Friday, October 21, 2011

100 years ago today: How we talked about the things we couldn't talk about

One hundred years ago one of the stories on the front pages many of the newspapers in the United States told of the arrest of Rev. C. V. T. Richeson for the murder of Avis Linnell. Miss Linnell, whose body was found in the bathroom of the YWCA rooming house where she lived, was first thought to have died of natural causes and then, after the contents of her stomach were examined, was presumed to have committed suicide. Why, I wondered, would the police think that an attractive, talented and not noticeably depressed young woman would have committed suicide?
Miss Linnell. who was nineteen years old, and a student at the Conservatory of Music, was found dead in the bathroom of the Young Women's Christian Association home here. At first the police believed she had committed suicide, but later developments indicated that she had unknowingly taken cyanide of potassium sent her by some other person, in the belief that it would remedy her embarrassing physical condition. [The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA) Oct. 21 1911, page 1]
At first the police believed that she had committed suicide but later developments indicated that she had unknowingly taken cyanide of potassium, which had been sent to her by some other person, and that she used it In the belief that it would remedy a certain embarrassing physical condition. [New York Tribune Oct 21, 1911, page 1.]
[SubHead]Cambridge Clergyman Accused of Murder of a Young Girl to Concel an Earlier Sin [The Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, Arizona) Oct 21, 1911, page 1]
Richeson is charged with furnishing a nineteen year-old girl, to whom he is said lo have been engaged to be married, and who in the course of six months would have become a mother, with cyanide of potassium and the inference is that he told her that by taking the deadly drug she bring about a desired change in her physical condition, when In reality he furnished the cyanide and deceived the girl as to the nature of its effect for the express purpose of causing her death so that no entanglement might exist which could prevent his marriage to Violet Edmonds of Brookllne, whose father is a rich man. [The Sun (New York) Oct 21, 1911, page 1.]
Clearly what is at issue is not the concepts it is the words. It is crystal clear from the various accounts that Miss Linnell was pregnant and Richeson (the presumed father) was suspected of giving her the potassium of cyanide and telling her it was an abortifacient.

At the same time words (and concepts) that we would now find deeply shocking can be found on the same pages where the word "pregnant" could not be written.
The halfbreed was found in the brush near the scene of the crime early today and brought to the Oroville jail. There is talk of lynching.[The Tacoma Times (Tacoma, Washington) Oct 21, 1911, page 1]
From reading that article it is clear that if an "Indian" was accused of murdering a white woman by other white people -- then no one considered it necessary to go through the formality of having an actual trial. A lynching would do just as well.

Just as "everyone knew" that things such as premarital sex went on "everyone knew" that non-white and white Americans got treated differently by the American legal system. One hundred years they spoke circumspectly about sex and opening about legal inequalities. Today we speak openly about sex and circumspectly about legal inequalities.

But just as people were having sex then even if they weren't talking about it--bigotry and legal inequalities exist today even when we aren't willing to speak openly and honestly about them.

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