Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

5 Very Early Stories About American Women and Voting

Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

When talking about women’s suffrage in the United States, we usually focus on the efforts of first-wave feminists who worked to get women the vote from the mid-19th century until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. But during colonial times and in the earliest days of the nation, a small number of women managed to vote despite circumstances stacked against them. Below, we’ve collected four very early stories about women who voted, or demanded to vote, under English and later American law, as well as one popular myth about an early female voter.

All of these stories concern women in a particular category—they weren’t married. Under the legal tradition of coverture [PDF], married women did not exist as legal persons separate from their husbands. This English common law tradition was imported into the United States along with English colonists. Under coverture, a single woman could own property and exercise legal rights, like entering into contracts and suing or being sued, but upon marriage, a woman’s legal existence disappeared into that of her husband—she became a feme covert. Her husband took control of her property and she could no longer act on her own behalf in legal matters, which included voting. So while we have scattered instances of women voting in the United States before women’s suffrage was granted, the voting women were primarily widows—married women didn’t legally exist, and young single women usually didn’t own property. (The various colonies and early states each set their own voting laws, but all required the possession of a certain amount of land, personal property of a certain value, or payment of a certain amount of taxes, though the amount of property that was required varied by jurisdiction [PDF].) States began eliminating property requirements for voting in the early 19th century.


Margaret Brent immigrated to the colony of Maryland in 1638 with several siblings. Though the Brent family was descended from British nobility [PDF], they were Catholic and so faced persecution in Anglican England [PDF]. Taking refuge in the colony established by fellow Catholic Cecil Calvert (Lord Baltimore), Margaret Brent accumulated significant wealth and became a prominent citizen [PDF], developing a close relationship with Maryland’s governor, Leonard Calvert, the brother of Lord Baltimore. Margaret Brent never married, and thus retained complete power over her extensive property. She also became a frequent presence in colonial court, representing herself, her brothers, and family acquaintances in legal suits over 130 times.

Despite being a woman, Margaret Brent was a forceful presence in Maryland society, both economically and legally, and when her friend Governor Calvert lay dying in 1647, he appointed her the “sole Execquutrix” (sic) of his estate, instructing her to “Take all, & pay all.” But settling Calvert’s debts turned out to be quite complicated.

A Protestant ship captain named Richard Ingle had led an insurrection against Maryland’s colonial government and its Catholic leaders two years before Calvert’s death. Calvert had struggled to put down the rebellion, but eventually defeated the rebels with a group of mercenary troops, whom he had pledged to pay out of his own estate or that of his brother, Lord Baltimore, which he controlled. When Governor Calvert died, however, these troops had still not been paid, and his estate did not have enough available funds to compensate them.

Under English law, as executor, Brent could not easily sell Calvert’s land, so she found another way to get the money. Before his death, Governor Calvert had possessed power of attorney over the Maryland possessions of his brother, Lord Baltimore, who lived in England. On January 3, 1648, Brent asked the Maryland General Assembly to transfer the power of attorney to her, as Calvert’s executor—a request the General Assembly granted.

Now Margaret Brent had two options: liquidate some of Lord Baltimore’s property to pay the mercenaries, or convince the General Assembly to levy a tax on the colony. To resolve the matter quickly, she would have had to sell the property without Baltimore’s permission, which would likely have angered him. Meanwhile, holding his power of attorney gave her the chance to serve as his proxy in the General Assembly, and thus try to push through a tax. On January 21, 1648, Brent appeared before the Maryland General Assembly and appealed for the ability to vote in their council, requesting “to have vote in the howse for her selfe and voyce also … as his [Lordship’s] Attorney” [PDF]. Brent was demanding that she receive two votes: one as a landowner in her own right, and another as the legal representative of Lord Baltimore. Acting Maryland Governor Thomas Greene rejected her request, and Brent furiously protested against the Assembly’s proceeding without her.

