Gender Roles in the 19th Century: The Male Perspective


By: Isabella, Sam & Lauren


In contrast to our previous discussions on gender, this week, we will be focusing on the male perspective. Our goal is to dig deeper into the background of and the lives of the two major men involved in the murder of Ada Brown: Martin Harrison and George Gregory. Our intention is also to start to understand the gender roles, specific to men in the 1880’s, in the hopes of understanding and contextualizing the series of events leading up to the murder and eventually, the events that followed.

Martin Harrison

This week I am going to be focusing my attention on Martin Harrison. Harrison was 50 years of age at the time of the crime and was a widower. He had lost four wives previous to Ada.  To earn a living, he worked as a city driver. Harrison had been living at 26 Sheldon Street with Ada at the time of the murder. After the murder happened, Harrison was taken to the hospital, where he was monitored until he made a recovery. According to article 4, he was making progress with his recovery two days after the crime. Article 5 stated that a warrant was issued for his arrest for the murder of Ada. The warrant was served to him at the hospital and it was ordered that a special officer was to stay with Harrison in his room to ensure he wouldn’t try to leave the hospital once he gained his strength back.

Harrison has had a lot of help from the city in previous years. All of the expenses for the burials of his previous four wives have been taken care of by either the town or outside charities.(Article 6) I have yet to find more information as to why he was given so much aid for the burials of his four wives. There is a chance he had some sort of personal relationship with someone who worked for the state. I hope to find out more and report back next week with my findings. We also learned in Article 6 that Harrison was ordered to go to the hospital. We are unsure of what hospital he was ordered to go to. Given the facts of his past, (the deaths of his four wives) I am going to make the assumption that it was some sort of mental hospital. I am also going to assume he didn’t go because he didn’t want to seem weak.

Harrison had requested a trial separate from Gregory’s because he believed that some of the evidence had nothing to do with him. (Article 10) Harrison was tried in the Superior court in January of 1885 and was sentenced to 7 years for manslaughter. Two days after Harrison was sentenced to state prison, he decided that giving a confession would be “good for his soul”. (Article 13) He decided to tell the whole story of that happened to Ada on the night of her murder. But insisted that he did not try to take his own life, but rather Gregory took a knife to his throat.

George Gregory

George W. Gregory is a hard man to track down, despite all the information given in the dossiers. This week I plan to break down who he is and examine what events within his life led him to be in the same apartment as Ada Brown and Martin V.B. Harrison on the night of October 20th, 1884. In order to gather a substantial bit of information, I started with his father S.W. Gregory, who, according to article 1 page three, built “Gregory’s block on State Street.” With the help of newspaper ads, and I was able to figure out that Gregory’s block was actually a series of fruit stands or fruit grocers on State street in Hartford. The same man, S.W. Gregory, could then be identified as Simeon W. Gregory. I found a series of documents that explained his business, sales etc., unfortunately, the handwriting made it hard to decipher the specifics. Going further into his life I found that he married a woman named Martha Hunt and had three kids, none of which named George W. Gregory. With this, there are two possibilities that come to mind that explain the lack of info on George.

First, after the incident between Gregory and a young woman with whom he was married, his father disowned him. She was described as a “woman of easy virtue”, which is not a compliment, as we have learned. He had “fired a pistol ball into [her] head” and she survived. All of this information was found in article 1, page three of the dossiers. As a respected man in Hartford, Simeon W. Gregory was forced to leave his son behind in order to keep up with his business’ reputation. His son being married to a loose woman reflects poorly on the family, leaving him no other choice. If it is not the woman, it is the fact he tried to kill her. A son with such a harsh past that could be brought to light at any moment was not something that his father wanted to risk at the expense of his business. To further support his abandonment, during the trial Gregory did not look for a lawyer. Article six, says that “he doesn’t require any and hasn’t the money to pay for lawyers if he chose to hire them.” Without the support of his father, his current clerk job (that may have been at one of his father’s shops because after his father’s death he no longer was a clerk) at the time was not enough to pay for counsel. His financial status is what also led him to meeting Ada Brown. She was in the same financial position, which led her to that area of Hartford. Sheldon Street, as described in the dossiers, was one full of lower class working people following the job market.

Second, the most plausible, being that he is not included in any documents because he was born out of wedlock. George W. Gregory, like Lena Brown, took the name of his father, but there is no substantial evidence of S.W. Gregory being his father except for the claim in the dossier. This would explain why even though S.W. Gregory had a spouse, George is not listed as one of his children. Without the knowledge of his mother, his identity becomes almost impossible to find. From here we can assume a few things. The first being that the mother may have died, and his father took him in. The second, explains his employment.  According to Ancestry, his buildings were from 78-82 state street and from 1876-1877 he shifted from 82 to 82 state street. His father may have employed him at one of his business, and allowed him to live there. This would explain the change in addresses, but continuing to live on State Street. He would go to whichever place that would need a clerk ( Finally, after his father passes in 1877, the address of Mrs. S.W. Gregory matches that of George. The business, most likely, was left to fail because there was no one left to take care of it. Women at this time, could not control business and a son out of wedlock coming out of nowhere and running the business could jeopardize it as well. The only born son between him and Martha at the time was only about fourteen years old, not old enough to run a business. George was most likely forced to move in with his step mom, because losing the business meant losing not only his job, but his home. Another very interesting fact is that ancestry even says that the three children born from his father and Martha are his “Half Sisters” and “Half Brother”, but I digress. We can explain his financial crisis during the trial with this information as well, and we can also conclude that this is what led him to meet Ada Brown. Ada was a woman who had been singled out for her status within society and George could sympathize with her, making them very close. During this time, society’s pressure was imminent and maybe finding someone in the same situation called for a closeness we cannot really understand.

