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Hester Vaughan Trial: 1868 - Sentenced To Die

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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.

Kathryn Cullen-DuPont

Suggestions for Further Reading

Barry, Kathleen. Susan B. Anthony. New York: New York University Press, 1988.

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.

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