Without an official voice in the General Assembly, Brent was unlikely to convince them to pass a tax to pay the mercenaries, and thus she decided to sell some of Lord Baltimore’s cattle and use the money to compensate the soldiers. But since Lord Baltimore lived in England and Brent needed to move fast, she made the sale without his permission—a move he angrily protested in a letter to the Maryland General Assembly. The Assembly, however, recognized that Brent had taken a necessary step to placate the grumbling mercenaries, who otherwise might have decided to obtain their compensation by plundering the countryside. The Maryland legislature defended Brent to Lord Baltimore, writing, “We do Verily Believe and in Conscience report that [your estate] was better for the Collonys safety at that time in her hands then in any mans else in the whole Province.” Lord Baltimore was not convinced, and became hostile to the Brent family.

Exasperated with Maryland’s leaders, Brent moved to Virginia with her siblings, even though that colony did not offer religious freedom for Catholics. In 1650, she wrote to Maryland’s new governor from Virginia, “[I] would not intangle my Self in Maryland because of the Ld Baltemore's disaffections to me and the Instruccons he Sends agt us.” Gradually selling off her Maryland property, Margaret accumulated land in her new home, and by her death in 1671 she and her siblings reportedly owned almost 10,000 acres in Virginia.


In a Massachusetts town in 1655, groups of men arguing over land use ended up empowering two women to vote—in what may be the earliest instance of women voting in the colonies.

When the town of Sudbury was established in the mid-17th century with a land grant from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, each head of household received a 4-acre house lot as well as a portion of meadow land—but the allotted portions of meadow were not equal. Sudbury’s founding committee ranked each settler in a financial hierarchy and determined the amount of land he would receive based on that ranking [PDF]. This hierarchy was self-perpetuating, because each man’s initial meadow grant would determine the amount of land he could claim each time the town divided more land among its inhabitants.

For ten years, this system worked reasonably well, but in 1649, the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial legislature) granted the town an additional 6400 acres at its western boundary. By that time, Sudbury was home to many young men who had been children when the town was founded, or who had only recently moved there. They were thus not part of the original list of meadow grantees, and pushed the older town selectmen toward an egalitarian division of the new territory. The conservative selectmen attempted to block this change, but after much political jockeying, the youngsters flooded a town meeting with their supporters and passed a motion awarding each townsman an “equal portion” of the new land. The town selectmen, angry at being overruled and worried about a wave of liberal changes to Sudbury, decided to use their power over the town’s common areas to reassert the primacy of the town’s established elite.

The town commons had served as unrestricted grazing area for residents’ livestock, but the town selectmen reserved the right to “size” the commons—i.e., determine how many animals each person could graze on the land—whenever they judged fit. They presented a new proposal that would allow only those who owned meadow acreage to graze livestock on the common, and would tie the number of animals allowed to the amount of meadow a person owned. The young men saw this as retaliation, so in preparation for a vote on the proposal at the next town meeting, they recruited as many supporters as possible, and the old guard did likewise. In their search for votes, each side enlisted a propertied widow.

Jane Goodenow and Mary Loker were both widows of men who received land in the original division of the meadow. As their husbands’ heirs, each had a stake in this question of sizing the commons. Jane Goodenow owned 25 acres of meadow land, and thus benefited from any policies that favored those with a large acreage. Mary Loker, on the other hand, only owned 5 acres of meadow, and she recognized that tying grazing rights to meadow acreage would disadvantage her. As landowners, both women were theoretically eligible to vote in Sudbury, where the access to the franchise depended on property, though according to custom, women did not vote. But on January 22, 1655, Goodenow and Loker packed into the Sudbury meeting house with over 50 other people to determine how the town commons would be sized.

Acting for herself and as a proxy for a (male) neighbor, Goodenow issued two votes in favor of tying grazing rights to meadow ownership, while Loker issued two votes against the measure (it’s unclear if she was also acting as a proxy) [PDF]. When the town clerks counted all the votes, they quickly realized there was a tie: 27 to 27.

