Non-Fiction Review: The Sewing Girl’s Tale, by John Wood Sweet


book cover

A riveting Revolutionary Era drama of the first published rape trial in American history and its long, shattering aftermath, revealing how much has changed over two centuries—and how much has not

On a moonless night in the summer of 1793 a crime was committed in the back room of a New York brothel—the kind of crime that even victims usually kept secret. Instead, seventeen-year-old seamstress Lanah Sawyer did what virtually no one in US history had done before: she charged a gentleman with rape.

Her accusation sparked a raw courtroom drama and a relentless struggle for vindication that threatened both Lanah’s and her assailant’s lives. The trial exposed a predatory sexual underworld, sparked riots in the streets, and ignited a vigorous debate about class privilege and sexual double standards. The ongoing conflict attracted the nation’s top lawyers, including Alexander Hamilton, and shaped the development of American law. The crime and its consequences became a kind of parable about the power of seduction and the limits of justice. Eventually, Lanah Sawyer did succeed in holding her assailant accountable—but at a terrible cost to herself.

Based on rigorous historical detective work, this book takes us from a chance encounter in the street into the sanctuaries of the city’s elite, the shadows of its brothels, and the despair of its debtors’ prison. The Sewing Girl’s Tale shows that if our laws and our culture were changed by a persistent young woman and the power of words two hundred years ago, they can be changed again.


Disclaimer: Although I received an uncorrected digital galley of this book from the publisher, the opinions below are my own..

Have you heard of Lanah Sawyer? I hadn’t until I came across The Sewing Girl’s Tale last year. She has an entry on Wikipedia, but it only has five external references. Four are from books on rape and the legal system; only one is specifically about Sawyer’s case and it was written by an eyewitness of the trial back in 1793. In contrast, one third of this book by John Wood Sweet is dedicated to notes and references.

The Sewing Girl’s Tale presents the known facts in a straightforward manner. Lanah went for a walk with a member of the city’s elite, a man she’d recently met. Maybe she was naïve, maybe she had a fairytale dream that he’d marry her. Regardless, she ended up in a room in a brothel where she lost her innocence. She reported the events to her family within 72 hours, and her stepfather then pressed for criminal charges against the man involved. But where Lanah’s family struggled to find the funds for a lawyer, the accused had easy access to at least a half dozen attorneys. The book then shows how it was that the accused really was judged by a jury of his peers because they were all men of status. To them, Lanah was a nobody because she was a working-class woman. It was, in today’s parlance, a slam-dunk for the defense.

After, men rioted in the streets. They burned down the brothel involved, as well as other houses of ill-repute. I couldn’t decide if the author believed it was a case of attacking the unfair legal system or if it was action against the “unruly” actions of women who kept such places. He cited both as possible reasons and went on to explain how women who went against the norm were often deemed “unruly.” Even the esteemed Abigail Adams could be dismissed by her husband when she voiced her opinion on the subject. But in all the violence and debate that took place after the court case, few remembered the woman who had had the guts to stand up to her accuser. Lanah Sawyer was left to fade into obscurity, a forgotten symbol of the disparity between the genders in the early years of this country.

There’s so little information on Lanah Sawyer that this book, supposedly about her, mostly looks on the lives and rights of women in the new country in general. The author provided evidence on the wrongs done to women – particularly working-class women – in the late 18th century, but he also repeatedly wondered what might’ve gone through the minds of all involved in the trial, and the events before and after it. At least he didn’t give us the answers to his questions. After all, can any man comprehend what a woman would think and feel about the injustices forced on them by a society favoring a wealthy patriarchy? Ultimately, this was an interesting dramatization of an historical event, but with so little information to go on regarding Lanah other than the trial proceedings, I wonder if it was worth making her the focus of it.


Rating: 3 out of 5.


Publisher: Henry Holt & Co (an imprint of Macmillan Publishing)

Publication Date: 19 July 2022

Book Information


John Wood Sweet is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former director of UNC’s Program in Sexuality Studies. He graduatedfrom Amherst College (summa cum laude) and earned his Ph.D. in History at Princeton University. His first book, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, was a finalist for the Frederick Douglass Prize. He has served as a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, and his work has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, the National Humanities Center, the Institute for Arts and Humanities at UNC, the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale, the McNeil Center at Penn, and the Center for Global Studies in Culture, Power, and History at Johns Hopkins. He lives in Chapel Hill with his husband, son, daughter, and a new baby.

John Wood Sweet’s website:

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