All things considered, I will not attempt to conclude what had occurred within the home on Sheldon Street! The similar situations between Gregory and Ada may have sparked something in their relationship, causing him to maybe protect Ada in stabbing Harrison. Gregory’s father’s business is what brought them together, most likely. When google mapping the streets, assuming there is not a lot of change from now and then, State Street and Sheldon Street is only a block away from each other. According to Gregory, they were close friends, even “sweethearts” and being that close to each other made it easy for the relationship to blossom. After researching Ada, and connecting that maybe Harrison was the financial support for her, Gregory could have been the emotional support. The two men had different vendettas for being in the apartment that night. With all of this information fathered, I believe that Ada was stabbed by Harrison in his range over the $10 because he lacked the emotional connection to her (or any woman in that case i.e. four wives). Gregory was the one that cared about her and fought back in the name of Ada. Harrison did in fact say that Gregory stabbed him, but that, I believe, is as far as it gets.

Gender Roles / Separate Spheres Ideology

During the 19th Century, the prevailing understanding of gender roles and dynamics was the Separate Spheres Ideology. There were two spheres: the public sphere and the private sphere. Women were expected to remain in the private sphere, while men remained in the public sphere. Therefore, a woman’s place was the home and men were expected to be working and providing for the family, as the breadwinner. These societal expectations of either gender that persisted throughout the 19th century, were tested when, at the end of the 19th century, these spheres felt a shift, partially due to the rise of the New Woman.

According to Barbara Laslett and Johanna Brenner in their article titled, “Gender and Social Reproduction,” the 19th century idea of Separate Spheres dominated both European and North American understanding of gender roles (Laslett and Brenner 386). Laslett and Brenner also write that men held power and control in their families, “as property-holders and legal representatives of their households, men directed household labor and monopolized political, religious, and domestic authority,” (Laslett and Brenner 386). Within the ideology of Separate Spheres, it is important to acknowledge that the typical gender roles in the 19th century were modeled after the middle-class family hierarchy (Gender Roles and Relations). A typical middle class family was headed by the father who, as part of his existence as a man, was expected to be the breadwinner and provide for his family. In contrast to that, the home was the woman and mother’s world. However, most lower-working-class families did not exactly follow this pattern. Compared to the middle-class, both men and women in the working-class experienced gender differently, because they did not usually fit neatly into their expected roles.

Unless you were a highly-skilled and/or unionized male worker, Laslett and Brenner point out, that not all men were able to earn enough wages to be the only provider for their family. This is especially true for working-class and immigrant households (Laslett and Brenner 389). The expectation that men must be breadwinners for their families, puts an immense amount of societal pressure on on working-class husbands and male providers. Often women in working-class families were forced to work, for the sake of their family’s survival, even then, women made a fraction of their male counterparts.

In the case of Ada Brown who was a widow, she was living with and in some sort of relationship with Martin Harrison. Besides the fact that they were definitely not well off, it is unclear what their financial situation was and how their financial relationship was. We do know, however, from the Dossier, that Brown and Harrison had an intense argument about $10 of Harrison’s wages, leading to the murder. It appeared that Ada Brown felt that she was, as Harrison’s lover and partner, entitled to a share of his earnings to support them: including him, her child, and herself. However, Harrison wanted control over his earnings, he wanted to take his wages and go out with a friend. Even though Harrison and Brown were not married, it appears that they faced some of the challenges regarding working-class gender roles within the family. Gender roles and the idea of Separate Spheres appear to be so deeply ingrained in societal expectations that it permeated even unmarried couples. The expectation that the male is supposed to provide for the women and children within their family, even if they are of the working-class and make insufficient wages, in the case of Ada Brown, led to a very violent altercation.

This week, I did struggle trying to find good, scholarly sources that helped to contextualize men in the way that we have worked on understanding women in the late 1800’s. I do think that we need to spend more time fleshing out these ideas in conjunction with secondary sources that analyze how men are impacted by the changing gender landscape at this time. I think, in the coming weeks, looking in domestic violence, specially male violence, could also be helpful in contextualizing this case.



“Gender Roles and Relations.” Encyclopedia of American Social History. Ed. Mary Kupiec

Cayton, Elliott J. Gorn, and Peter W. Williams. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993.

U.S. History in Context. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Laslett, Barbara, and Johanna Brenner. “Gender and Social Reproduction: Historical            

Perspectives.” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 15, 1989, pp. 381–404.


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