‘Outraged while unconscious’
Case fell apart in 1881 accusation of rape
The recent prosecution of comedian and actor Bill Cosby for sexual abuse of a woman he had allegedly drugged reminded me of an 1881 trial in Little Rock for the rape of a young woman who had supposedly been rendered unconscious with drugs. While the Cosby case ended in a hung jury, the 1881 prosecution quickly fell apart.
On Wednesday, May 18, 1881, the Arkansas Democrat carried a two-sentence notice which read: “Several young men who were at the park last Thursday night find themselves wanted in Magistrate Howe’s court. Miss Cora L. May has sworn out papers charging one or more with assault.” The word assault, in this case, was a euphemism for rape — a word that was considered indelicate if not crude in 19th century Arkansas and the South.
According to subsequent newspaper accounts, the accusation caused “quite a sensation.” Miss May, whom the Arkansas Gazette reported to be “not more than 17 years,” amended her charges to accuse only one person, a young man named George Widler.
During the first hearing on the case, Miss May “told her story in a seemingly straightforward manner,” according to a reporter. Miss May said she was at Deuell Park with the defendant where she “drank four glasses of beer.” Established in 1877, the privately owned Deuell Park is believed to be the first real park in the city. The newspaper account stated that after drinking the beer, “she ate some strawberries, and she asserts she then became unconscious and does not remember what took place until she found herself at home.” Using another euphemism for rape, the newspaper said Miss May claimed to be “outraged” while she was unconscious.
The case grew more convoluted on the following day when Widler filed charges against Miss May and her mother for slander.
In an era in which court cases were often tried quickly, the case against Widler was heard only three days after the charges were filed. A large crowd “completely filled” the courtroom as the trial got under way, and “it was with great difficulty that the officers could preserve quiet.”
Miss May was called to the stand as the first witness, and she repeated her account that she had been “drugged and then outraged by the defendant.” Under cross examination by Widler’s attorney, the case quickly fell apart. The defense attorney produced two letters written by Miss May to Widler after his arrest and asked that they be entered as evidence.
The first letter, which a sobbing Miss May later claimed was written by her mother, inquired if Widler was willing to marry Miss May, concluding with: “My God, has it come to this that I must beg you to right the greatest wrong ever man could do woman.” The second letter consisted of two sentences: “You have ruined me. Will you marry me or not?”
The prosecutor had no previous knowledge of the letters, and he was furious: “Your honor these letters knock the backbone out of this case. On the part of the state, I will dismiss it right here.” Thus ended the trial.
For modern readers, perhaps the most shocking thing about this whole sad story was the lack of objectivity on the part of newspaper accounts. In one early account of the charges, a Gazette story reported that: “Several persons are in this city from Forrest City where the May family formerly lived, and their statements about the mother and daughter are anything but complimentary.”
In another article Miss May’s mother was described as “a common-looking woman and ungainly in her actions.” Miss May was described in the same article as appearing like “a young girl whose experiences with the world had been limited.”
The Gazette described the aftermath of the trial: “The excitement that ensued on this unexpected termination of the case caused great excitement in the courtroom… Both [Miss May] and her mother did not receive much sympathy from the bystanders, but young Widler was congratulated on the successful end of what seemed to be a serious charge.”