The hardships of Norman’s early life helped to fuel this violent display. She was born around 1818 on a farm in the mountains of northwestern New Jersey. Her education was so limited that she never learned to write, not even to sign her name. Her family was large and troubled, and at around 16, she took an opportunity to work as a household servant in New York. Live-in domestic service was hard work, and it paid poorly, but at the time, it was one of the very few occupations open to women. In the first half of the 19th century, many young women chose, like Norman, to leave their rural homes and come to the cities to work as servants.
Norman prospered in her new home, earning the friendship of the family she worked for and making friends in the neighborhood. Then came disaster. The economic crash known as the Panic of 1837 sank the country into a depression that lasted into the 1840s. The family members Norman worked for lost their business, and she left for a series of new jobs.
In the spring of 1841, during this unsettled time, Ballard, who owned an importing business near the seaport and lived in the sumptuous Astor House, saw Norman and engineered a meeting with her. He then, in the words of one of Norman’s lawyers at her trial, “succeeded in accomplishing her seduction.” After this, Norman left her home and job and became Ballard’s mistress.
In the fall of 1842, she bore a child. Soon after, Ballard left the city, leaving Norman behind. By the fall of 1843, he had returned, and when Norman appealed to him for support for herself and their child, he told her to “go and get her living as other prostitutes do.” At her trial in 1844, Norman’s lawyers told how Ballard’s seduction, followed by his brutal rejection, destroyed the modest, lighthearted young woman described by the friends who testified on her behalf, and provoked the madness that drove her up the steps of the Astor House with a knife on that November evening.
During the months that Norman waited in jail for her trial, she attracted an influential supporter: the reformer and popular author Lydia Maria Child.
Child was the author of novels, stories, poetry, works for children and household advice manuals. Her “American Frugal Housewife,” first published in 1829, went through 35 editions. In 1833, her “Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans” established her reputation as a leading abolitionist. Like most abolitionists of the day — including her mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society — Child was committed to nonviolence. But when she became Norman’s main supporter, that commitment was tested.
In newspaper column Child devoted to Norman’s case, she assured her readers that she did not condone Norman’s violence. “All violence is crime, all violence is of the devil,” she wrote. But she argued that when women were routinely subjected to violence themselves, who could be surprised when the most vulnerable, the most burdened, the most inarticulate responded in kind?
Child chillingly described the role she believed violence played just under the surface of women’s lives. “That the present position of women in society is the result of physical force, is obvious enough”; she wrote in another column, “whosoever doubts it, let her reflect why she is afraid to go out in the evening without the protection of a man.” Child warned that men were in danger as long as they treated their wives and daughters as “chattels and playthings,” not because these women would become knife-wielding Amelia Normans, but because of the “terrible wreck” that angry and frustrated souls could make of their families.
Child may have come to regret how closely she veered toward condoning violence as she defended Norman. A few weeks after her column on Norman’s trial was published in the Boston Courier, it was reprinted in the National Anti-Slavery Standard with some of its more heated remarks removed, probably by Child herself. Child had, however, channeled feelings that were widely held by the many people who took Norman’s side.
These people filled the courtroom every day of Norman’s week-long trial. Newspaper editors wrote sympathetic editorials. The men on the jury (there would be no women on a New York jury for another century) were also on Norman’s side. After hearing evidence that proved without a doubt that she was guilty of assault and battery with intent to kill as charged, they nonetheless acquitted her after deliberating for less than 10 minutes.
The jury may have been swayed by the argument that Ballard had seduced Norman in a story familiar in every seduction novel. But every one of them had also experienced the terrible turbulence of the panic-induced depression, and they seem to have been able to sympathetically equate the ruin experienced by a man who had lost his money with the sexual, and no less financially destructive, ruin of a woman. In her column on Norman, Child described what a woman’s ruin looked like: “a broken heart, blighted reputation, the desertion of friends, the loss of respectable employment, the scorn and hissing of the world.”
In the summer of 1848, four years after Norman’s trial, the first convention for women’s rights was held at Seneca Falls, N.Y. Child did not attend, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who admired her, used some of Child’s ideas in the speech she gave there. Stanton, Child and many other women in the abolition movement, had become aware of their own unequal positions in society as a result of their work to end slavery. At a time of widening democracy and expanding expectations for equal rights, the inequality of women had become hard for them to bear.
The organizers of the convention, whose ideas about women’s rights had been simmering for at least a decade, took the first step on a path that led to the 19th Amendment, which, after it was ratified in 1920, granted American women the right to vote. But these early suffragists were concerned with much more than just the vote. The convention’s “Declaration of Sentiments” listed what women had been denied in addition to the right to vote: equal access to education, professional training and employment. They also listed what they had endured: a sexual double standard and the destruction of confidence that limited women to lives of dependence instead of dignity as fully empowered citizens.
They might have been reciting the circumstances of Amelia Norman’s life. The difference was that these first suffragists, from more privileged backgrounds than Norman’s, knew how to channel their considerable rage into words. That rage, fueled by the sorrow and frustration caused by inequality, is no less dangerous today than it was in 1843 — but maybe, channeled into words, it will be just as productive of positive change.