‘Out­raged while un­con­scious’

Case fell apart in 1881 ac­cu­sa­tion of rape

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - TOM DIL­LARD Tom Dil­lard is a his­to­rian and re­tired ar­chiv­ist liv­ing near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Ark­topia.td@gmail.com.

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.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.