The geographical location of the murder of Ada Brown may have affected the negative way Ada Brown is spoken of in many news articles covering her death. In certain excerpts from our class dossier, Ada Brown is referred to as a “depraved woman,” or a woman of dubious moral character, because of her extramarital relationships with both Martin Harrison and George Gregory. Though many locations in 19th century America could have had somewhat negative responses to the fact that Ada Brown was not living up to the social decorum of the time, there is reason to believe that Hartford, CT would have been especially strict.
As noted by Richard Gaskins in his article, Changes in the Criminal Law in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut, the state of Connecticut, being a part of New England, had a historically austere, Puritan background. Because of this, in early pre-Revolutionary America, Connecticut’s criminal law system was focused almost entirely around moral and religious conflicts and the utilization of severe corporal punishment in meting out justice. Adultery, or fornication, was considered a huge offense, and could result in whippings, brandings, or even death if the offense was committed multiple times. Even though Connecticut tried to take steps forward to shift the focus of criminal law onto more property-based issues, there were noticeable resurgences of the Puritan morality-rooted law system as late as 1812 (311).
Yet, Gaskins cites more research that seems to suggest that New England, and Connecticut in particular had finally moved away from strictly religious-based punishment by 1820. Though fines were still in place concerning fornication and other immoral crimes, the majority of crimes dealt with from then on were economic-based and imprisonment began to become a more-utilized form of punishment, rather than previous punishments of cutting offenders’ ears off and flogging.
Still, in the articles concerning Ada Brown’s murder, which occurred in the year 1884, the majority of the descriptions of Ada place emphasis on the fact that she was a “fallen woman” just as much as the fact that she was brutally stabbed and bled to death.
In 1842, years after the reform in criminal law had occurred in Connecticut, the famed author Charles Dickens visited the city of Hartford and remarked that “too much of the old Puritan spirit” remained in the city (The City of Hartford 1784-1984, pg. 171). Though this is the opinion of an outsider, it should be taken into consideration. Hartford may have thought itself progressive, moving away from its New England Puritan roots, but to a stranger, the lingering religious undertones may have been much more pronounced.
Even though Hartford had abandoned criminal prosecution according to moral beliefs since the 1820s, it seems that still did not stop the suppressed but present Puritan beliefs from seeping into the treatment of the Ada Brown case, specifically in regard to her moral character.
-Grace & Lauren W.
Gaskins, Richard. “Changes in the Criminal Law in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut.” The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 25, No. 4. Oxford University Press, 1981, Pages 309-342, http://www.jstor.org/stable/845276. Accessed 27 September, 2016.
Grant, Ellsworth Strong and Grant, Marion Hepburn. The City of Hartford, an Illustrated History. Connecticut Historical Society, 1986. Print.