The Hanging of Susanna Cox: The True Story of Pennsylvania’s Most Notorious Infanticide and the Legend That’s Kept It Alive
The story of Susanna Cox, as detailed in Patricia Earnest Suter, Russell Earnest, and Corinne Earnest’s The Hanging of Susanna Cox, nearly perfectly follows the trajectory of the seduction of the mid-to-late eighteenth century: a naive girl is lured from her family, “seduced” (often, in actuality, raped), left by her lover (or rapist), and left to die alone. Seduction novels were simultaneously didactic, propagandistic, prurient, and hugely popular. What differentiates the story of Susanna Cox from the seduction novel is that Cox was a real woman, indentured at the age of fourteen and hung in Pennsylvania for infanticide in 1809 when she was in her early twenties.
The authors tease out the details of Cox’s short life, trial, and execution against the backdrop of the changes to the United States, forensics, the justice system, and the public’s perception of crime. This is all intriguing, albeit concerning, information. The evidence of Cox’s guilt was sparse, her trial exceptionally brief, and the details provided by the authors about her public execution horrific. At Cox’s brief trial, women connected to the case do not testify, nor does the father of Cox’s son, who is not so much as named in public records. Regardless of her guilt or innocence, in many ways Cox’s life was tragic, and the book is particularly sad to read in that her case was likely in no way unique, particularly amongst “invisible” indentured women.
What I found most interesting about the book was the emergence of Cox’s “notorious” status and the visibility that came to her after her death. The authors note, “At the very time Susanna’s life came to an end, her story came alive through the words of printers.” Perhaps because her story was so similar to the type of seduction tale told in countless novels and stories at the time, broadsides and poems about the case were printed simultaneous to her trial and execution, and were widely sold. The story endured. The book opens with the authors’ visit to the Kutztown Folk Festival in 2008—199 years after Cox’s execution—at which one exhibit is the repeated hanging of an effigy of Cox. Although this hanging of Cox’s effigy culminates with a quote from one of the poems about Cox (“Her exit–infamy!”), what is intriguing is that the poems about her are factual, didactic, and moralistic, but also somewhat sympathetic.
Although there are many unanswered questions about the life of Susanna Cox, the authors have assembled an impressive array of facts. As someone who had never heard of Susanna Cox or her execution before reading the book and who has never visited the area in which the story is famous, the book occasionally delved into too much local and geographical detail for me; however, The Hanging of Susanna Cox was still a book that I read with interest and speed, eager to learn more about the story. Beyond just the case of Susanna Cox, which is engaging but frustrating for the impossibility of decisive answers, the book is also a portrayal of a justice system and population in a state of significant change.