Three Hills

Cry of Murder on Broadway

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“I Am Murdered!”

In 1838, defying the depression that followed the economic crash known as the Panic of 1837, a Boston-born merchant named Henry Ballard moved into the luxurious Astor House hotel on Broadway opposite City Hall Park in New York. After he moved out a few years later to set up a household with his brother around the corner, he continued to use the big hotel, enjoying its dining room and its hospitable flight of stone steps where men regularly gathered to sit, smoke, and chat. It was on those steps on November 1, 1843, that a young woman named Amelia Norman, wearing a black dress and carrying a fur muff, stopped Ballard as he tried to enter the hotel, pulled out a small folding knife, and stabbed him near the heart. “I am murdered!” Ballard cried out. Seeing him afterward, bleeding but alive, Norman told the man who drove her to jail that she was sorry she “had not killed the damned yankee.”

Amelia Norman, born around 1818, grew up in a farming family near the village of Sparta in New Jersey’s mountainous northwest. When she was around sixteen she came to New York City to work as a domestic servant for a family that ran a soap factory. Norman appears to have flourished in their Leonard Street household, but after the Panic of 1837 their business disappeared from the city directories and they began taking in boarders. As the depression settled in, Norman left them for a series of new jobs.

“Go and Get Her Living as Other Prostitutes Do”

In 1841 Norman met Henry Ballard. At her trial Norman’s lawyers described how Ballard falsely established himself as a suitor, then took her to a house of assignation where he “finally succeeded in accomplishing her seduction.” When Norman later appealed to Ballard for help supporting herself and their child, he brutally told her to “go and get her living as other prostitutes do.” That, according to her lawyers, was what pushed her over the edge and up the steps of the Astor House to commit her act of madness.

Cry of Murder on Broadway tells the story of a young woman whose violence earned her not the opprobrium, but the sympathy of the press, the public, and some influential supporters. The most steadfast of these was the popular author, abolitionist, and early advocate of women’s rights Lydia Maria Child. Norman was also championed by the members of the American Female Moral Reform Society, who seized on her story to support their campaign to criminalize “seduction”—a campaign that succeeded in New York in 1848.

Sympathetic crowds attended the week-long trial every day, and the penny press covered it eagerly. Ultimately, the supporters who mattered most were the jurors who, after hearing evidence that proved without a doubt that she was guilty of assault and battery with intent to kill as charged, acquitted her after deliberating for less than ten minutes.

Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880). John A. Whipple, ca. 1865. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

“This Is a Crisis. the Results of This Case Will Be Important.”

Norman’s story mattered to people in the mid-1840s and lingered in memory for more than a decade. Margaret Fuller, author of the 1845 feminist work Woman in the Nineteenth Century, wrote of the trial: “This is a crisis. The results of this case will be important.” Lydia Maria Child believed that Norman’s act was an expression of the damage that resulted from the imbalance of power between men and women. The depression of the 1840s, which prosperous men like Ballard could negotiate while poor women like Norman were crushed, brought this imbalance into painful focus. The movement for women’s rights, then percolating, would soon express in words all the anger that Norman, who did not know how to write, expressed in violence.

This year, as we celebrate the centenary of the nineteenth amendment, that anger continues to erupt. It will persist until we ensure, as Lydia Maria Child wrote near the end of her life, “the unshackled exercise of every faculty by every human being.”

*Featured photo: Topographical map of the city and county of New-York, New York: J.H. Colton & Co., 1836. The Astor House is at the center. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. 

Julie Miller is a historian, and the author of Abandoned: Foundlings in Nineteenth-Century New York City (NYU Press, 2008). In 2016 she was featured on “Presidential,” a Washington Post podcast, and her opinion piece, “Don’t Vote for me, I’m not Worthy,” appeared in the New York Times. She lives in Washington DC.

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