Mapping Sexual Violence in 19th C Utah

By June 16, 2015

I am currently working on a mapping project at the University of Michigan focused on sexual crime in nineteenth-century Utah. Every day, I look through the index of the Third District Court Criminal Case files. The cases included in the index (which is available through covers the years, 1882 – 1916. I still have a long ways to go with the project, but I thought I would share some preliminary thoughts.

Newspapers get a lot of details wrong. In 1898, for example, John Blythe was accused of attacking a young girl. Her name is given variously as Rhoda Chandler, Rhoda Brash, and Rhoda Broch by the same newspaper.

Salt Lake Herald article, June 26, 1898

Salt Lake Herald article, July 6, 1898

Salt Lake Herald article, September 27, 1898

I have encountered numerous conflicting dates, addresses, etc. I feel like I should write an article to be included on the website about how the markers are approximate because of the nature of the data.

A lot of attacks against women occur in public spaces. In 1897, a man named Benjamin Smith, for example, asked an eight- or ten-year-old girl (depending on the newspaper) and her sister to accompany him to Liberty Park to pick watercress. When they were in the park, he tried to rape her.

Salt Lake Herald article, May 14, 1897

Another man attacked a girl who was walking in Pioneer Park with the children of her neighbor.

Salt Lake Tribune article, July 15, 1907

It is important not to read too much into these stories. Criminal court records only include those cases that were reported. It is possible that people were less likely to believe girls who were attacked in private spaces. Sexual assaults that took place in public spaces were often interrupted. The testimony of witnesses would have made it more difficult to argue that the girl had consented to the sexual activity. The frequency of young girls in the records may be a result of the same reason. Although adult women were also raped, it was easier to dismiss their stories. People were willing to believe that adult women consented to sex. They were less willing to believe it of children.

Homosexual assaults, on the other hand, did not tend to take place in public spaces. Instead, many of the cases that were brought to court took place in hotels. In 1900, for example, Frank Billings was accused of “committing a crime against nature” with a thirteen-year-old boy at the Wilson Hotel. Although the case was tried as a “crime against nature,” the act may not have been consensual. The child was heard screaming. Both Billings and the child worked at the hotel.

Ben Williams’ entry on the case

I am linking to an in-progress version of the map. Neither the website or map is ready for public consumption. Consider it a very, very beta version.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This is really interesting, Amanda. I’m particularly interested in your GIS findings on the places where the acts of sexual violence took place.

    Also, your findings on homosexual assaults will be really interesting to read next to George Chauncey’s _Gay New York_.

    Comment by J Stuart — June 16, 2015 @ 7:47 am

  2. Amanda, Are you interested only in cases legally/publicly adjudicated? Or in other kinds of reports? I’m thinking of the Honeyville incident (which, I believe, Mike Quinn treats in his book).

    Comment by Gary Bergera — June 16, 2015 @ 8:00 am

  3. Gary, Right now, I am starting with those that were brought to court. I’m looking at crimes against nature, rape, carnal knowledge, and fornication cases — so just that number is over 500 cases. After that, I will move to those where no one was arrested. It’ll be years before this is done. I’m hoping to enlist others in the project at some point.

    Comment by Amanda — June 16, 2015 @ 8:08 am

  4. I know you said court cases, but I couldn’t help but think of chapter twelve in Paula Harline’s book, which describes rape, sexual assault, and abuse within what I would call a forced underage marriage.

    Comment by John Turner — June 16, 2015 @ 8:40 am

  5. Help my ignorance, please. What is the purpose of such a map? How does it inform understanding of Utah, or sexual violence, or anything, to know that some number of assaults occurred in Liberty Park, and some other number at Warm Springs, or whatever? (I’m not saying there isn’t a purpose; I just don’t understand what that purpose is.) Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis — June 16, 2015 @ 8:53 am

  6. John, I think that’s an important context, and something I hope to address if an article ever comes out of it. One of the most chilling things about researching sexual violence is the frequency with which rape ends in young women marrying their rapists.

    Ardis, the hope is to get a sense of the geography of rape and to see where in the city women were vulnerable. My hope is then look at the social class of the individuals involved and to see what the ages were. This, of course, doesn’t tell us perfectly who was being assaulted. It does, however, tell us who could report their assaults to the court and what types of cases would be believed. Were women who were assaulted in public, for example, more likely to report because others were more likely to believe their stories? I am hoping to also eventually get a sense of whether is a disparity between those cases that are brought to trial and those that are reported in the newspaper. What types of stories tended to receive widespread publicity? I also find the map helpful in just visualizing it and getting to know the city. Seeing the green markers (which stand for crimes against nature) clustered around a certain area caused me to do some looking. I discovered that that area used to be Utah’s red light district. I am hoping that others might have the same experience. Right now, I am having difficulty uploading a historic map without having it tile across the screen, but I am hoping to eventually use one. Does that help? The best book that does what I am hoping to do is Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America.

    Comment by Amanda — June 16, 2015 @ 9:03 am

  7. What are the chronological parameters of your study? There is an interesting case in Lehi in 1857, which may or may not have involved a rape. There were accusations of rape which were used to justify a murder. The case made it to Judge Cradlebaugh’s court in the 2nd District in 1859, although there was never any resolution. I’m happy to share my research, if you are interested, and I would appreciate your perspective.

    Comment by blueagleranch — June 16, 2015 @ 2:44 pm

  8. Very interesting. Thanks for the update, Amanda.

    Comment by David G. — June 16, 2015 @ 6:53 pm

  9. This research sounds very fascinating. Look forward to reading more about your eventual results.

    Comment by Dallas — June 17, 2015 @ 5:11 pm

  10. Hi Amanda,
    I am troubled by your sentence “Although the case was tried as a ?crime against nature,? the act may not have been consensual”. The fact that the child is a child, means it was not consensual.

    Also, it appears the happenings at Pioneer Park haven’t changed much.

    Comment by M Miles — June 18, 2015 @ 6:08 pm

  11. Miles, Thanks for pointing out that language. You are right to question my language there. What I was trying to get at was that the child was heard screaming, and may not have willing went into the room or known what the man’s intentions were. I’m actually not sure what the age of consent in Utah was at the time. According to this website, it was 10 in 1885 and 13 in 1890. In 1920, it was 18. Still, though, I appreciate the correction and caution.

    Comment by Amanda HK — June 19, 2015 @ 8:29 am


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