Sarah Paine, Dorothy Palmer and the Child

This week I am featuring three young women/girls who all lived at the end of the 17th century, but who probably never knew each other, Sarah Paine, Dorothy Palmer and “the Child.” Sarah, Dorothy and the Child all charged men with rape, and all three of their accused assailants were found not guilty of the charge.

In 17th- and 18th-century English society, one’s credibility was determined by one’s reputation—or character—and this was especially true in the courtroom. In the case of women, character was inextricably linked to their sexual reputation.[1] Rape trials from this era (during which it was a capital offence, and therefore one that courts were hesitant to convict) demonstrate the importance of chastity in the courtroom, as the female victims/prosecutors in such cases found themselves in a double bind, wherein they had to convince the court with their testimonies that ejaculation had occurred during penetration, but speaking about sex, even in euphemistic language, caused the jury to believe that they were sexually knowledgeable, unchaste, and therefore not credible.[2] Heartbreakingly, in describing the act, female defendants implicitly displayed sexual knowledge, which had the undesirable effect of making them appear unchaste.[3] Since their chastity, and thus their credibility, was tarnished in the eyes of jurors, and since juries were hesitant to convict in cases of apparently questionable evidence, the vast majority of rape cases ended in acquittal.[4] Rape had one of the highest acquittal rates in this period.[5]

Sarah Paine’s attacker, William Woodbridge, was found not guilty on the grounds that the witnesses he produced convinced the jury that Sarah’s charge was “a Design to get Mony.”[6] Dorothea Palmer’s attacker, Samuel Smith, actually confessed, but the court found him not guilty anyway because they apparently remained uncertain about “whether the Girl did consent or not.”[7] The Child, whose name was kept out of the record, had an aunt to testify as a witness to the aftermath of the attack. Despite her aunt’s evidence, Edward Coker was acquitted on the grounds that the “Circumstances thereto [were] not being so direct as to prove a Rape, according as the law directs on those case.”[8] Coker was subsequently charged with and found guilty of assault and “fined 25 Markes” because the court believed the crime had taken place but had not adequately been proven. [9]

I don’t know anything about Sarah, Dorothy or the Child outside of the records of these rape trials, which, it should be noted, are very brief summaries rather than detailed transcripts. What I do know is that they (almost certainly with the aid of their families) prosecuted their attackers even though the odds of securing a conviction were low and the very pursuit of legal action would damage their reputation in the eyes of their contemporaries. This definitely qualifies as the action of a historical hottie.


[1] Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 2.

[2] Anna Clark, Women’s Silence, Men’s Violence: Sexual Assault in England, 1770-1845 (London: Pandora, 1987), 55-58; Garthine Walker, “Rape, Acquittal and Culpability in Popular Crime Reports in England, c. 1670-c. 1750,” Past and Present 220 (August 2013): 115-116.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (OBO) (, version 7.2, 13 May 2016), December 1681, trial of William Woodbridge (t16811207-1).

[7] OBO (, version 7.2, 13 May 2016), February 1681, trial of Samuel Smith (t16810228-10).

[8] OBO (, version 7.2, 13 May 2016), January 1675, trial of Edward Coker (t16750115-3).

[9] Ibid.

Sarah Paine, Dorothy Palmer and the Child

Elizabeth Caton

In 1732, Elizabeth Caton was tried for stealing a watch from a gentleman identified as C. B. Caton’s trial is typical of contemporary English pickpocketing cases. To begin, the defendant was a woman and the prosecutor (who, in the contemporary criminal justice system, was also the victim) was a man. In addition, although the charge was for theft and not soliciting sex (which was not strictly illegal at the time), sex nonetheless featured most prominently in the testimonies. C. B. alleged that Caton had lured him into a pub under the guise of sharing her company, all the while intending to filch whatever she could. In her defence, Caton testifed that C. B. took her to a private room, offered her money for sex (to which she admitted to acquiescing out of financial necessity) and asked that she “go and fetch some Rods to whip him.” C. B. denied this, but the judge was sceptical. He asked C. B. outright if he was in the habit of “pick[ing] up Women, and carry[ing] them into a private Room without any Design?” The jury was equally unimpressed; the record shows that Caton was acquitted despite having been discovered with the stolen watch concealed on her person.

Caton’s crime was a capital one.* Considering the gravity of the situation, it initially seems surprising that Caton chose to discuss sex unabashedly in her defence. As a poor, early eighteenth-century English woman, Caton’s character (her credibility, her employability) hinged on her reputation for chastity. Yet she did talk about selling sex, and it is this choice, not her theft, that gives her some features of a historical hottie.

Eighteenth-century England had jury trials. And, since there were property restrictions controlling jury eligibility, juries were comprised mostly of men of the middling sort. Like today, most defendants came from the working classes, and were thus tried by their “social superiors.” Certainly, this was the case with Caton, who discussed her poverty openly. Within this judicial system, Caton’s options were: 1) to convince the jury that she was reputable, or 2) that C. B. was even less reputable than she. Caton recognised this and worked the system to her advantage by giving testimony that cast doubt on C. B.’s sexual reputation. She accused him outright of harbouring sadomasochisitic desires. Or, in the eyes of contemporaries, of outlandishly subverting the social order by allowing a woman, especially a “socially inferior” one, to dominate him.

It is important to be mindful that, although Caton benefitted in the courtroom by defaming the sexual morality of C.B., she was also tarnished by the mutual sexual defamation. Nevertheless, she played a patriarchal and deeply status-based judicial system against itself. By convincing a jury of her “social superiors” that a gentleman—a man with the responsibility to exemplify goodly morality to his social inferiors—had fostered this kind of disorderly behaviour, she used repressive tropes to her own advantage and saved her life.


*Judicial discretion in this era was notorious, however women thieves were sometimes hanged, imprisoned or transported to penal colonies, so it was by no means a foregone conclusion that a pardon, full or otherwise would be forthcoming.


OBPO, 14 January 1732, trial of Elizabeth Caton, (accessed 4 December 2015).

John M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 35.

Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Early Modern Europe (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), 267-269.

John H. Langbein, “The Criminal Trial Before the Lawyers,” University of Chicago Law Review 45, no. 2 (Winter 1978): 305.

———. The Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Robert B. Shoemaker, Prosecution and Punishment: Petty Crime and the Law in London and Rural Middlesex, c. 1660-1725 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991),

Elizabeth Caton