Academic journal article Journalism History

Rape and Race in Colonial Newspapers, 1728-1776

Academic journal article Journalism History

Rape and Race in Colonial Newspapers, 1728-1776

Article excerpt

This article uses scores of colonial newspaper reports of rape to examine the creation and perpetuation of racial ideologies in the early American press. Contrary to the historiagraphic emphasis on the nineteenth-century "myth of the black rapist," this research shows that colonial newspaper reflected racial differences in the ways that they reported rapes. Reports of black-on-- white rapes presented the attack as a racial crime, while white-on-white rapes emphasized the class, ethnic, or community identity of the individual attacker. Further, reports might identify victims of black rapists simply as white women or girls, while reports identified victimes of white rapists as young and vulnerable or as the victims of particularity heinous attacks. Together, these patterns of reporting reinfied the connections between race and rape.

In 1736 a Pennsylvania newspaper reported, "Saturday last was tried here a Negro Man for Ravishing a White Woman near Derby, and is condemn'd to be hang'd. Tis said that Saturday next is apointed for his Execution." Eighteen years later, the same newspaper noted, "Last Thursday Night, one James Gale, a Taylor, was sent to our Goal, for committing a rape on the Body of a Child about sixYears old"' These brief notices were typical reports on rape in colonial American newspapers. Since a colonial newspaper was usually only a few pages long, most rapes were reported in one or two sentences that confirmed the occurrence of the rape or the outcome of the prosecution. Given the brief nature of such entries (and the difficulties in locating them), few historians have devoted significant attention to the general portrayal of rape in colonial newspapers. However, much can be learned about colonial attitudes toward rape, especially the intersection of race and rape, from these brief reports.

Even in one-sentence statements, these newspaper reports shed light on the colonial construction of racial identities in relation to sex. Newspapers reported rapes by white and black men differently. When a white man was the defendant, papers focused on the atrocity of the specific act. When blacks were accused of rape, newspapers emphasized the crime as a wrong committed by a member of a racial group. Moreover, newspaper reports on rape prosecutions made the victim's identity integral to the report of the rape. Such reporting highlighted rape as a black-on-white crime, while white-on-white rapes were treated as attacks by single misguided individuals. In so doing, colonial newspapers used race as an ideological construction that imputed causation to supposed racial differences: blackness indicated uncontrolled sexual behavior.2 While newspapers did not create racial ideologies apart from legal and other social influences, they could be an influential means to distribute and sustain racial beliefs. As James N. Green has written, "Since taverns and coffeehouses subscribed to them, and since they were often read aloud, their impact on daily life must have been considerable."3 Thus, a careful examination of colonial newspapers shows how the colonial press helped to create or perpetuate racially-based understandings of sexual assaults.

This article examines reports of rape between 1728 and 1776. In this period, nearly 100 newspaper reports of rapes or attempted rape prosecutions were located in twenty-one newspapers published in nine colonies.4 A two-pronged approach was used to gather sources. First, a comprehensive study of two major colonial newspapers, the Pennsylvania Gazette of Philadelphia and the Virginia Gazette of Williamsburg, was made. The Pennsylvania Gazette is available in fully searchable text, and the Virginia Gazette has a print index.5 Second, because this article is a small part of a larger project on the social, legal, and cultural histories of sexual assault in early America, there also was a search for other newspaper reports of rape prosecutions.6

The study begins in 1728 with the birth of the Pennsylvania Gazette. …

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