Immediately, people on each side began questioning certain opponents’ right to participate in the vote, arguing that the vote of a man who owned meadow land but did not live in town should be discounted, and that another man claiming to be a proxy did not have the consent of the man he was supposedly speaking for. Interestingly, the historical record shows no evidence that the townsmen disputed the widows’ right to weigh in—perhaps because their opposing views canceled each other out.

In the end, the townspeople could not agree on how to size their common land, and had to petition the colonial legislature to decide the matter for them. The Massachusetts General Court concluded that the town could base grazing rights on property ownership, but not just meadow ownership: they had to take a person’s entire estate into account [PDF]. But even after it was resolved, the conflict over the commons had continuing effects on the town. A few months later, the old guard of town selectmen were voted out of their posts. Then, in 1657, a group of young men who were still dissatisfied with matters in Sudbury left to start their own town—which survives today as Marlborough, Massachusetts.

As far as town records show, neither Jane Goodenow nor Mary Loker ever voted again.


In 1776, New Jersey rewrote its constitution upon transitioning from colony to state. The new constitution defined eligible voters as “all inhabitants” over 21 years old who owned property worth £50 and had resided in their New Jersey county for at least 12 months [PDF]. The language “all inhabitants” reflects a situation unique to New Jersey at the time: single women, both black and white, could vote, provided they satisfied the property requirement. While only five states’ early constitutions explicitly limited voting to men, New Jersey was the only state in which women actually voted (at least from 1776 to 1807, after which the first enfranchisement of women took place in what was then the Wyoming Territory in 1869). The unique extension of voting rights to women in New Jersey was likely due to the state’s large Quaker population, as the Quakers had a much more egalitarian vision of gender roles than other Christian sects at the time.

Initially, very small numbers of women participated in New Jersey elections. In Burlington County, for instance, just two women’s names appeared on poll lists in 1787, though the county had a population of 18,095 in the 1790 census. But in 1790, a law was passed regarding seven New Jersey counties that explicitly used the language “he or she,” and in 1797 a statewide law used the same phrase to reinforce women’s right to the franchise. And women first made a real mark at the ballot box that year in Essex County.

In October 1797, Essex County held an election for the New Jersey legislature. A Federalist candidate, William Crane, faced off against a Democratic-Republican, John Condict (or Condit, sources vary), for a seat in the upper house. Federalists reportedly went to great effort to bring voters to the polls, and as voting was nearing the end, while worried Crane was losing, they “had recourse to the last expedient; it was to have women vote […] They scurried around collecting them,” according to an eyewitness. The Newark, New Jersey newspaper The Centinel of Freedom reported that 75 women voted in the election—most of them seemingly for the Federalist candidate. Condict, the Democratic-Republican, ultimately won the legislative seat by just 93 votes.

The Federalist Party’s embrace of the women in Essex County was not unique: the growth of the first political parties seems to have caused a massive increase in women voting in New Jersey, as party leaders wooed the female electorate. In their history of women’s suffrage in New Jersey, Reclaiming Lost Ground, social studies professor Margaret Crocco and history teacher Neale McGoldrick estimate that as many as 10,000 women voted in New Jersey between 1790 and 1807. It’s even reported that women voted in the 1804 presidential election, after the state switched from legislative selection to a popular vote. Some newspapers and public figures celebrated women’s electoral participation and many joked about it, composing humorous poems about the “government in petticoats.” But other men were concerned women weren’t voting for the right reasons—or for the right candidates.

New Jersey elections were often close, so while women voted at a much lower rate than men, their votes still could make the difference between winning and losing. The Democratic-Republicans had, by this point, realized that white women tended to vote Federalist, as did African American men and women. After the state legislature passed a gradual slave emancipation law in 1804, the Democratic-Republicans grew worried about the growing number of free blacks, and thus Federalist-leaning black voters. Then, in early 1807, an election over the location of a new Essex County courthouse led to an explosion of fraudulent voting. One township of 350 eligible voters recorded nearly 1900 votes. Some men, reportedly, dressed in drag in order to vote more than once.

