Hester Vaughan Trial: 1868
Hester Vaughan Trial: 1868
Defendant: Hester Vaughan
Crime Charged: First-degree murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Guforth (No first name listed.)
Chief Prosecutor: No record.
Judge: Ludlow (No first name listed)
Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Dates of Trial: June 10—July 2, 1868
SIGNIFICANCE: When the teenaged Hester Vaughan allegedly murdered her newborn infant, she was prosecuted by a male district attorney, defended by a male attorney, found guilty by an all-male jury and sentenced to death by a male judge. Women's rights leaders, protesting that Vaughan had not had "a trial by a jury of her peers," promptly organized their followers. The women's outcry gained much attention in the press and persuaded Pennsylvania Governor John Geary to exile Vaughan to her native England rather than sign her death warrant.
According to Hester Vaughan's report to her female sympathizers, she had traveled to the United States from her native England to marry her American fianc6. After one and a half years—and upon Vaughan's discovery that her "husband" had another wife and family—Vaughan was deserted. Too ashamed to return home, she accepted a housekeeper's position in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was raped by a member of her employer's household and became pregnant. She left that household, rented a small room, and took in odd sewing jobs while awaiting her baby's birth.
The press and other historical accounts of the trial are sketchy and riddled with gaps. It is clear that on February 8 or 9, 1868, Hester Vaughan, malnourished and living alone in an unheated room at 703 Girard Avenue, Philadelphia, gave birth. Two days later, she asked another resident of the building for a box in which to place a dead baby. She also asked that the matter be kept secret.
Instead, the police were notified. Vaughan was arrested and brought to trial on murder charges on June 30, 1868. The prosecution presented several witnesses, whose testimony was summarized by the Philadelphia Inquirer
[Vaughan] explained [to the resident from whom she had requested a box] that she had been frightened by a lady going into the room with a cup of coffee, and fallen back upon her child, thus killing it.… Dr. Shapleigh [of the Coroner's office], who examined the body, found several fractures of the skull, made apparently with some blunt instrument, and also clots of blood between the brain and skull. The lady who took the coffee to the prisoner heard the child give one or two faint cries.
The commonwealth rested its case, and Judge Ludlow ordered Vaughan's lawyer, a Mr. Guforth, to present the defense's witnesses the next morning. According to reports later published by women's rights leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Vaughan had paid Guforth her last few dollars to retain him as her lawyer, but Guforth, after taking her money, never saw her again until the first day of trial.
On the morning of July 1, Guforth presented a witness or witnesses who testified as to Vaughan's good character. He then offered his own arguments against her conviction: First, "the prisoner should not be convicted of murder in the first degree, because in the agony and pain she must have suffered, she may have been bereft of all reason," and second, "the death may have been caused by accident, for the prisoner was the only human being who saw the death, and her lips were sealed by law." Presumably, this latter argument may have referred to the 19th-century belief that women were incompetent witnesses.
Sentenced to Die
Vaughan was found guilty and sentenced to die. Susan A. Smith, M.D., one of the country's first women doctors, learned of the case and visited Vaughan in Moyamensing prison. Upon medical examination and after repeated interviews, Dr. Smith wrote to Pennsylvania Governor John W. Geary concerning the circumstances of Vaughan's pregnancy, labor and delivery:
[Vaughan] rented a third story room … from a family who understood very little English. She furnished this room, found herself in food and fuel for three months on twenty dollars. She was taken sick in this room at midnight on the 6th of February and lingered until Saturday morning, the eighth, when her child was born, she told me she was nearly frozen and fainted or went to sleep for a long time.
You will please remember, sir, throughout this period of agony she was alone, without nourishment or fire, with her door unfastened.
My professional opinion in Hester Vaughan's case is that cold and want of attention produced painful and protracted labor—that the mother, in endeavoring to assist herself, injured the head of her child in its birth—that she either fainted or had a convulsion, and was insensible for a long time.
Despite court testimony that the baby had cried, Dr. Smith and another woman doctor, Clemence Lozier, later questioned whether the child had even been born alive.
When Governor Geary failed to respond to Dr. Smith's request for Hester Vaughan's pardon, the case was brought to the attention of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and other members of the Working Women's National Association. They promptly scheduled a protest meeting in New York City's Cooper Institute. Cady Stanton and Anthony decried what they called Vaughan's "condemn[ation] on insufficient evidence and with inadequate defense." However, their protest was based primarily on 19th-century women's exclusion from the ballot and jury boxes. The crowd in attendance voted unanimously to petition Governor Geary for either a new trial or an unconditional pardon for Hester Vaughan. They sent the governor—and several major newspapers—the following resolution:
Whereas, The right of trial by a jury of one's peers is recognized by the governments of all civilized nations as the great palladium of rights, of justice, and equality to the citizen: therefore, Resolved, That this [Working Women's National] Association demand that in all civil and criminal cases, woman shall be tried by a jury of her peers; shall have a voice in making the law, in electing the judge who pronounces her sentence, and the sheriff who, in case of execution, performs for her that last dread act.
In their travels across the country and in their own newspaper, the Revolution, Cady Stanton and Anthony kept up a campaign of condemnation against a male dominated society that would sentence to death a "young, artless, and inexperienced girl." Women, exhorted by Cady Stanton and Anthony to view the case with a "sense of… responsibility in making and executing the laws under which [our] daughters are to live or perish," responded: they continued to petition the governor and even wrote poems about the case of Hester Vaughan.
Finally, in the summer of 1869, Governor Geary pardoned Vaughan—but with the condition that private funds be raised to pay her passage back to England. Cady Stanton and Anthony raised the money and triumphantly published Vaughan's thank-you letter in the Revolution on August 19, 1869.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Harper, Ida Husted. Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Vol. 1. 1898, reprint, Salem, NH: Ayer Co., Publishers, 1983.
New York Times, December 4, 1868.
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 1-2 and December 3-4, 1868.
Revolution, December 10, 1868-August 19, 1869.