Amelia Norman and the Law of Seduction

Julie Miller

Amelia Norman, New York Herald on Jan. 18, 1844. Library of Congress, Serial and Government Publications Division.

In 1841 a young domestic servant named Amelia Norman abandoned her job and her reputation to become the mistress of a merchant named Henry Ballard, who had an importing business on New York’s waterfront and rooms in the Astor House, the city’s newest and most luxurious hotel. After more than a year together, Ballard dropped Norman and their child and left the city. In the fall of 1843, after he returned, Norman approached him and asked him for support. He refused, and brutally told her to “go and get her living as other prostitutes did.”  On the evening of November 1, 1843, Norman, fueled by misery and anger, followed Ballard to the Astor House. When they reached the hotel’s columned entrance she pulled out a knife and stabbed him, just missing his heart.[1]

Ballard survived his wounds, and Norman’s week-long trial the following January attracted wide interest. Crowds filled the courtroom every day, and newspapers followed it closely. Even though multiple witnesses on the hotel’s crowded steps testified that they had seen Norman stab Ballard, the jury acquitted her after deliberating for less than ten minutes. At a time of economic depression and widening democracy there was a great deal of sympathy on the part of the public and the press for Amelia Norman, and an equal amount of angry contempt for Henry Ballard.[2]

Norman’s violent act on the Astor House steps is also a lost thread in the story of the expansion of rights for women in the nineteenth century. As she waited in jail for her trial, Norman attracted the sympathy and attention of people who were involved in two efforts to reform the legal definition of “seduction.” The common-law tort of seduction, rooted in English law, allowed the father or master of an unmarried woman to sue her seducer for damages on the basis of his loss of her services. To Lydia Maria Child, the abolitionist, popular author, and women’s-rights advocate who became Norman’s principal defender, the connection between slavery and the legal definition of seduction, in which one person owned the labor of another, was obvious. In the newspaper column she devoted to Norman’s trial she wrote:

What is the redress for a broken heart, blighted reputation, the desertion of friends, the loss of respectable employment, the scorn and hissing of the world? Why, the woman must acknowledge herself to be the servant of somebody, who may claim wages for lost time! With indignation and scorn, I appeal to common sense, and common justice, against this miserable legal fiction—this impudent assumption that I am a chattel personal. It is a standing insult to woman kind; and had we not become the slaves we are deemed in law, we should rise en masse, in the majesty of moral power, and sweep that contemptible insult from the statute book.[3]

One of Norman’s lawyers, David Graham, Jr., appears to have tried to do exactly that. In 1847 the state legislature of New York made him a member of a three-man Commission on Practice and Pleadings whose mandate was to create a code of law for New York and to simplify and modernize its legal procedures. The code the commission produced, known as the Field Code after David Dudley Field, the leader of the effort, includes a section, 604, titled “Seduction.” Its entire text reads: “An unmarried female may prosecute, as plaintiff, an action for her own seduction, and may recover therein such damages as shall be assessed in her favor.” Graham’s role in drafting Section 604 is hard to know, but his objection to the seduction tort is certain. He spoke out against it at Norman’s trial, protesting that the only law to protect a woman’s virtue was “an action for damages.” Whatever his role, Section 604 wiped out the “contemptible insult,” as Lydia Maria Child hoped it would.[4]

Broadway looking downtown. The columned entrance of the Astor House is on the right. N. Currier, 1846. New York Public Library, Wallach Division Print Collection.

The second effort to reform the legal status of seduction was headed by the American Female Moral Reform Society, an evangelical group founded in New York in 1834 to rescue the city’s prostitutes. As soon as the moral reformers learned about Norman’s attack on Ballard, they linked it to the campaign they had been waging since the 1830s to criminalize seduction. “It begins to be obvious that if our law-makers are obstinate in refusing to punish seduction and kindred crimes, these crimes will be pretty certain to punish themselves,” they warned, “we prefer statute law to lynch law.” The surge of interest created by Norman’s trial, which the New York Herald called “the extraordinary moral impulse of an excited community,” helped boost their campaign. After a few failed efforts New York’s legislature passed “An Act to Punish Seduction as a Crime” on March 22, 1848.[5]