An investigation found that more votes had been cast across the county than eligible voters existed—indeed, in the town of Elizabeth, turnout was 279%— and accusations flew about illegal voting by married women, slaves, underage men, nonresidents, and people who could not meet the property requirement. The election results were thrown out and the matter received widespread press. Democratic-Republicans took this opportunity to submit a bill to the legislature altering the state’s election laws to allow only free white men to vote. Both houses passed his bill by significant margins. Beginning on November 16, 1807, only taxpaying white men could vote in New Jersey.


In the colony of New York, beginning in 1699, the law defined voters as “people dwelling and resident” in the colony who owned “Land or Tenem’ts” with a value of at least £40. Local sheriffs were assigned the responsibility of announcing and conducting the elections for the state General Assembly, and were given the power to verify that each voter satisfied the property requirements. While election law referred to voters as “he,” it didn’t explicitly disqualify women. Under coverture, married women, of course, could not vote, but single women and widows who owned enough property potentially could—if they had the guts to try and the local sheriff allowed it. But those women who tried to vote were few and far between, as doing so flew in the face of strong social norms.

In June 1737, the New York Gazette reported that “Two old Widdows […] were admitted to vote” in a recent election for the General Assembly held in the town of Jamaica in Queens County. A man named Adam Lawrence was then the sheriff of Queens County, and he either had no problem with these women voting or did not want to go up against two rich (and thus likely socially powerful) widows. The Gazette quipped, “It is said, these two old Ladies will be chosen Constables for the next year.” Unfortunately, without access to poll books or other voting records, we can’t learn the identities of these gutsy women—or discover whether they voted on more than this one occasion.


Lydia Chapin Taft is often cited as the first woman to vote in what would become the United States. In 2004, the Massachusetts state legislature even dedicated a highway “in recognition of Mrs. Taft's unique role in American history as America's first woman voter.” Unfortunately, available evidence suggests that the story of Taft’s voting in a town meeting in Uxbridge, Massachusetts in 1756 is simply a myth.

Born in Mendon, Massachusetts in 1711 (Julian calendar), Lydia Chapin married Josiah Taft in 1731, and the couple took up residence in the nearby town of Uxbridge. Given a swath of farmland by his father, Josiah Taft became a wealthy man who was prominent in local politics and also served as Uxbridge’s representative to the Massachusetts General Court. He died in September 1756, leaving his land to his wife, who was also named the executor of his estate. That year, the colonies were embroiled in the French and Indian War, and—legend has it—the town of Uxbridge held a vote on October 30, 1756 to appropriate funds for the war effort. Josiah Taft had been one of the largest landowners in the town, and since his widow was the legal representative of his estate, the town selectman allowed her to vote on whether to tax the local citizens to pay for the war. Lydia Taft voted in favor of the tax—casting the tie-breaking vote, per historical legend.

But according to records from Uxbridge’s town meetings, there wasn’t any meeting on October 30, 1756, and the town did not appropriate any funds that year for the war or for unspecified colonial purposes. (They did vote to raise money for the local schools, to repair the roads, and to pay the town minister’s salary.) Further, even if Lydia Taft had voted, we’d have no way of knowing, since the official minutes for the town meetings do not list the names of people voting or their votes. The minutes simply state when a vote happened and that a given measure passed or failed.

The myth about Lydia Taft seems to have first arisen in the 19th century. In 1864, a man named Henry Chapin gave a speech about his family history during which he told the tale of the “widow Josiah Taft,” who supposedly voted in a town meeting after her husband’s death. Henry Chapin stated that Lydia voted because “The estate of Josiah Taft paid the largest tax in Uxbridge, and his son Bezaleel was a minor,” so it went against the town’s “sturdy sense of justice” to have “taxation without representation.” While Henry Chapin is correct that Bezaleel Taft was a child in 1756, Lydia and Josiah had two other sons who were older: Josiah Jr., who would have been 23, and Asahel, who would have been 16. Josiah Jr. had gotten married in Uxbridge in 1755, where he and his wife owned property; he died in the town in 1761. Unless he was away fighting in the war, we’ve no reason to believe Josiah Jr. wouldn’t have been in Uxbridge in the fall of 1756, able to vote on behalf of his father’s estate, and we haven’t been able to find his name on any colonial muster rolls.

