Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Age of Consent Law and the Making of Modern Childhood in New York City, 1886-1921

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Age of Consent Law and the Making of Modern Childhood in New York City, 1886-1921

Article excerpt

On the morning of January 4th, 1916, Rosa Colletti, a fifteen year old factory operative, and eighteen year old Anna Belsito, Colletti's friend and co-worker, seeking to escape beatings at the hands of their mothers, ran away their parents' homes in the Bronx. Two nights later, as the young women ate dinner in a restaurant, they were approached by twenty year old Louis Morelli. Morelli talked with them for a while, and then took them to his furnished room. Later that evening, he told Anna to leave but invited Rosa to stay. Rosa and Morelli then had sexual intercourse. Some time after that Morelli's roommate, James Torcello, arrived home and joined Rosa and Morelli in the room's only bed. In the days that followed, the two men went to work while Rosa "kept house"; in the evenings, Morelli brought Rosa food and took her out to various entertainments. On one occasion, Torcello had intercourse with Rosa while Morelli slept. At 2 a.m. on January 20th, two detectives, tipped off by Anna, whom they had arrested for soliciting, found Rosa and the two men in bed, and took all three into custody. Morelli admitted to the officers that he was living with Rosa, and that he had had intercourse with her. He also claimed that he wanted to marry her. Unmoved by his offer, the police charged him with statutory rape. (1)

The prosecution of Louis Morelli initiated a legal process that generated multiple narratives concerning his encounter with Rosa Colletti. Reading those narratives in relation to each other, highlighting the differences between them, reveals the way in which prosecutors sought to secure a conviction by shaping multiple narratives into an apparently compelling case. The key to winning a conviction in the lower courts, prosecutors discovered, was the presentation of a narrative that fitted jurors' understanding of the crime being alleged, rather than one that accorded with the legal definition of that crime. As Arthur Train, an assistant district attorney in New York City in the first decade of the twentieth century, saw it, jurors "frequently feel by no means confident that the punishment will fit the crime, and are anxious, so far as they can, to dispose of the case for themselves." (2) Prosecutors' efforts to conform to jurors' understandings helped to complicate, and sometimes to transform, the meaning of l egal categories, and the ideas from which legislators derived them.

Despite the relative slimness of the case file put together by the Manhattan County District Attorney's Office for the prosecution of Louis Morelli, it contains not one account of Rosa Coletti's story, but three: Rosa's statement to the officer of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty (NYSPCC), who investigated her case; that officer's summary of Rosa's statement, as contained in his investigation report; and a later and fuller summary the officer made in the trial brief he prepared for the attorney who prosecuted Louis Morelli. Rosa's statement describes an encounter with Morelli in which she set some of the terms of their subsequent relationship: when Morelli asked, in the restaurant, whether she wanted to become his "friend," Rosa, taking the initiative from him, replied that he would first need to obtain a furnished room. But when Morelli said that he had such a room, it was Anna, not Rosa, who suggested that they go to see it. It was also Anna who, by agreeing to leave without Rosa, created a situation in which Rosa was left alone with Morelli. Rosa's statement as to what happened next is opaque, making it difficult to determine if Morelli compelled her to stay, and later to have intercourse with him. The NYSPCC officer's initial summary of Rosa's statement omitted her conversation with Morelli in the restaurant, as well as the other details of their relationship before and after they had intercourse. Rosa was presented, instead, as a passive object whom Morelli "brought" to his home to "perpetrate an act of intercourse upon. …

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