Susan B. Anthony is convicted for casting a ballot

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This is an entry in the cover feature 10 trials that changed the world.

On Nov. 1, 1872, Susan B. Anthony and her three sisters walked into a voter registration office in Rochester, N.Y., and demanded to be registered. Even though suffrage for women was not recognized in the United States at the time—and wouldn’t be for another 50 years—Anthony argued to the election inspectors that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which had been ratified in 1868, gave women the right to vote in federal elections. Finally, the inspectors gave in and registered the women. On Nov. 5, Anthony and a handful of other women cast their ballots, but on Nov. 18, a U.S. deputy marshal came to Anthony’s home and arrested her for voting illegally.

Anthony’s trial in a U.S. circuit court began on June 17, 1873, before a jury of 12 men. The next day, presiding judge Ward Hunt, who had been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court earlier that year, directed the jury to return a guilty verdict and denied a defense request to poll the jury. On June 19, Hunt denied a defense motion for a new trial on grounds that Anthony had been denied a trial by jury, then sentenced her to a fine of $100 and the costs of prosecution.

Although United States v. Susan B. Anthony is viewed primarily as a case about women’s suffrage, it actually touched on many issues, including the laws that supported Reconstruction, the competing authority of federal and state governments and courts, criminal proceedings in federal courts, the right to trial by jury and the lack of provisions to appeal criminal convictions.

In legal terms, Justice Hunt’s decision to direct the jury to find Anthony guilty—without allowing the jurors to deliberate and without polling them—was so egregious that lawyers, politicians and the press spoke out against his violation of the constitutional guarantee of trial by jury. It was not until 22 years later, in 1895, that the Supreme Court ruled that a federal judge may not direct a guilty verdict in a criminal trial.

While Anthony was successful in persuading President Ulysses S. Grant to pardon the election inspectors who were convicted of allowing her to register and accepting her vote, she failed in her attempts to persuade Congress that her fine should be dismissed because she was denied a trial by jury. But she never paid the fine, either, and the government made no efforts to collect it.

Anthony was depicted as “the Woman Who Dared” in a cartoon that appeared in the New York Daily Graphic on June 5, 1873, accompanied by an editorial declaring that, if she were to be exonerated, women would “acknowledge in the person of Miss Anthony the pioneer who first pursued the way they sought.” But Anthony’s role in providing impetus for protecting a defendant’s rights in jury trials should not be overlooked.


“Well, I have been & gone & done it!” Anthony wrote to fellow suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton after casting her vote. But by all accounts, it was the only time Anthony ever voted in a state or federal election. She died in 1906. The 19th Amendment recognizing the right of women to vote was ratified in 1920.

List of Cases, in Chronological Order

1. God punishes Adam and Eve, and the Serpent – by George Anastapolo

2. Parliament puts King Charles I on trial – by Maura McGowan

3. Susan B. Anthony is convicted for casting a ballot – by Deborah Enix-Ross

4. Clarence Darrow is tried on charges of bribing jurors – by Michael E. Tigar

5. A court decides who is white under the law – by Sahar F. Aziz

6. An Allied tribunal brings Nazi leaders to account at Nuremberg – by Lori B. Andrews

7. The Supreme Court rejects the separate but equal doctrine – by Kim J. Askew

8. Adolf Eichmann is convicted for his role in the ‘Final Solution’ – by Mark S. Ellis

9. Nelson Mandela is spared from a death sentence – by Richard J. Goldstone

10. Serb leader is tried by an international tribunal – by Randy J. Aliment

Deborah Enix-Ross is litigation practice group manager for Debevoise & Plimpton in New York City. She is a past chair of the ABA Section of International Law. She chairs the ABA Center for Human Rights, and is a vice president of the World Justice Project, an entity created by the ABA and other organizations to advance the rule of law through multidisciplinary efforts.

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