Episode 354: John Wood Sweet, The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America

History tells us who we are and how we came to be who we are. It also allows us to look back and see how far we’ve come as people and societies. Of course, history also has the power to show us how little has changed over time.

John Wood Sweet, a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of the book, The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America, winner of the 2023 Bancroft Prize in American History, joins us to investigate the first published rape trial in the United States and how one woman, Lanah Sawyer, bravely confronted the man who raped her by bringing him to court for his crime.

About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Each episode features a conversation with a historian who helps us shed light on important people and events in early American history.

Ben Franklin’s World is a production of the Colonial Williamsburg Innovation Studios.

Episode Summary

John Wood Sweet is a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He specializes in the social and cultural histories of race, gender, and sexuality during the revolutionary era. He’s the author of numerous articles and several books, including The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America, winner of the 2023 Bancroft Prize in American history.

During our investigation, John reveals who Lanah Sawyer was and how she met her rapist, Harry Bedlow; The legal recourse open to Lanah for reporting her rape and seeking legal redress; and details about Lanah Sawyer’s case, Harry Bedlow’s trial, and the significance of how it serves as the first published rape trial in United States history.

What You’ll Discover

  • The geography and demography of post-Revolutionary New York City
  • English and Anglo-American legal definitions and cultural ideas about rape and sexual assault
  • The judicial process of reporting a rape in early America and the difficulty of securing a guilty verdict
  • Lanah Sawyer’s early life and family history
  • Harry Bedlow’s early life and family history
  • What the term “rake” meant to early Americans
  • Lanah Sawyer and Harry Bedlow’s “relationship” prior to the rape
  • Brothels and bawdy houses in early America
  • Lanah and her family’s response to her rape
  • Lanah Sawyer’s rape trial as the first recorded rape trial in the new United States
  • Sir Matthew Hale’s influence on English legal definitions of rape
  • The impact of Lanah Sawyer’s criminal rape trial on the law of rape in the United States
  • New York City’s violent response to Harry Bedlow’s not guilty verdict
  • The history of seduction suits in English and Anglo-American law
  • How Lanah Sawyer’s seduction suit was a first of its kind
  • What happened to Lanah Sawyer and Harry Bedlow after the trials

Links to People, Places, and Publications

Sponsor Links

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Women’s History Month at Colonial Williamsburg

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Complementary Episodes

Episode 020: Kyle Bulthuis, Four Steeples Over the City Streets
Episode 069: Abby Chandler, Law, Order, and Sexual Misconduct in Colonial New England
Episode 113: Brian Murphy, Building the Empire State
Epiosde 174: Thomas Apel, Yellow Fever in the Early American Republic
Episode 185: Joyce Goodfriend, Early New York City & Its Culture
Episode 190: Jennifer Goloboy, Origins of the American Middle Class
Episode 225: Elaine Forman Crane, The Poison Plot: Adultery & Murder In Colonial Newport
Episode 257: Catherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth Seton An Early American Life

Time Warp PlainTime Warp Question


In your opinion, what might have happened if Harry Bedlow had been found guilty and convicted of rape? Do you think his conviction would've impacted the history of rape cases in the early United States in any way?

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