Rodah Barnard, Mary Baker, Elizabeth Burton, Ann Martin, Barbara Wilson, and Lucinda Wilson never joined the traditional caste known as wife. Some process either prevented them from marrying or they just felt no compulsion to go hang out at some dude’s house for the rest of their lives. Keep in mind that single women, or feme sole, during this period owned property, negotiated contracts, and represented themselves in court. Upon marriage they underwent a legal expunging of their former autonomy and assumed the mantle of feme covert – covered women.
The status of covered woman meant that society at large accepted you as a decent human but also prevented you from accessing and controlling your dowry, the property a woman in the United States and England brought into the marriage, or otherwise existing legally as a separate person.* Married women required the use of “next friends” in any court proceeding and often relied on their fathers or lawyers to represent them in any suit they brought against their husbands.** Although widowed women often received an automatic portion of a former husband’s estate known as “the widow’s third,” even in the case of outstanding debts or other costs incurred during his lifetime. So, at best, a lot of women gambled on the fact that their husbands wouldn’t be idiots and might make enough money to sustain them after his death. Unfortunately, a lot of women were wrong.
So for the few with enough gumption to stay by their lonesome – liberty made the best husband.
Although these women possessed enough intestinal fortitude to retain the status of feme sole and keep on truckin’, they still required things like food and housing. Which meant feme sole often dominated the few industries available to women at that time – like spinning fabrics and weaving. Thus the term “spinster.” However, the industrial revolution removed this traditional occupation because machine spun fabric outstripped spinster fabric in both price and quantity. So much so that by the early nineteenth century spinster became a pejorative term for an older feme sole.***
The fact that industries traditionally dominated by single women no longer existed, or were in serious decline, meant that the heroes of our story turned to an industry even more traditionally dominated by single women.
I’m talking about hookers.
On January 1, 1820, “and on divers other days and times,” the aforementioned women held a massive party at their brothel. It should be mentioned that although other cases might have insinuated about prostitution, this is the first confirmed indictment for it in Madison county’s history. Oh man, what an indictment it is. The documents never expressly name the ringleader but from the amount of times her name appears it indicates that Rodah Barnard, spelled Barnett in the original bill, may have run the brothel and served as its madame.
Either way, the women operated “a certain Bawdy house” within the limits of Huntsville that apparently did pretty good business. They served a wide variety of customers ranging from “evil dispared persons, as well men as women,” and operated “in the night as in the day…[to] commit whoredom and fornication.” From the descriptions provided by the court documents it appears that much of Huntsville came to the establishment to satisfy their various lusts.
Not only would have the presence of a brothel enraged some of the more reform minded people of Huntsville but the presence of a brothel that served women? Well it’s no wonder that the sheriff raided the place fully armed and that the state itself sued the lady proprietors.
Joseph Eastland, the state’s prosecuting attorney, went all out in his portrayal of the brothel as a factory of sin. Not only did the women engage in sex “for filthy Lucer,” but they also initiated “riots, Routs, affairs, disturbances, and violations of the peace of the said State of Alabama.”**** Worst of all they committed the grave sin of distracting and subverting the youth. Eastland contended that they served all sorts of liquor and compelled their clients to engage in swearing contests. When the people of Huntsville arrived at the brothel their thin veneer of civilization faded away and they spent their free time “drinking, tippling, cursing, swearing, quarreling, and otherwise misbehaving themselves.”
The women were of course acquitted on all charges. I imagine they celebrated in true style.
The State of Alabama v. Rodah Barnett, Mary King, Mary Baker, Barbary Wilson, Ann Martin, Elizabeth Burton & Lucinda Wilson, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 34-35 (1820).
*Fun fact, Mississippi passed the first married woman’s property law in 1839. Originally stemming from the court case of Fisher v. Allen it eventually resulted in white, and occasionally wealthy indigenous women, being allowed to manage the dowry slaves they brought into a marriage.
**Second fun fact, Alabama was one of the only states that allowed single women to represent married women as a next friend. So if you had an unmarried daughter over the age of 21 and wanted to sue your husband you’d have to be like “hey, remember how I carried you in my damn womb?”
***Obsolete occupational names for demographic groups are just the greatest – bachelor originally meant ‘the lowest form of squire,’ husband is just an Old Norse word for farmer, and villains were a type of serf. So every time you watch a movie and say “I bet that guy’s the villain,” what you’re really saying is ‘oh man, that human is definitely the medieval sharecropper in this story.’
****For those keeping track, a Rout is just a synonym for riot. These women went so hard in the fornication that they caused two distinct kinds of riots.