One Cent Spinster

We previously encountered Rodah Barnett in cahoots with several other spinsters; who all lived and worked in early Madison county. Although most of the women quickly faded from history, a few later reappeared “pasing and repasing along the public streets and common highways,” in a desperate bid to ply their wares. As Rodah Barnett eschewed this form of business, it was erroneously assumed by the staff of Huntsvillain that she found a new calling in life.

However, in early September of 1821, a little over a year after being acquitted on all previous charges of “whoredom” and “keeping a bawdy house” Rodah Barnett again stood before a jury. The charges against her seemed familiar. Joseph Eastland, the same state prosecutor that previously indicted Rodah, Mary King, Mary Baker, the Wilson sisters, Barbary, Elizabeth, and Ann, now once again placed Rodah Barnett in his sights.

The state of Alabama claimed that on April 1, 1821, “and on divers others days and times,” Rodah Barnett reopened and operated her brothel. It seemed that Rodah’s reopening attracted the same caliber of customer as her previous exploits.

Joseph Eastland painted her as a sinners’ magnet, entertaining “divers evil disposed person as well as men as women and whores… in the knight as in the day.” As usual the presence of an active brothel caused all sorts of calamity as the various prositutes procured by Barnett engaged in “dreadful filthy and lewd ofenses.” The “good citizens” of Madison county found the most distressing aspects of the brothel to be the sex workers lack of “manners, conversation, state, and obedience,” to various social norms.

Taken all together it seemed a pretty normal condemnation of local prostitution. Yet a single line stood out above all others. We’ve already acknowledged that women came to the brothel, although it seems uncertain as to whether or not they engaged the sex workers. Even then the possible rumors of sapphic acts failed to perplex Joseph Eastland and his contemporaries as much as people assembling “at unlawful times.” One of the only groups of people subject to an actual enforced curfew, and thus the only ones capable of congregating at unlawful times, were free blacks and enslaved people.

Due to later specific bans on enslaved people selling produce, hiring out their own time, or renting land for their own homes – we have an idea that they possessed some small levels of economic autonomy in early Madison county. Seeing as that autonomy occasionally consisted of them purchasing moonshine or attending Fourth of July celebrations; it should come as no surprise that they might be found at a brothel or that officials chose to couch their presence in terms of euphemisms instead of direct mention of a practice that undermined the racial caste system of 19th century Alabama.

Due to this possible flagrant breech of the contemporary social contract – Rodah Barnett had to be stopped. She survived the first indictment but a second jury found her guilty of keeping a brothel, though not of prostitution, before the state shut down her franchise and fined her one cent.

citation:

The State of Alabama v. Rodah Barnett, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 93-94 (1821).

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