Hester Vaughn

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Hester Vaughn, or Vaughan,[1] was a domestic worker in Philadelphia who was arrested in 1868 on a charge of killing her newborn infant and sentenced to hang after being found guilty of infanticide. The Revolution, a women's rights newspaper established by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, launched a campaign to win her release from prison. The Working Women's Association, an organization that was formed in the offices of The Revolution, organized a mass meeting in New York City in her defense. Eventually Vaughn was pardoned and deported back to her native England.[2]

Arrest and trial[edit]

Hester Vaughn was an Englishwoman who came to the U.S. in 1863 with a man she thought she had married. He was a bigamist, however, and he deserted her to go back to his first wife. Vaughn then took employment as a domestic worker in Philadelphia, where she became pregnant. She gave birth alone in 1868 in a rented room, where she was found lying beside her dead baby.[3]

Vaughn was arrested on a charge of infanticide and put on trial. According to a contemporary Philadelphia newspaper account, the coroner testified that the newborn baby had suffered severe injuries to the skull. Vaughn was reported to have said that she had been startled by someone coming into her room and had fallen on the baby, killing it.[4] The jury found her guilty of deliberately killing her child, and she was sentenced to be hanged. The judge later said infanticide had become so common that "some woman must be made an example of."[5]

Defense campaign[edit]

The Revolution, a women's rights newspaper established by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, launched a campaign in her defense. Describing Vaughn as a "poor, ignorant, friendless and forlorn girl who had killed her newborn child because she knew not what else to do with it", an editorial in The Revolution said, "If that poor child of sorrow is hung, it will be deliberate, downright murder. Her death will be a far more horrible infanticide than was the killing of her child."[6]

As the campaign developed, The Revolution changed its approach, implying that the baby's death had occurred either naturally or accidentally: "During one of the fiercest storms of last winter she was without food or fire or comfortable apparel. She had been ill and partially unconscious for three days before her confinement, and a child was born to Hester Vaughan. Hours passed before she could drag herself to the door and cry out for assistance, and when she did it was to be dragged to a prison."[5]

The Working Women's Association (WWA), an organization that had recently been formed in the offices of The Revolution, decided to come to Vaughn's defense as its first public project. Anna Dickenson, a famous female orator, lectured for the WWA on Vaughn's behalf in New York City.[5]

The WWA organized a mass meeting on Vaughn's behalf in New York City. Susan B. Anthony, who opened the meeting, introduced several resolutions, beginning with a call for either a new trial or an unconditional pardon on the grounds that Vaughn was "condemned on insufficient evidence and with inadequate defense."[7] Other resolutions called for women to serve on juries and to have a voice in making laws and electing public officials, and for the end to the death penalty. All of the resolutions were adopted. A contemporary newspaper report said, "Miss Anthony wanted it understood that the workingwomen were going to defend the defenceless of their own sex" and quoted Anthony as saying, "As soon as we get Hester Vaughan out of prison we will get somebody else to work for. We intend to keep up the excitement".[8]

Stanton spoke at the meeting also, demanding the right of women to vote, to hold public office and to serve on juries.[7] Two years earlier, Stanton's and Anthony's "Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States" had said that the lack of such rights resulted in unfair treatment of women by the legal system, specifically mentioning those who were accused of infanticide.[9]

Speakers at the meeting were criticized by some newspapers for focusing on women's rights and voicing concern for only the mother, not the dead infant. According to the New York Evening Telegram, none of the speakers "expressed the slightest sympathy with the thousands of poor little infants who are sacrificed to this puerperal mania or something else every month of the year... Hester Vaughn's murdered child is surely entitled to some pity as well."[10] The Nation said that Vaughn's conviction was "denounced with as much fury as if the woman's story of bigamy, and the rape which the victim refuses to prove, made it in some mysterious way the duty of the Governor to treat the infanticide as really a blameless act".[11]