Sometimes it’s reported that Lydia Taft voted three times in town meetings, but that claim seems to have appeared in the 20th century, and looks to be based on times her name appears in town meeting records—for any reason—rather than on times the record says she voted. Available historical documents make no mention of Lydia Chapin Taft voting, to support the French and Indian War or for any other purpose.

Additional sources:

“Democracy and Politics in Colonial New York,” New York History, 1959; “Election Procedures and Practices in Colonial New York,” New York History, 1960; “‘The Petticoat Electors’: Women's Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807,” Journal of the Early Republic, 1992; The Centinel of Freedom, Oct. 18, 1797.

Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.


Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.


Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.


The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.

Jennifer Young, AFP/Getty Images
An Affair to Dismember: John Wayne Bobbitt's Penis at 25
Jennifer Young, AFP/Getty Images
Jennifer Young, AFP/Getty Images

In the early morning hours of June 23, 1993, Manassas, Virginia manicurist Lorena Bobbitt crept into the bedroom she shared with her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt. While John—who had been drinking heavily—slept, she proceeded to mutilate his genitals with a 12-inch kitchen knife. When a drunken John woke up, the sheets were covered in blood; Lorena ran to her car, knife and lump of flesh in tow. Not quite sure what to do next, she wound up tossing part of his shaft out the window.

The scene was so morbid and so titillating that the news media couldn’t get enough. From the time Lorena performed the amputation to her acquittal seven months later, the story of a marriage so broken it ended in genital disfigurement ran almost around the clock.

But reporters had a major hurdle to clear: The word penis had never been printed or spoken aloud with any regularity in American news coverage.

They tried euphemisms, i.e. male member, appendage. When those ran out, The New York Times finally acquiesced and began using “penis” in their coverage of the criminal trial. According to journalist Gay Talese, the sheer volume of the Bobbitt circus broke one of the last sexual taboos in mainstream culture. Soon after, the word penis began regularly appearing on late night talk shows and in print.

There was really no other choice. While the Bobbitt case raised issues over domestic violence, female empowerment, and even the threshold for celebrity, the story always boiled down to that one lurid moment. John Wayne’s reattached, mostly functional penis was—and perhaps still is—the most famous sexual organ in America.


John Wayne and Lorena first met in 1988, when the burly 21-year-old Marine walked into a club for enlisted men near Quantico in Virginia and spotted the then-19-year-old, who was born in Ecuador and raised in Venezuela. They married just months later and settled in Manassas, where Lorena worked in the beauty industry and John Wayne worked as a cab driver and bar bouncer. Friends and relatives of the couple who would later be questioned on the witness stand described a tumultuous coupling, one that saw the two separated briefly in 1991 before reconciling.

John Wayne was temperamental and physical with Lorena, a fact that her eventual prosecutors would later admit. Divorce was on the table when John Wayne came home the night of June 23, 1993 and when, Lorena alleged, he raped her. (In a separate trial, a jury found John Wayne not guilty of martial sexual abuse in the five days preceding the attack.) After falling asleep, he awoke to a mutilated penis, his wife having excised an inch or more of its lower third portion.

Police retrieved the missing flesh and handed it over to emergency doctors. Before being wheeled in for a nine-hour operation to reattach the severed portion, John Wayne said he considered suicide.

John Wayne Bobbitt testifies during a court appearance in 1994
Pool/AFP/Getty Images

The surgery was more or less successful—John Wayne later recollected calling his mother and enthusiastically telling her he had gotten his first post-operative erection—but attempts to have Lorena convicted for the attack were not. In January 1994, a jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. The defense argued that Lorena had been so traumatized by abuse that she acted irrationally but not maliciously.

