A case of sexual violence during Reconstruction, 1866

A case of sexual violence during Reconstruction, 1866

These documents chronicle a case in the wider wave of violence that targeted people of color during Reconstruction. The first document includes Frances Thompson and Lucy Smith’s testimony about their assault, rape, and robbery in 1866. The second document, demonstrates one way that white Southerners denied these claims. In 1876, Thompson was exposed for cross-dressing. For twenty years she successfully passed as a woman. Southerners trumpeted this case as evidence that widely documented cases of violence, sexual and otherwise, were fabricated.  

Testimony of Frances Thompson

State your name and residence. 
My name is Frances Thompson; I live in Gayoso Street, here in Memphis. 

What is your occupation? 
I sew and take in washing and ironing. 

Have you been a slave?
Yes sir. 

Where were you raised? 
I was raised in Maryland. All our people but mistress got killed in the rebel army. 

Have you been injured? 
I am a cripple. (the witness used crutches) I have a cancer in my foot. 

Were you here during the late riots?
Yes, sir. 

State what you know or saw of the rioting. 
Between one and two o’clock Tuesday night seven men, two of whom were policement, came to my house. I know they were policemen by their stars. They were all Irishmen. They said they must have supper, and asked me what I had, and said they must have some eggs, and ham, and biscuit. I made them some biscuit and some strong coffee, and they all sat down and ate. A girl lives with me; her name is Lucy Smith; she is about 16 years old. When they had eaten supper, they said they wanted some woman to sleep with. I said we were not that sort of women, and they must go. They said, “that didn’t make a damned bit of difference.” One of them then laid hold of me and hit me in the side of my face, and holding my throat, choked me. Lucy tried to get out of the window when one of them knocked her down and choked her. They drew their pistols and said they would shoot us and fire the house if we did not let them have their way with us. All seven of the men violated us two. Four of them had to do with me, the rest with Lucy. 

Were you injured?
I was sick for two weeks. I lay for three days with a hot, burning fever. 

Did anyone attend you? 
I had a cold before, and Dr. Rambert attended me after this. 

Were you robbed? 
After they got through with us, they just robbed the house. They took the clothes out of my trunk and took one hundred dollars that I had in greenbacks belonging to me, and two hundred dollars that belonged to a colored woman, that was left with me to keep safe for her. 

Did they take anything else? 
They took three silk dresses of mine and a right nice one of Lucy’s. They put the things into two pillow slips and took them away. 

How long did these men stay? 
They were there, perhaps, for nearly four hours: it was getting day when they left. 

Did they say anything? 
They said they intended to “burn up the last God damned nigger.”

Do you know any of them?
They were all Irishmen; there was not an American among them. 

Did anything else take place? 
There were some quilts about that we had been making. They asked us what they were made for. When we told them we made them for the soldiers, they swore at us, and said the soldiers would never have them on their beds, and they took them away with the rest of the things. They said they would drive all the Yankees out of the town, and then there would be only some rebel niggers and butternuts left. I thought all the time they would burn the house down, but they didn’t. 

U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Memphis Riots and Massacres. 39th Congress, 1st session, 1865-66. House Report No. 101. Washington, DC, 1866, 196-97. 

Available through the Hathi Trust

Testimony of Lucy Smith 

State your name and how old you are. 
Lucy Smith; I am going on 17 years of age. 

Have you been a slave?
I have been a slave girl, and have been free four years come July next. 

Do you live in this city? 
I live in Memphis and was raised here. 

Were you here at the time of the riots? 
I was living with Frances Thompson at the time of the riots. 

State what you know of the late riots. 
On Tuesday, the first night of the riots, some men came to our house. We were in bed. They told us to get up and get some supper for them. We got up, and made a fire, and got them supper. 

What else took place? 
What was left of the sugar, and coffee, and ham they threw into the bayou. 

How many men were there? 
There were seven of them; but I was so scared I could not be certain. 

Did they rob you? 
We had two trunks. They did not unlock them, but just jerked them open. They took $100 belonging to Frances, and $200 belonging to a friend of Frances, given to her to take care of. They took all the money and clothes and carried them off. 

Did you know any of the men? 
There were two policemen with the men. I saw their stars. 

What else took place? 
They tried to take advantage of me and did. I told them I did not do such things and would not. One of them said he would make me, and choked me by the neck. My neck was swollen up the next day, and for two weeks I could not talk to anyone. After the first man had connexion with me, another go hold of me and tried to violate me, but I was so bad he did not. He gave me a lick with his fist and said I was so damned near dead he would not have anything to do with me. 

Were you injured?
I bled from what the first man had done to me. The man said, “Oh, she is so near dead I won’t have anything to do with her.” I was injured right smart, and kept my bed for two weeks after. 

Did they do anything else? 
We had some quilts in the room that we had been quilting red, white, and blue. They asked us if we made them before or after the Yankees came. We said after. They said, “You niggers have a mighty liking for the damned Yankees, but we will kill you, and you will have no liking for any one then.” There were some pictures in the room: we had General Hooker and some other Union officers, and they said they would not have hurt us so bad if it had not been for these pictures. They were in the house a good while after they hurt me, but I lay down on the bed for I thought they had killed me; it was mostly from the choking and the lick on the side of my yead. 

Did anyone attend you?
Dr. Riley, a colored doctor, afterwards examined me. I was in bed two weeks later. 

U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Memphis Riots and Massacres. 39th Congress, 1st session, 1865-66. House Report No. 101. Washington, DC, 1866, 197. 

Available through the Hathi Trust 

Newspaper story about Frances Thompson

Frances Thompson (colored) better known as “Aunt Crutchie,” who for the past twenty-seven years has gone about this city in female garb, was arrested yesterday, and after medical examination was pronounced a member of the male sex. The quartette of medical experts who worked upon the case also discovered that the dusky Thompson’s lower limbs were as crooked as a young dogwood tree or a ram’s horn. This deformity served as an excuse for the pretended female cripple to promenade the streets on crutches. Thompson is well known to the people of this city as a low minded criminal of the most revolting character. The recorder imposed a fine of $50 upon the prisoner. Not being able to pay the fine a lot of male toggery was put upon the impecunious Thompson, and he was sent out on the chain gang to work the streets. An immense crowd of curious idling people collected about to see the changed figure of the thick lipped, foul mouthed scamp, and finding it impossible to drive them off, Thompson was sent to the lock up again. Known then as Miss Frances Thompson, this person testified before the Washington Congressional Committee to have been outraged a number of times during the Memphis riots soon after the war. Her evidence appears at length in the official report. It is just probable Mr. Thompson lied — Memphis Avalanche

Under False Colors. “A Colored Man Who Has Successfully Passed as a Woman for Twenty-Seven Years.” The Memphis Avalanche; reprinted in The Pulaski Citizen (Pulaski, TN), Thursday, July 20, 1876, page 2.

Available through Newspapers.com