Whited Sepulchers

August 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

In an early blow for equal rights for women, a couple of demi monds were working on the Austin street chain gang 140 years ago today, paying off fines of $30 and $40 for using obscene language on the streets. One of them had $65 in her stocking but evidently chose not to spend it. Luckily for them, an early cool front several days earlier brought somewhat more bearable temperatures and showers that wetted Austin’s notoriously dusty and blindingly white stone streets.

The backbone of the brutal summer had perhaps been broken, the Austin Daily Statesman mused, but the paper did not mince words when it dished out its opinion of this newly instituted penal practice.

The Hopeless Women on the Chain Gang – A Foul Shame and Horrible Crime.

“The subjection of women, however degraded, to public degradation, is hardly to be tolerated. It is bad enough that these lost and hopeless creatures are shunned by their own sex and abhorred by social law. They are infamous till the very term applied to them makes decency shudder, and when it must be printed the very types refuse to spell the word, and like an execration only the first and last letter of the damning epithet appears – thus: wh—e! Despite all this, these are women, once as pure and spotless as the best that scorn them. They have hands as delicate and limbs as shapely and brows as fair as the proudest damsel who has never heard a word that would bring a blush to the cheek of modesty. Fallen women they are, and they fell because they were betrayed by someone brutal enough to enjoy the debasing spectacle witnessed yesterday on the streets of the capital, when brawny, clubbed and pistoled policemen stood as masters beside the helpless women to make them toil as guilty slaves in the hot sunlight on the stony streets, and to be stared at by a jeering mob. The spectacle was revolting to common decency, and every gentleman who remembered that his mother and sister are women, shuddered when he contemplated it. They cannot work on the streets; no force or barbarity or exposure to public gaze, and no application of the club or lash can force them to do that of which they are physically incapable, and, therefore, this exposure of women to popular execration must have origin in some personal purpose of which the public is unadvised.

“Chain them to a tree. Their hands are small and limbs delicate, and the fetters must fit tightly, and then when these poor creatures, already degraded by the lives they lead and by the oaths to which they constantly listen from men a thousand-fold more brutal than themselves – when these women, starved as they are, and cursed and driven about by heartless men are thoroughly lost to all sense of shame and made to hate man and womankind, then take them back to the wretched dens in which they lead most wretched modes of life and then, when the good deeds of the city government are thus crowned with glory, we may have leisure to reflect that no punishment is inflicted by law which is not designed to reform the sufferer, or others, by the example. In this case a crowd of vulgar boys are only brutalized, and two women, fair enough to look upon, are made whited sepulchers, and the miserable men who must inflict the punishment are degraded in their own eyes. This horrible lesson is one full of degradation to a whole community.”

And that was soon the end of that.

And if you are curious, as I was, about the term “whited sepulchers,” it comes from the Bible, Matthew 23:27 (King James Version) when Jesus shouted, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

It was the Jewish custom to whitewash the exteriors of their tombs, or “sepulchers.” Several days ‘midst the dust of Austin’s streets had turned our two ladies of the night blindingly white.

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