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Perspective: A shocking 19th-century crime reveals the continued need for gender equality [View all]

Perspective: A shocking 19th-century crime reveals the continued need for gender equality

Made by History • Perspective

A shocking 19th-century crime reveals the continued need for gender equality

The rage caused by inequality can produce violence if it isn’t channeled into activism

By Julie Miller

Julie Miller's new book is: "Cry of Murder on Broadway: A Woman’s Ruin and Revenge in Old New York" (Three Hills, an imprint of Cornell University Press). Her first book was "Abandoned: Foundlings in Nineteenth Century New York City" (NYU Press). In 2016 and 2017 she was featured on the Washington Post podcasts “Presidential” and “Constitutional.”

Dec. 27, 2020 at 6:00 a.m. EST

On the evening of Nov. 1, 1843, a 25-year-old seamstress and domestic servant named Amelia Norman followed Henry Ballard, a prosperous Boston-born importer, up the steps of New York’s luxurious new Astor House hotel. When they reached the top, she pulled out a knife and stabbed him, just missing his heart. When she saw him afterward, bleeding but alive, she told the man who was driving her to jail that she was sorry she had not killed him.

The hardships of Norman’s early life helped to fuel this violent display. She was born around 1818 on a farm in the mountains of northwestern New Jersey. Her education was so limited that she never learned to write, not even to sign her name. Her family was large and troubled, and at around 16, she took an opportunity to work as a household servant in New York. Live-in domestic service was hard work, and it paid poorly, but at the time, it was one of the very few occupations open to women. In the first half of the 19th century, many young women chose, like Norman, to leave their rural homes and come to the cities to work as servants.

Norman prospered in her new home, earning the friendship of the family she worked for and making friends in the neighborhood. Then came disaster. The economic crash known as the Panic of 1837 sank the country into a depression that lasted into the 1840s. The family members Norman worked for lost their business, and she left for a series of new jobs. ... In the spring of 1841, during this unsettled time, Ballard, who owned an importing business near the seaport and lived in the sumptuous Astor House, saw Norman and engineered a meeting with her. He then, in the words of one of Norman’s lawyers at her trial, “succeeded in accomplishing her seduction.” After this, Norman left her home and job and became Ballard’s mistress.

In the fall of 1842, she bore a child. Soon after, Ballard left the city, leaving Norman behind. By the fall of 1843, he had returned, and when Norman appealed to him for support for herself and their child, he told her to “go and get her living as other prostitutes do.” At her trial in 1844, Norman’s lawyers told how Ballard’s seduction, followed by his brutal rejection, destroyed the modest, lighthearted young woman described by the friends who testified on her behalf, and provoked the madness that drove her up the steps of the Astor House with a knife on that November evening. ... During the months that Norman waited in jail for her trial, she attracted an influential supporter: the reformer and popular author Lydia Maria Child.


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