Emma Williams: What is the worth of good intentions?

By Sonia Linares

The documented life of Emma Williams, through the casebooks of the Rosine Association, is framed by the words of Mira Sharpless Townsend, “She [Emma Williams] had made many good resolutions in person, but how was she to keep them.” [1] This important question continues to be an essential point in conversations of both prison reform and abolition. As folks are wrapped into the carceral state, there is a clear presence of structures that continuously prevent previously incarcerated people from avoiding the situations that resulted in their incarceration in the first place. 

For Emma Williams, these structures included a broken family, abuse, prostitution, alcoholism, and poverty. As Emma entered into a life of “crime”, she was forced to reckon with the consequences, admitting that she had been arrested over 20 times. Every time she was arrested, she reflected and wanted to commit herself to change, however, it seemed the circumstances left her no choice but to engage in various types of crimes. As discussed by Kali Gross, it is evident that women in this era navigated a precarious position. It’s up to historians to decide how to characterize them. Gross offers us a lens through which to characterize these women as she states, “I resist casting these women as martyrs or as inherently deviant. Rather, the analysis sifts through the slippery matrix of what exists between proprietary and pathology.” [2]

How did Emma Williams end up in this situation? More importantly, if prison really is about reform, why was Emma Williams such a frequent guest? 

Emma lived a tumultuous childhood, having only about three years of stability before she began a life of frequent movement and forced independence. While she grew up with her mother, at the age of three she was adopted by another woman. The casebook itself does not go into great detail about why this adoption took place, however, it is noted that her mother was married three times. It’s not far from the imagination that her mother might have chosen to give up her daughter in order to focus on her new marriage and potentially, her future children. 

When Emma turned six, she and another girl she lived with ran away to a tavern where they would remain for another four years. Not much is known about Emma’s life in these four years, but it is noted that she was introduced to prostitution at the age of 11. This is the age that Emma was probably labeled as “independent” by the men in charge of the tavern, thus forcing her to sell her body in exchange for basic necessities. Lewis Williams later became Emma’s “partner” at the age of 13. They lived together for two years before he went off to sea, leaving the rent paid for for three months. Despite him leaving her money, she had other costs he wasn’t able to maintain leading her to begin frequenting theaters with her next door neighbor, Mary Jane Smith. At this time, “Prostitutes, who could be counted on to bring in paying customers, were often admitted [to theaters] for free or at a discount.” Thus, it became clear that Emma would continue engaging in prostitution at 15. [2] 

At this age, her more frequent engagement with prostitution and the theater resulted in a growing dependency on alcohol. Her issues with alcoholism emptied her pockets, causing her to sell all the furniture she had with Lewis. The two ended up moving away from Philadelphia shortly after this endeavor, most likely because of the economic issues Emma’s alcoholism caused. Emma would soon leave him, however, and the two would engage in an on and off relationship. It is important to note that Lewis was the one who kept trying to make the relationship work; Emma was disinterested in continuing their relationship. 

After she left Lewis for good, Emma engaged in three other relationships with men. One of the men, however, was extremely abusive to the point where she ended up leaving him and returning to a Brothel on Plum Street. Plum Street in Philadelphia was known for its high number of specifically white prostitutes. Despite Emma avoiding imprisonment before this point, her time at the brothel on Plum street would prove a turning point. Although she had steered away from law enforcement repeatedly before, her stay in a highly policed city would prove detrimental to her once clean record. Emma was also getting older meaning there was an increased policing she would be subjected to. 

Women at this time were economically dependent on men. Women like Emma who had no one to depend on were in an even more precarious position. For Emma, survival proved a task that she would have to fight for independently. It is clear that Emma’s livelihood was contingent on her own means. After she ended her relationship with her abuser, she met another man at the brothel who seemed to trust her a great deal; this man gave her a knife to take care of, demonstrating what she perceived as potentially trust or fondness. While this present should have proved a positive aspect of Emma’s life, it turned sour when Mary Jane Smith received the same present from the same man. Both girls got into a quarrel in which Emma stabbed Mary in the throat, causing her death 6 months later. Surprisingly, Emma was only sentenced to two years in prison, a meager amount of time in present day standards, and was let out after a year on good behavior. Historian Jen Manion’s book, Liberty’s Prisoners, describes that often when judges sentenced women, they paid attention to how young they were in order to decide how many years to give them. This could be the case for Emma who was probably in her late teens when she was arrested for Mary Jane Smith’s murder [4]. Towards the end of the casebook entry, it is shared that Emma Williams was arrested over twenty different times. 

What could have led to such a large number of arrests? 

Jen Manion helps us understand the potential causes of Emma’s twenty arrests as she states, “By 1823, at least 20 percent of women charged with drunkenness served less than thirty days, unlike in the 1790s. The new law clarified the difference between casual intoxication and a life on the margins defined by unemployment or homelessness.” [5] Many of Emma’s arrests could have been due to her constant struggle with alcoholism which she continuously relapsed into after being released from prison. It is clear, as Mira Sharpless Townsend states, “[Emma] was discharged without means, a home, or friends,” all of these factors contributed to her continuously falling into a pattern of alcoholism, prostitution, and crime. 

Emma’s life begs the question, what could have been her life had her basic needs been met? How would her life have turned out if she had a strong family structure, access to money, and rehabilitation after she became an alcoholic?

All of these questions remain relevant and true today as we see incarceration rates sky rocket throughout the country. Prison is framed as a vessel for rehabilitation after one commits a crime, but how often does this reign true? Even if this is the goal, what is the worth of good intentions when people like Emma Williams must suffer on their behalf?


[1] Emma Williams Casebook #97, Rosine Association (Philadelphia, Pa.), Rosine Association casebooks, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, https://digitalcollections.tricolib.brynmawr.edu/object/sc152356#page/113/mode/1up

[2] An Enquiry into the Condition and Influence of the Brothels in Connection with the Theaters of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Published for the Booksellers, 1834. (Gift of Dr. John Bell) https://librarycompany.org/shadoweconomy/section4_3.htm

[3]Buckalew, Terry. Eighteen-month-old Joseph Middleton died this date, February 28th, in 1848, and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Bethel Burying Ground Project https://bethelburyinggroundproject.com/page/2/

[4] Manion, Jen. Liberty’s Prisoners : Carceral Culture in Early America, pg 130. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central

[5] Manion, Jen. Liberty’s Prisoners : Carceral Culture in Early America, pg 82 University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central

[6] Gross, Kali N. Colored Amazons : Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910. Pg 4,  Durham [N.C: Duke University Press, 2006.]

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