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Hester Vaughan Trial: 1868

Sentenced To Die

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
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death

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.

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