Monday, February 1, 2010

Trial for Bastardy - 1808

Place: New York City
Time: August 1808

On Trial: Alexander Whistelo, "a black coachman"

The Story:
"Adam-colored" Lucy Williams and her black lover Alexander Whistelo had a child together, a child whom Whistelo accepted as his own until his friends (possibly named Iago?) "put it into his head that it was not his." He then refused to maintain the child, and Lucy was forced to go to the Alms-House for support.

The Alms-House objected to the community being made to support a child when the mother could name its father, and thus went after the father via the court system to make him, basically, pay child support.

Lucy swore she had always remained faithful to Alexander, so why was there confusion over the child's parentage?

Because the child was "unusually fair" with light, straight hair.

Evidence at trial centered on whether such a child could have a black father.  If it weren't for the level of obnoxiousness and bigotry, I suppose one might feel sorry for the medical "experts" called to testify, as they clearly hadn't a clue. For example:

Dr. Kissam: Black persons are almost white at their birth, but change soon after; the change is generally complete, and their true color decided in about eight or nine months; within the year it is complete.

But that wasn't all of the trial testimony - much of it revolved around Lucy's supposed sex life. Consequently, the men - doctors and lawyers - behaved like schoolboys and indulged in quite a bit of levity:

ProsecutionThe woman's testimony in one view was meritorious—it went to discharge the community from the burden of supporting a bastard child, and to oblige the true father to maintain it.

Defense (in reply): It is said her evidence was meritorious, and for the good of the community, charitable, and for the good of the Almshouse. I never before heard of such pious and patriotic fornication.

There are many different layers to this trial. One is the construction of race. Another is how illegitimacy, sex, and charity were viewed in America during the Federalist period.

And on the women's history front, we have here surfacing of a bit of ancient and troublesome, but commonly-held, folk belief - that a woman cannot get pregnant if she doesn't enjoy or consent to the sex. Yes, at one time it was considered proof that rape had not been committed if the woman became pregnant from the attack.

Hence this exchange:
Defense Attorney:  Had you not a white man in bed with you?

Lucy Williams: I had a scuffle with one once ... such a person had been in bed with me; he had turned the black man out with a pistol, and taken his place. We had a connexion but I am sure we had made no young one, for we [fought] all the while.

Lucy is certain the child is Alexander's because 1) she loves him, and 2) she fought the rapist. Therefore it simply can't be his.

This bit of personal tragedy isn't seen by the men in court, who apparently believe even being raped at gun-point is good for a laugh:

Defense Attorney: As it appears, the black man could not have got the child because it is white, nor the white man because of the fighting, it would be good to see whether the pistol-barrel could have got it?

The doctor of whom he asked the jocular question rejoins that he doesn't indulge in kinky pistol sex:
Sir James Jay, MD: Then, sir, you must inquire elsewhere, touching that matter. I have found the old practice good enough for me, and have made no experiments in the way you allude to.

In his summation, the defense attorney again dwells on the rape:
If a white man can say to a black one, get out of that bed, you black devil, till I do this thing—by division of labor, trade will be advanced—you must do your part of the duty and I mine—I will get the child and you shall father it—there will be in this manner employment for us both. Can that, may it please your Honors, be the law?

And in response to the prosecution's criticism of his experts:
What do they know, he says, more than other men? But that is not all, he goes farther and levels a shaft at your Honors on the bench, and says you have as much experience in such matters as any doctors or any persons whatsoever. Some gentlemen have a happy knack at saying anything. If I had even suspected any of your Honors of any such experience, or at all to have dipped into such matters, even from curiosity, I never should have ventured to hint at it.

The defense's tactics were successful. Despite the word of the mother traditionally being legally sufficient, the Court decided Lucy could not prove her case and Alexander was discharged from all responsibility.

It is worth pointing out again that Alexander had accepted the child as his originally.  Perhaps this trial really should have been about the so-called friends who broke up that little family.

They were true bastards.

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