2023 John Wood Sweet,The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America (Henry Holt).

Sweet’s The Sewing Girl’s Tale recounts the odyssey of Lanah Sawyer, a victim of rape in New York in 1793 who took her assailant to court. The narrative is spell-binding and the details cinematic. We follow Lanah through New York’s streets and down to the promenade on the Battery. We see her repair her calico gown with needle and thread and fasten it with straight pins — a reminder that she could not afford more expensive manufactured fasteners. And we watch her wealthy assailant, Harry Bedlow, call on his powerful friends and family to attempt to escape justice.

Along the way, we learn about the lives of New York’s working class and the common law regarding consent and sexual assault. The extraordinary research that supports this finely wrought narrative remarkably remains invisible to the reader, including the geodatabase that Sweet constructed to envision New York in 1793. True to the past and relevant today, The Sewing Girl’s Tale represents the best of historical writing in the twenty-first century. 

Sweet, a historian of Early America and the former director of the interdisciplinary Program in Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is the author or editor of three other books.



Photo credit: Jafar Fallahi