The trial and its outcome seemed to provide metaphorical fuel for ever-present issues regarding gender. Although he had not technically been castrated, John Wayne was certainly emasculated, and in a rather horrific way—punishment, some believed, for his deplorable behavior. In defacing his manhood, Lorena seemed to become emblematic of what some women felt like doing to spousal abusers.

Lorena fielded book, movie, and interview offers but largely stayed out of the spotlight, reverting to her maiden name and trying to disappear. (She was also sentenced to a 45-day psychiatric evaluation to make sure she presented no danger to the public.) It was John Wayne who perpetuated his own celebrity, turning what was a gruesome assault into a story worth monetizing.

First, there was the requisite appearance on The Howard Stern Show in December 1993—one of many—in which Stern attempted to fundraise for Bobbitt’s $250,000 in medical and legal expenses.

Stern and other interviewers were preoccupied with Bobbitt’s sexual ability. As of that December, Bobbitt told Stern, he had not been able to engage in any intercourse; he claimed his penis bore little evidence of the attack aside from a “slight” scar; it hurt a little when he showered. He urinated with use of a catheter for two months following the procedure.

The radio panhandling met with some success, although as some observers noted virtually from the beginning, Bobbitt’s opportunities to cash in on his notoriety were almost inevitably in the red light district of the entertainment industry. In 1994, he signed a deal for $1 million to appear in an adult video distributed by Leisure Time Communications titled John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut. A kind of pornographic biopic, Bobbitt played himself, reenacting the attack and then proving his restored sexual abilities by engaging in sexual acts with a succession of actresses. In what must be one of the few adult movie reviews published by Entertainment Weekly, critic Owen Gleiberman observed that Bobbitt’s reconstructed penis had “no real stitch marks” but looked as though it “may have lost an inch or two.”

Uncut was a curiosity, but Bobbitt was unable to sustain interest in two follow-up tapes: One was titled Frankenpenis and may have lived up to a viewer’s anticipation of a freakish member, due to a penis enlargement surgery John Wayne underwent following the release of the first video.


Having exhausted his potential in pornography, Bobbitt and his penis sought other venues. First, he tried his hand at stand-up comedy. When that failed to pan out, Dennis Hof, owner of the Bunny Ranch brothel, paid him $50,000 a year to be a bartender/chauffeur/handyman

, not unlike the way aging boxing legends like Joe Louis used to stand near casino doors so patrons could shake the hand of a champion.

At the Ranch, Bobbitt introduced himself to men waiting for prostitutes and sometimes indulged their request to have him drop his pants for a look. Hof didn’t keep him on for long, later calling him a “stupid, low-life creep” and “boring oaf” who couldn’t keep his hands off of Hof’s female employees.

John Wayne Bobbitt arrives for a court appearance in 1994
J. David Ake, AFP/Getty Images

Bobbitt later found a brief home in a carnival, alongside a professional insect eater and a man with a split tongue. Here, too, Bobbitt seemed to fail in realizing his potential, refusing to be a target for a knife-thrower or learn the art of hammering nails into his nose.

He also appeared to have learned little from the consequences of his boorish behavior. In 1999, he was jailed for pushing a girlfriend into a wall. In 2005, he was arrested and charged with battery in relation to an incident involving his new wife, Joanna Ferrell, the third such allegation during their now-defunct marriage. (He was later acquitted.) The accusations cost him a gig facing off against Joey Buttafuoco on Fox’s Celebrity Boxing.

Currently, Bobbitt has settled in Niagara Falls and works as a limo driver and carpenter. Lorena has founded Lorena’s Red Wagon, an organization offering assistance to women victimized by domestic violence. Lorena’s actions in 1993 were largely unmatched until 2011, when a California woman named Catherine Kieu took a knife and severed her husband’s penis following an argument.

The man would not have an opportunity for a Bobbitt-esque reattachment and subsequent victory lap. Perhaps learning from Lorena’s mistake, Kieu didn't merely toss the severed flesh away. She pulverized the penis in their garbage disposal.


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