Media and Press Coverage
Susan B. Anthony’s fame, combined with great public interest in woman suffrage in 1872, made United States v. Susan B. Anthony a case to watch from Election Day until long after the conclusion of her trial in June 1873. Anthony was a skilled publicist, and she used her talents to achieve the maximum educational value from her own arrest. The government benefited from the publicity as well. Without attention to the case, the deterrent effect of prosecuting Anthony would be null.
With the press, Anthony had the advantage. Reporters and editors liked her, and the spunk she displayed caught the public’s imagination. As soon as she registered to vote, she went straight to a newspaper office to give reporters a quick interview. Following every step of the legal proceedings, reporters overheard things that they enjoyed telling. For example, while attorneys checked their calendars to schedule the commissioner’s examination, a reporter heard Anthony interject that she would be in Ohio on the day chosen. The assistant U.S. attorney snapped, “You are supposed to be in custody all this time.” “Oh, is that so?” Anthony asked. “I wasn’t aware of it.”
“The Woman Who Dared”
The public character of Anthony was evident in one enduring cartoon drawn just before her trial. “The Woman Who Dared” appeared on the cover of the New York Daily Graphic, June 5, 1873. It is an image about role reversals: a woman wearing a police uniform stands at attention, while men tote babies and groceries; in the background, female orators and demonstrators mimic men’s political rallies; and, center front, Anthony leans on an umbrella with one arm akimbo, in a shortened skirt that reveals men’s boots. A stovepipe hat decorated with the stars and stripes sits at a sporty angle on her head. Anthony’s grim expression is a near perfect copy of a well-known photograph. On an inside page, the editors wrote that if Anthony were exonerated at trial, the world would resemble their cartoon, and women would “acknowledge in the person of Miss Anthony the pioneer who first pursued the way they sought.”
When Anthony sought to educate the public, she had the long-term objective of expanding debate about woman suffrage, but she also had the short-term goal of influencing the outcome of her own trial. She remarked to Congressman Benjamin Butler in May 1873, “I find Judges & Courts are influenced by popular opinion—not a little.” Both objectives were served by the first of her efforts to circulate documents produced in the course of her prosecution. Since her early days in the antislavery movement, Anthony had seen to the publication of inexpensive pamphlets that preserved—and found new audiences for—outstanding speeches and accounts of important events. These were essential components in the propaganda of reform. Henry Selden’s argument before Judge Nathan Hall in January 1873 impressed Anthony as a significant and useful document. She arranged for 3,000 copies of the argument to be published as a pamphlet. While awaiting the printer, she carried page proofs to the offices of New York City’s principal newspapers and mailed them to editors as far away as St. Louis, asking one and all to publish Selden’s text.
Anthony’s most aggressive effort to educate the public about her indictment occurred in Monroe County, New York, in the weeks before her original trial date. She spoke in twenty-nine towns and villages, delivering a lengthy lecture titled “Is It a Crime for a U.S. Citizen to Vote?” that paralleled her attorney’s argument about women’s existing right to vote. Anthony’s arrest and indictment opened the opportunity to draw audiences and engage them in the discussion of woman suffrage. But the most important audience she reached were the adult males in the county who made up the pool of potential jurors at her trial.
In May 1873, when U.S. Attorney Richard Crowley moved that the trial be transferred from the district to the circuit court and thus from Monroe to Ontario County, the press and the public took for granted that he reacted to Anthony’s tour and looked for a new pool of jurors. He did not stop her. With the help of her colleague Matilda Joslyn Gage, Anthony set out to canvass the new county. This time her tour prompted a debate in Rochester’s newspapers about the legality of her actions: Was she tampering with a jury, as her sharpest critics charged? Or, did she simply lack respect for the court, as a friendly editor posited?
