It All Began In Wyoming

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In one of his attempts to get the women discharged Prosecutor Downey said that he was acting at the request of the women themselves. However reluctant they may have been to start with, most of the ladies decided to stay after justices Howe and Kingman spoke to them of their duties and the propriety of fulfilling them. Only one woman asked to be excused, reportedly after she had gone home for lunch to find her husband packing his bags in indignation.

Those who stayed to serve as the world’s first women jurors were uncomfortably zealous in interpreting the new territory’s laws. They found statutes on the books forbidding the Sunday operation of saloons and gambling houses. Much to the consternation of Laramie saloonkeepers, the grand jury served notice that the statutes would be enforced. Laramie became known as the “puritan town” of Wyoming—until the 1871 legislature repealed the Sunday laws.

The grand jury also indicted one Andrew Howie, a pale and wan, romantic-looking young man (“Byronic,” one of the lady jurors called him). Howie confessed that he had shot and killed John Hoctor in the barroom of the Shamrock Hotel, explaining that he had walked in to find Hoctor pointing a gun at him, threatening to shoot. He had killed Hoctor, he said, in self-defense.

Usually such an explanation would have stood Howie in good stead. Wyoming juries were chiefly notable for their lenient attitude toward human bloodshed, so much so that vigilante groups operated offand on to dispense the kind of justice the courts did not provide. Tradition had it that the very building in which the women jurors sat belonged to three desperadoes who had been lynched nearby.

But when a petit jury of six men and six women was summoned to deal with Howie’s case, the ladies showed themselves to be otherwise inclined. Three of the men voted on the first ballot for a verdict of not guilty, and three voted for manslaughter. The bailiff attending the ladies (who deliberated in a separate room) reported that one woman, Mrs. I. N. Hartsough, wife of Laramie’s Methodist minister, held out for a conviction of first-degree murder. Two other jurywomen voted for second-degree murder, and three voted for manslaughter.

In prayer sessions led by Mrs. Hartsough the women implored the Highest Court for guidance, the bailiff reported. Mrs. Hartsough frequently injected a Biblical text into their debate: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. …” All the while, she knitted by the stove, a pioneer reincarnation of Madame Defarge.

However, with the approach of Saturday night Mrs. Hartsough’s resolve dissipated. Perhaps her Sunday duties as a minister’s wife inclined her to agree to a compromise. At any rate Howie was convicted of “manslaughter in the first degree” and sentenced to ten years at hard labor.

Like Mrs. Morris, the women jurors were the objects of a good deal of laughter. One waggish husband declared that he had never known how splendid a woman his cook was until his wife “had been locked in a jury room for three nights.” An awkward couplet made the rounds:

Baby, baby, don’t get in a fury; Your momma’s gone to sit on the jury.

The Cheyenne Daily Leader gleefully quoted a national publication that had declared, “We look forward to see the day when the tedium of every trial will be lightened by instrumental music, an occasional song or anecdote from the bench, and perhaps reading or recitations from the female members of the bar, and the introduction of a baby or two to be passed around about lunch time.”

Reports agreed that the women jurors did indeed change some aspects of courtroom behavior. The cards and whiskey disappeared together with the cigars and chewing tobacco. And the women were also given credit for their willingness to administer the law rather than ignore it.

Other positive reports went out from the territory after the women first voted in September, 1870. The ladies didn’t stay home out of mod- esty or lack of interest. Almost all of them took advantage of their new franchise, and their husbands and children suffered no consequent decline. In fact, the polls were reported to be much more pleasant places, since the rowdies, intimidated by the women’s presence, stayed away. “It seemed more like Sunday than election day,” one observer remarked.

Nevertheless, the suffrage law was seriously threatened during the legislative session of 1871. Democratic legislators, apparently miffed that some Republicans had been elected, decided to do in the women voters, whom they suspected of voting Republican. Both houses passed a bill repealing the suffrage act, and antisuffrage forces were anxious to have Governor Campbell sign the bill. So anxious, in fact, that they offered him a two-thousand-dollar bribe. Instead, Campbell vetoed the bill, and the Republicans in the legislature were just strong enough to keep the Democrats from overriding his veto. After that there were no more serious threats to the suffrage law. When Wyoming achieved statehood in 1890, it became the first state where women had full voting rights, and the suffrage law has endured to the present.