Witch Hunt in Wise County: The Persecution of Edith Maxwell

Witch Hunt in Wise County: The Persecution of Edith Maxwell

Witch Hunt in Wise County: The Persecution of Edith Maxwell

Witch Hunt in Wise County: The Persecution of Edith Maxwell

Synopsis

The southwest Virginia murder trials of a young schoolteacher named Edith Maxwell made her a cause celebre of the 1930s. No newspaper reader or radio listener could avoid hearing of her case in 1935 or 1936, and few magazines neglected to run at least one story on the case. In the media attention that it received, the Maxwell case rivaled the Scopes "monkey trial" of the 1920s, and for some it seemed to involve many of the same sociological issues--the conflict between modernism and tradition, between urban and rural values, between the sexes, and between generations. Feminist organizations like the National Women's Party and other women's business and professional organizations rallied to Edith's defense because women were not allowed on criminal juries in Virginia in the 1930s.

Excerpt

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers in Hyde Park, New York, contain a file of approximately 90 items from 1935 and 1936--letters, petitions, and newspaper clippings--on the subject of Edith Maxwell. There are other materials on the same subject filed in Mrs. Roosevelt's personal correspondence, as well as in the file of her correspondence with Eleanor Patterson, publisher of the Washington Times-Herald. There is also little doubt that in her many travels and contacts with women's organizations, the First Lady was having the Edith Maxwell case brought to her attention through conversations with feminists and other leading women, for Edith Maxwell was a cause célèbre among them in the mid-1930s. The coverage that the case received from newspapers, magazines, and radio for nearly two years rivaled that given to the Scopes "monkey trial" of the 1920s. For many people the issues of the two cases seemed similar.

The "crimes" for which John Scopes and Edith Maxwell were tried could scarcely have been more dissimilar. Scopes had deliberately challenged a Tennessee law that made it illegal to teach the theory of evolution in public school classrooms. The conflict between modernism and tradition, and between science and religion, was obvious in the case, and it attracted such noted figures as Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan to the aid of the prosecution in the little hamlet of Dayton, Tennessee. Henry Louis Mencken forsook his beloved Baltimore to cover the trial on the spot in his inimitable prose, and a generation of Americans has been captivated by its portrayal in the play and movie, Inherit the Wind.

Edith Maxwell's "crime" and trials seemed to offer none of the issues presented by the Scopes case, nor to invite any more than local attention . . .

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