Property Rites

Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness

ELIZABETH M. SMITH-PRYOR
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 408
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807894170_smith-pryor
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  • Book Info
    Property Rites
    Book Description:

    In 1925 Leonard Rhinelander, the youngest son of a wealthy New York society family, sued to end his marriage to Alice Jones, a former domestic servant and the daughter of a "colored" cabman. After being married only one month, Rhinelander pressed for the dissolution of his marriage on the grounds that his wife had lied to him about her racial background. The subsequent marital annulment trial became a massive public spectacle, not only in New York but across the nation--despite the fact that the state had never outlawed interracial marriage.Elizabeth Smith-Pryor makes extensive use of trial transcripts, in addition to contemporary newspaper coverage and archival sources, to explore why Leonard Rhinelander was allowed his day in court. She moves fluidly between legal history, a day-by-day narrative of the trial itself, and analyses of the trial's place in the culture of the 1920s North to show how notions of race, property, and the law were--and are--inextricably intertwined.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0590-6
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    It is obvious . . . that the Rhinelander case is of great social significance in America for several reasons, some of which are related to the swiftly changing status of the Negro in the American nation. The past ten years have wrought something like a racial revolution in the United States. The rapid industrialisation of the South, coupled with the steady northward migration of the Negro, in response for the demand for labour in the great cities consequent upon the limiting of immigration from Europe, is causing a transformation of the economic map. Of the twelve million Negroes in...

  5. ONE: Curious Acts
    (pp. 11-39)

    DRESSED ONLY IN UNDERWEAR and a long coat, a twenty-six-year-old woman entered the jury room of a New York courthouse a few days before Thanksgiving in 1925. Once inside, the young woman faced eighteen men and dropped her coat to her waist so that the men could look at her back and breasts. After the twelve jurors, the judge, the attorneys, and the court stenographer had concluded their inspection, the young woman covered herself once more. A lawyer then directed her to bare her legs from the ankles to the knees. After this second fleshy display, the men filed back...

  6. TWO: “All Mixed Up” in New York
    (pp. 40-58)

    NEWCOMERS TO NEW YORK CITY in the 1920s would have been struck by two different features of the country’s largest metropolis: its soaring skyscrapers and its heterogeneous people. Whether the visitors arrived by train in Grand Central Station or by boat on the West Side docks, their eyes would have been drawn upward to the city’s tall buildings. Then their eyes and ears would have turned slowly earthward to fasten on the different skin colors, languages, and nationalities of the people thronging the streets of New York. The city’s skyscrapers, its “futuristic pinnacles,” identified New York as the polestar of...

  7. THREE: The Trial Begins
    (pp. 59-88)

    JUST BEFORE TEN O’CLOCK on a crisp autumn morning in early November 1925, the White Plains, New York, courtroom doors swung open to admit those members of the public who awaited the upcoming Rhinelander annulment trial.¹ Once the doors opened, scores of people, including wealthy matrons, chambermaids, porters, and flappers pushed in and tried to secure seats. When the courtroom filled, eight deputy sheriffs struggled to control the overflow crowd that spilled into the corridors. Despite the chilly air, hundreds of disappointed spectators who failed to squeeze in to the packed courtroom lingered in the street outside Westchester County’s Supreme...

  8. FOUR: Passing and the “Seemingly Absurd Question” of Race
    (pp. 89-111)

    AS THE JURY SAT through the daily reading of Alice’s love letters to Leonard, Isaac Mills used Alice’s words to picture a scheming colored woman who would lie about her race to marry a man like Leonard. Back in November of 1924, when Leonard Rhinelander and his attorneys first declared that Alice Jones had falsely represented herself as white, they accused her of being colored and passing. Contemporary readers of New York’s newspapers, who were fascinated by the story of the Rhinelander marriage and Leonard’s attempt to dissolve it, would have been familiar with the concept of passing for white....

  9. FIVE: Defending the Citadel of Whiteness from the “Awful Stain”
    (pp. 112-132)

    ONCE UPON A TIME, an heir to a New York fortune married a maid of immigrant origins. Trying to break up the marriage, his parents sent a lawyer to convince the young man to leave his wife and offered to pay her to leave the country. When the son refused to abandon his bride, his parents disinherited him and gave him only a small stipend to live on. Eight years after his marriage, the not-so-young former heir embarrassed his family again. Convinced that the family lawyer had first restricted his income and then attempted to seduce his wife and turn...

  10. SIX: The Trial Continues DEGENERACY, MODERN LOVE, AND “FILTHY LETTERS”
    (pp. 133-156)

    AFTER ISAAC MILLS PAINTED Alice Jones Rhinelander as a seductive, deceptive woman of loose morals, it was Lee Davis’s turn to offer a different narrative. As Davis had suggested in his opening statement when he mapped out his strategy, the defense would insist that a “son of wealth” entered the Joneses’ “humble home” to “take this girl.” Davis planned to present Leonard to the twelve jurors as an aristocratic young man who sought sexual pleasure with women from a lower social class.¹ Moreover, Davis planned to point out that throughout the process of Leonard’s seduction of Alice, he knew the...

  11. SEVEN: “Poor Little Cupid” and the Marriage Contract
    (pp. 157-183)

    IN THE 1920S, race mattered. African ancestry could limit people’s livelihoods. It could determine where they lived. African ancestry could also be a matter of life and death. Although most lynchings took place in the South, the riots in the summer of 1919 in Chicago and Washington, D.C., showed that not only white southerners engaged in violence against African Americans. Northern bloodshed continued through the 1920s as many whites battled to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods in cities like Detroit and New York.¹

    In the 1920s, marriage, like race, mattered too. According to many historians, the institution of marriage...

  12. EIGHT: Blind Love and the Visibility of Race
    (pp. 184-212)

    THROUGHOUT LEE PARSON DAVIS’S cross-examination of Leonard he barraged the hapless husband with questions about his perception of the Jones family before his marriage. Focusing on George Jones, the now-acknowledged source of the Jones daughters’ African ancestry, Davis asked repeatedly whether Leonard could see Jones’s color. At one point, Leonard admitted the lights were turned on in Alice’s house the day he met her father; yet George Jones’s skin color did not surprise him. When Davis asked Leonard to characterize George Jones’s complexion in court, Leonard replied, “It is rather dark. He is rather dark.” Davis asked, “Just verging off...

  13. NINE: The Trial Ends
    (pp. 213-238)

    AS THE RHINELANDER annulment trial drew to a close, Margery Rex of theEvening Journalasked a few questions that struck at the heart of one meaning of the trial in the 1920s. Rex observed that one topic lingered in everyone’s mind, “If Alice wins, or Kip wins—regardless of outcome—will the two attempt ever again to live together?” Rex continued, “As far as Alice and Kip are concerned, no one but possibly Philip Rhinelander, the youth’s father, cares whether or not they do live together. If Kip wants a colored wife, you hear on all sides, who should...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 239-252)

    AS LEGAL HISTORIAN Michael Grossberg reminds us, “For reasons intrinsic to each case and its moment in time, some trials produce arresting social dramas.”¹ In 1925, the Rhinelander annulment trial became a “social drama” because it emerged at a moment when the meaning of race in the American North seemed unclear in light of the convergence of historically specific circumstances, including the high rate of foreign immigration and, most important, the northward migration of African Americans. The movement of African Americans to the North and the region’s economic, social, and political opportunities produced a series of heated conflicts over access...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 253-340)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 341-372)
  17. Index
    (pp. 373-391)