The Working Women's Association used Vaughn's situation to highlight several women's rights issues. It said that economic restrictions were at the heart of women's sexual vulnerability because it was so difficult for women to earn a living by finding decent and safe work. It attacked the double standard that placed all blame on Vaughn and none on her deceivers. It argued that Vaughn was the victim of a social system that sometimes forced women to murder their illegitimate children. It decried the fact that Vaughn was sentenced to death by a legal system from which women were completely excluded except when it came to punishment.[12]

Vaughn was visited in prison by a delegation from the WWA that included a female doctor.[13] Another female doctor had also visited Vaughn in prison and had diagnosed her as suffering from puerperal mania, now called postpartum psychosis, which, she said, meant that Vaughn was not responsible for her actions at the time she gave birth.[5] Stanton, a co-editor of The Revolution, led a delegation to Governor John W. Geary to ask him to pardon Vaughn. Six months later, Geary quietly pardoned Vaughn and she was deported back to England.[12]


  1. ^ Some contemporary newspaper accounts spelled her name as Vaughn and others as Vaughan, and the same is true of academic studies. The Philadelphia Inquirer, which covered the trial itself, used Vaughn. The Revolution, which afterwards conducted a campaign in her defense, used Vaughan. The New York Times article on the mass meeting in her defense used Vaughn except when quoting directly from resolutions passed by the meeting, which used Vaughan.
  2. ^ "Hester Vaughan Trial: 1868 - Sentenced To Die". law.jrank.org. Retrieved 21 May 2017. 
  3. ^ This outline of Vaughn's story comes from footnotes by Ann D. Gordon to an article called "Infanticide" in The Revolution, August 6, 1868, p. 74, which is reprinted in Gordon (2000), pp. 158–159. Contemporary sources provide other variations of this story, but they are often contradictory. For example, one version says that the man who impregnated Vaughn was her employer, while another says that she refused to identify him.
  4. ^ Philadelphia Inquirer, July 1, 1868, p. 2, under the heading "Legal Intelligence." The conclusion of this trial is reported in the same newspaper on page 3 of the issue for July 2 beneath the same heading. These digitized newspaper images are produced by the Fultonhistory.com service.
  5. ^ a b c d "The Case of Hester Vaughan," The Revolution, December 10, 1868, pp. 357–358.
  6. ^ "Infanticide", The Revolution, August 6, 1868, p. 74, which is reprinted in Gordon (2000), pp. 158–159.
  7. ^ a b "Hester Vaughn", New York Times, December 2, 1868
  8. ^ "The Termagants and the Slaughter of the Innocents", Rochester Union and Advertiser, December 3, 1868, p. 3. This quote also appears in the New York World, December 2, 1868, according to Sherr (1995), p. 218.
  9. ^ Gordon, Ann D., ed. (2003). The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: National Protection for National Citizens, 1873 to 1880, p. 235. Vol. 3 of 6. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-2319-2.
  10. ^ "The Case of Hester Vaughn", New York Evening Telegram, Dec 2, 1868, p. 2
  11. ^ The Nation, Dec 10, 1868, "Women as Politicians," pp. 475–476
  12. ^ a b DuBois (1978), p. 145–147
  13. ^ "Hester Vaughan Trial: 1868 - Sentenced To Die". law.jrank.org. Retrieved 21 May 2017. 


External links[edit]

In addition to the articles cited above, articles in The Revolution on the Hester Vaughn case include: "Hester Vaughan," September 17, 1868, p. 169; "Hester Vaughan," November 19, 1868, p. 312; "The Case of Hester Vaughan," December 10, 1868, p. 357; "Hester Vaughan," December 10, 1868, p. 360; "The Hester Vaughan Meeting at Cooper Institute," December 10, 1868, p. 361; "Is Hester Vaughan Guilty?," January 21, 1869, p. 35; "Hester Vaughan Once More," August 19, 1869, p. 165. These articles can be viewed on the web through a service of the Watzek Library of Lewis & Clark College, which provides digital images of every issue of The Revolution.