Dangerous Curves

Susan Branson, Dangerous to Know: Women, Crime, and Notoriety in the Early Republic. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.


An image of Philadelphia produced by J. Simons and printed by C. P. Fessenden, 1834 (reproduced on page 2, http://www.philaprintshop.com/images/simonsphila.jpg)

Pr. Susan Branson, Syracuse University, has written a concise and accessible dual biography of sorts, tracing the lives of Ann Carson and Mary Clarke, two unusual American women living in the era of the Early Republic.  Dangerous offers readers a glimpse into the lives of these Philadelphia residents who are not from the elite portion of society and whose intertwined existence resulted in the publication of a story that exposed scandal, love affairs, and murder in the 1823 text History of the Celebrated Mrs. Ann Carson, written by Mary Clarke.

Branson embraces elements of the mystery novel in her preface, giving cause for the reader to wonder, just how out of hand and infamous Ann Carson had become by 1822 if she and a friend, with cash in hand, could not find shelter in any boardinghouse in Philadelphia – even a brothel refusing admittance (ix).  Immediately, readers will be fascinated to know more about the turns of events that led Carson to crime and Clarke to dangerous friendships and scandal-driven writing.  I believe a big part of what makes Branson’s work so successful is that she lays out for readers clearly and quickly the situation facing many American women in the late 18th and early 19th century, and then explains why Ann Carson and Mary Clarke are both part of that system and buck against it.

In the opening chapter, Branson lays out the expectations and limitations of life for married women in the Early Republic.  Both Carson and Clarke were forced to become the central money earners for their families at a time when women’s legal rights limited their ability to own property, enter into contracts, and more.  Not only is Branson excellent at portraying the backgrounds of these two women in a sympathetic manner, but she reminds the reader of all the additional economic circumstances to consider the impacted their lives ranging from embargoes, to open war, to economic panics.

While Carson ends up married to, literally, a drunken sailor, and working as a china importer to support her extended family, Mary Clarke pursued writing as a career, perhaps as early as 1814 (2-14).  Both women were educated, had children, and were not well-provided for by their husbands for a variety of reasons.  In entering the writing and publishing industry, Clarke sought to supply income for her family, but along the way, she was to become a groundbreaking individual as the first American woman to edit and publish a magazine aimed at women.  As merchant or publisher, both women walked a line between preserving their expected “place” in American society and throwing a curve by entering into the public sphere of the market.

This is a history text, not a novel, and yet I can’t help but operate with some restraint in discussing some of the content.  Suffice to say, there is a murder, an abortive plan to kidnap the governor of Pennsylvania, and then an attempt to make money off of the whole experience.  Readers also learn about nineteenth century attitudes towards race, clothing, sexual activity, and desperation.  If there is one small concern, it is that Branson must necessarily rely heavily on Ann Carson’s Memoirs for source material.  There are, however, several newspaper stories that corroborate some details and Branson also uses details from other cases of the nineteenth century (see Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett for example) to contextualize the Carson/Clarke story.  Dangerous to Know is both a compelling book and a revealing one – despite its brevity, readers will take away a tremendous amount of information from this text about women’s lives and challenges in the history of the Early Republic.


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Filed under Teaching and Learning History

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