The Spinsters of Madison County

They’re back.

Not content to follow the path of their former friends and slowly fade away from historical record, the unruly “spinsters” known as Mary Baker and Ann Martin continued to cause trouble after the county raided their brothel. The documents made no mention of Rodah Barnard, Elizabeth Burton, or the Wilson sisters. This omission implies that the women either moved, were less of a raging hot mess, or possessed the ability to be covert.* Either way, Baker and Martin managed to entice another unmarried woman, named Mary King, to “riotously, routously, and tumultuously, asemble and gather together.”

Their purpose was to roam the county on May 7, 1820. Apparently the three women engaged in various acts of “pasing and repasing along the public streets and common highways,” in search of business. As they chose to ply their trade along the byways of the county on a Sunday they did two things. First, they attracted a lot of customers, Sunday proved to be a day off for most laboring men and they approached the women in large packs. The second accomplishment proved less fruitful. Baker, Martin, and King inadvertently attracted the attention of the sheriff and his men.

When the law arrived they found a small gathering. The three women stood on the road and negotiated prices and turns with “evil dispared persons to the number of ten and more.” The documents specify that the court did not know the names of the men, so they probably scattered as soon as someone shouted ‘oh shit, it’s the sheriff.’

According to neighbors who failed to appreciate the women’s hardworking ethic they’d “remained and continued together,” along the roads of Madison county “making such noise… for a long span of time, to wit, for the space of six hours.” Now, the documents remain vague about the nature of “such noise.” However, context clues indicate that it was something along the lines of ‘hey! y’all wanna fornicate?’ followed by the jingle of coins as they passed between hands and the sad grunts of a woman who’d rather be somewhere else.

The jury found all three women guilty and fined them a dollar each.**

Unfortunately, life as a prostitute proved harsh in Madison county. Although the two cases already examined paint things in a more comical light, because that’s what we do here, “spinsters” often faced unrepentant violence with little repercussion for their attackers.*** Fortunately, there exists some small sampling of justice and as happenstance would have it, it involves one of the women arrested here. Mary King entered into a dispute with a man named Jenning Seay on June 1, 1820. It most likely arose over payment for services. He beat her viciously and then committed “other great wrongs to the said Mary King,” which sounds like a euphemism for rape. This assertion is amplified by the fact that he either gave her a “riot wound” or “lust wound,” we are unable to make out the specific word because the handwriting is ambiguous. Unfortunately Jenning Seay did not receive jail time, fortunately the county acted quickly and arrested the man and issued a $500.00 fine against him. Hopefully he died bankrupt.


The State of Alabama v. Mary Baker, Mary King, & Ann Martin, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 49-50 (1820).

The State of Alabama v. Jenning Seay, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 50 (1820).

*It’s a pun!

**Fun fact, John W. Looney served on this jury.

***Another series of cases documents how a spinster named Mary Wilson was attacked at various times by several men, one with a cow shin, and other spinsters. I am uncertain whether or not it’s Barbara or Lucinda Wilson from the previous update going by a different name.

Spinsters for Filthy Lucer

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.

That’s right.

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.