Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Van reviews Branson on Women, Crime, and Notoriety in the Early Republic

Thanks to H-Law, we have this review of Susan Branson, Dangerous to Know: Women, Crime, and Notoriety in the Early Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

Rachel Van (Columbia University) opens the review by introducing the figures that receive Branson's closest study:

In the swelter of the Philadelphia summer of 1816, Ann Carson stood trial as an accessory to the murder of her erstwhile husband. John Carson had been gone for two years when rumors surfaced of his death. While such an absence was nothing strange for a maritime officer, John’s drunken sojourns and unwillingness to support his family left Ann fed up and ready to move on. She opened a chinaware shop as a licensed feme sole trader and, more provocatively, remarried. But John was not dead. When he finally meandered back to Philadelphia with six dollars in his pocket, he found another man laying claim to his wife and his property via her. The stage was set for confrontation and murder.

In Dangerous to Know, Susan Branson puts to paper a history of the “notorious” Ann Carson and the woman who dared to ghostwrite her memoirs, Mary Clarke. Branson tells the intertwined stories of these two women in five biographical chapters, but the heart of the book is a series of courtroom dramas: the trials of Ann Carson and Richard Smith for John Carson’s murder, Ann Carson’s subsequent trial for attempting to kidnap the governor of Pennsylvania in order to save Smith from execution, and, following Carson’s descent into a life of crime, her trial for passing counterfeit bills to local shopkeepers. Mary Clarke was an interesting woman in her own right, a widow who eked out a living as a journalist and playwright, but her story largely provides a foil for Carson. Yet by including Clarke as a principal figure, Branson is able to consider the author’s role in the construction of Carson’s notoriety.

Van cautions that the book "is not a legal history in the traditional sense," but recommends it as "a case study for discussing gender, class, or meanings of modernity," a useful "remind[er] . . . of the place that law and courtroom drama played in the lives of Americans of the early nineteenth century," and "a fun read."

You can access the full review here. Readers who subscribe to Reviews in American History can find another review, by Birte Pfleger (California State University - LA), in the June 2010 issue ("Marriage, Murder, and Memoirs," pp. 259-263).

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