Documenting the case
At the conclusion of her trial, Anthony began work on a larger documentary project. In a book of 200 pages, sold for fifty cents, she assembled the indictments, the trial transcripts, the judge’s ruling, the attorneys’ arguments and motions, and her own speech to the potential jurors. It took months to assemble. An Account of the Proceedings on the Trial of Susan B. Anthony, on the Charge of Illegal Voting, at the Presidential Election in Nov., 1872, and on the Trial of Beverly W. Jones, Edwin T. Marsh and William B. Hall, the Inspectors of Election by Whom Her Vote Was Received was published in April 1874. A local newspaper called it “the most important contribution yet made to the discussion of the woman suffrage issue, from a legal stand-point.” Members of Congress, who were then discussing her petition for remission of her fine, received copies, and Anthony continued to sell it and give it away for decades.
Missing from the Account of the Proceedings was the argument of U.S. Attorney Richard Crowley. He refused Anthony’s request for a copy, though not out of modesty. Before the end of 1873, Crowley published his own pamphlet with his argument and the text of the judge’s ruling in the case.
The press take sides
From the first reports of the women’s success at the polls, newspaper responses divided along partisan lines. Support on the part of Republican editors was matched by Democratic indignation. The differences in their attitudes were not only toward woman suffrage but also toward the seriousness of the crime and the use of federal power in the states. The tone was set early on. On November 6, 1872, before any suspicion arose about arrests, the Republican New York Times said, “We have heard before of solitary instances of the recognition of the female franchise: but this picket guard of nine is a tangible enough force to make people reflect on the future possibilities which it involves.” A week later, the Democratic Rochester Union and Advertiser opined that the wave of women voters “goes to show the progress of female lawlessness instead of the progress of the principle of female suffrage. . . . [T]he efforts of Susan B. Anthony & Co. to unsex themselves and vote as men will be so far as they are successful both criminal and ridiculous.”
The partisan alignment of the press was awkward for the officers of the court and the U.S. attorneys, all of whom were Republicans. A number of editors criticized the decision to prosecute this group of voters in an era of corrupt elections. In the Philadelphia Age, the editor wrote that the Enforcement Act “was never intended to apply to the case of a person honestly claiming a right to vote under an erroneous construction of the laws on the subject. It was leveled at crime, at frauds on the ballot-box and acts of violence and intimidation.” The Rochester Evening Express thought it ridiculous to class these women “with the ordinary illegal voter and repeater,” and, referring to the widespread practice of buying votes, added, “The prosecutors of the ladies are mightily particular about a gnat, but find no difficulty in swallowing a camel.”
Newspapers across the country published daily reports, provided by the Associated Press, of the trials of Anthony and the inspectors of election. Rochester newspapers sent their own reporters, and the editor of Canandaigua’s weekly paper attended the trial himself. The event was a great legal match, introducing the new associate justice of the Supreme Court on circuit, showcasing the defiant Anthony, and pitting accomplished lawyers against each other. By June 1873, readers of newspapers everywhere understood that this was the test of the claims of woman suffragists. The lawyers’ arguments and the judge’s ruling filled several columns of the daily papers.
Justice Ward Hunt’s directed verdict of guilty overshadowed his decision that the Constitution did not protect the right of women to vote. The tone of the press changed rapidly as editors took sides on the legality of Hunt’s action. One of the first newspapers to condemn it was the New York Sun. Hunt had “overthrown civil liberty in the United States,” an editor wrote. “He must be impeached and removed.” A lively debate ensued, with editors from Chicago to Boston arguing about the meaning of a trial by jury. Rather than fading away as time passed, the criticism of Hunt gained important support. Anthony’s Account of the Proceedings, available in April 1874, included an essay by John Hooker, the reporter of Connecticut’s Supreme Court of Errors, which called Hunt’s action “contrary to all rules of law” and “subversive of the system of jury trials in criminal cases.” In May and June, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate reviewed the trial transcript, and some of them joined the chorus of condemnation. The Albany Law Journal, New York’s leading legal journal, which sneered at Hunt’s critics in the summer of 1873, reversed itself in the summer of 1874. In a lengthy review of the law, the journal reached the conclusion that “Miss Anthony had no trial by jury. She had only a trial by Judge Hunt. This is not what the constitution guarantees.”
The Trial of Susan B. Anthony