapers and in public speeches, they rewrote the story of guilt that had been established in the courtroom, transforming Vaughn into a persecuted maiden and a loving but desperate mother.
And even as they used Vaughan’s agonized motherhood as a plank of appeal, they notably failed to focus any of their sympathies on the battered infant, which of necessity was quietly buried, rhetorically, in order for Vaughn’s suffering as a neglected daughter, not a neglectful mother, to take center stage, and for all blame to be shifted to the allegedly cruel patriarchal state. In the end, as I said, Vaughn was pardoned for her crime. Whether she would have been pardoned without the feminist agitation remains unclear. What is most relevant for our purposes was the extreme willingness of feminist leaders to embroider a story with little factual underpinning to advance the case for Vaughn’s innocence, and their utter indifference to her child’s death.
Feminist advocates declared Vaughn wrongfully convicted and set about emphasizing her powerlessness. Members of the Working Women’s Association held a mass rally on her behalf, visited Vaughn in prison, and petitioned the Pennsylvania Governor for her pardon. In the pages of The Revolution, the feminist newspaper run by feminist leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Stanton used all the rhetorical embellishments at her command to downplay the fact of the murder and to depict Vaughn as the victim.
|Elizabeth C. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony|
Just over three months later, on November 19, 1868, Stanton wrote another editorial about Vaughn, this time radically embellishing Vaughn’s story so that she was not only a victim of the male legal system but of a sexually exploitative employer. In Stanton’s new telling, Vaughn had sought employment from a “respectable-looking man” who had “proved her betrayer.” This man, whom Vaughn refused to identify out of a sense of honor towards his wife, had raped her and then turned her out into the street when her pregnancy became known (Stanton, “Hester Vaughan,” The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, p. 191).
In Stanton’s version, no one lifted a finger to help Vaughn in the boarding house as she gave birth, terrified and ill, in an entirely empty room. “In vain she had called for help, no one heard or heeded her cries, feverish with pain and thirst, she dragged herself to the door to beg some passerby for water, and when, at last, help came, she was found in a fainting condition, and the child dead by her side” (p. 191). The strong implication in Stanton’s representation was that the baby had died not through any deliberate act of Vaughn’s but because Vaughn had fainted on the baby, or possibly had been maddened by grief and pain.
Stanton assured readers that Vaughn had wanted to love her baby but was prevented from doing so because of “prejudice against unwed mothers,” such that “the deepest and holiest affections of a mother’s nature must, of necessity, be crushed in concealment” (“Hester Vaughan,” p. 192).
Stanton emphasized that Vaughn’s trial had taken place “with most inadequate proof” and that she had been unjustly abandoned by the women of Philadelphia, whom Stanton exhorted to advocate for Vaughn as if she were their own daughter. Lamenting that “In the great State of Pennsylvania not one woman has protested against the barbarism of this whole procedure, nor petitioned Governor Geary for the girl’s life. In the name of womanhood, we implore the mothers of that state to rescue that defenceless girl from her impending fate. Oh! […] suppose your young and beautiful daughter had been thus betrayed, would it not seem to you that the demands of justice should take the life of her seducer rather than her own?” (“Hester Vaughan,” p. 191).
The idea that a woman’s alleged “seducer” should be found equally guilty in a case in which a woman killed her illegitimate baby was quite common at this time. British barrister E. Belfort Bax mentions it in his book The Fraud of Feminism as “one of the proposals which finds most favour with the Sentimental Feminist” (The Fraud of Feminism, p. 45).
Stanton did not confine her anger to the man she imagined—without proof—to have raped Vaughn; she also lashed out at all men, who had made the law in order to excuse themselves and victimize women: “Men have made the laws cunningly for their own protection; ignorantly, for they can never weigh the sorrows and suffering of their victims” (“Hester Vaughan,” p. 191)
The only problem with Stanton’s and other similar stories that circulated at this time was that the key facts simply didn’t apply to Vaughn, who had confessed her guilt a week after her sentencing, not mentioning rape or accidental death of her baby or any of the mitigating circumstances proclaimed by her defenders (Gordon, p. 73-74). Then in early December, at the height of the furor over her case, Vaughn signed an affidavit stating that the father of her child was not her employer and that she had never claimed he was—and that she didn’t know whether he was married or not. And the portrayal of her as forced to give birth alone and without any options was also a concoction. At trial, it had been shown that women from Vaughn’s boarding house had come forward offering to assist her in her labor and been refused, with Vaughn even denying that she was pregnant, a fact seeming to indicate that Vaughn had planned before the birth to secretly kill and dispose of the child (Gordon, p. 64).
|St. Joseph's Orphan Society|
Philadelphia in the late 1860s was a city with many organizations committed to raising illegitimate children. According to Holly Caldwell’s web article, The Orphan Society of Philadelphia had been established in 1814 and operated continuously throughout the 19th century along with various religious houses such as the St. Joseph’s [Catholic-run] Orphan Asylum (established 1797). Illegitimacy did carry social stigma, but it was not as total or heartless as Stanton depicted, and Vaughn could have placed her child in one of these orphan asylums.
The Vaughn case exposes the difficulty at the heart of feminist activism, still evident today, when it involves real women, sometimes quite nasty ones, who do not fit the mold of the suffering innocent that feminists prefer to construct. To be fair, Vaughn probably did have a hard life (as many working-class women and men did)—but she was also a woman who made the choice to kill her baby. Feminist agitation on her behalf showed the willingness of activists to fabricate a victim story that overlooked the truly powerless being who had been destroyed.
The enthusiasm with which feminist activists rallied around Hester Vaughn strongly indicated that they were more determined to vilify men and complain of double standards than to pursue truth and justice. Then as now, they were quite willing to excuse an infant’s murder if it helped them advance their anti-male agenda.