Both the “Act to Punish Seduction” and Section 604 were ultimately dead ends. The criminal law went largely unused, possibly because women and their families found it more satisfying to sue seducers for damages than to have the moral satisfaction of sending them to jail. New York’s Field Code, meanwhile, was widely influential. Many American states and territories and a few other countries adopted it in whole or in part, and section 604 was adopted by some of these places—but, ironically, not New York. The old seduction tort, meanwhile, flourished, even though in some places women still needed their fathers to sue for them. By the 1930s the tort had come to be associated with “gold-diggers,” women seeking to entrap wealthy men, and states began to abolish it.[6]

The two efforts to fix the seduction tort, both of which got a boost from Norman’s attack on Ballard on the Astor House steps, may have been dead ends, but they were part of the maelstrom of events that ultimately led to lasting change in women’s status. In April, 1848, one month after it passed the law criminalizing seduction, New York’s legislature passed a law that granted wives the right to keep their property after marriage. The Married Women’s Property Act, which became a model for similar laws in other states, began the process of restoring to women their rights and responsibilities as adults. That summer, at the first women’s-rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, women demanded the vote for the first time. The convention also protested the sexual double standard that had shaped Amelia Norman’s experience.[7] The obsolescence of “seduction” means we have forgotten the nineteenth-century efforts to reform it. To remember these efforts, which Amelia Norman helped inspire, is to remember the complexity, emotion, and even violence that were part of the early movement for women’s rights.


Endnotes

[1] New York Evening Post, New York Sun, New York Tribune, Jan. 17, 1844 On the Astor House: Julie Miller, Cry of Murder on Broadway: A Woman’s Ruin and Revenge in Old New York (Ithaca, NY, 2020), 39; on Norman’s attack on Ballard, Cry of Murder, 9–17.

[2] These and other details of Norman’s crime and trial are in Miller, Cry of Murder.

[3] Lydia Maria Child, “Letter from New-York No. V,” Boston Courier, Feb. 6, 1844. When the column was reprinted in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on Feb. 22, 1844, this paragraph was one of six that had been cut. For a comparison of the two versions see Miller, Cry of Murder, appendix, 167–79.

[4] The Code of Civil Procedure of the State of New-York, Reported Complete by the Commissioners on Practice and Pleadings (Albany, NY, 1850; repr., Union, NJ, 1998), 245–47; “Acquittal of Amelia Norman,” New York Tribune, Jan.20, 1844. Andrea L. Hibbard and John T. Parry were the first to note the connection between David Graham, Jr., Section 604, and the case of Amelia Norman, in “Law, Seduction, and the Sentimental Heroine: The Case of Amelia Norman,” American Literature 78 (June 2006), 340–41. For the Field Code see Daun Van Ee, David Dudley Field and the Reconstruction of the Law (New York, 1986).

[5] “Police Office – the Stabbing Case near the Astor House,” Advocate of Moral Reform, Nov.15, 1843, 173; “Legislation on Social Crimes,” Herald, Feb. 12, 1844; “Act to Punish Seduction as a Crime,” Laws of the State of New-York Passed at the Seventy-First Session of the Legislature, January 4–April 12, 1848 (Albany, NY, 1848), 148. For the American Female Moral Reform Society’s effort to criminalize seduction, Miller, Cry of Murder, 137–38.

[6] Miller, Cry of Murder, 142–43.

[7] “Declaration of Sentiments,” “The first convention ever called to discuss the civil and political rights of women, Seneca Falls, NY, July 19, 20, 1848” (pamphlet) [1848], https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbnawsa.n7548/?sp=4&st=text; “An Act for the effectual protection of the property of married women, Passed April 7, 1848” is in “Married Women’s Property Laws,” in “American Women: Resources from the Law Library,” Library of Congress, https://guides.loc.gov/american-women-law/state-laws; Miller, Cry of Murder, 143–45.

11 January 2020

About the Author

Julie Miller is a historian and author of Cry of Murder on Broadway: A Woman’s Ruin and Revenge in Old New York (2020)

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