On June 18, 1873, suffrage pioneer Susan B. Anthony was tried on the charge of voting illegally in the U.S. presidential election of 1872. (That Anthony had voted was never in question; she and fourteen other women had voted publicly, in Rochester, on November 1, 1872. Moreover, immediately after voting Anthony had given a newspaper interview recounting her successful effort to vote.)
Anthony was arrested on November 18, 1872, for violating the federal Enforcement Act of 1870, which provided in part that “Any person … who shall vote without having a legal right to vote … shall be deemed guilty of a crime.”
Following her arrest, Anthony delivered a speech titled “Is It a Crime for a U.S. Citizen to Vote?” at twenty-nine locations across Monroe County, in which Rochester is located. A Rochester newspaper reprinted the speech in its entirety. In response to this extensive pre-trial publicity, in May 1873, U.S. Attorney Richard Crowley requested a change of venue from the federal district court to the federal circuit court for the Northern New York District. That court would next meet in June in Canandaigua, the seat of Ontario County, which borders Monroe County to the east.
The trial began on June 18 in the Ontario County Courthouse, with Justice Ward Hunt presiding. Hunt, recently named to the U.S. Supreme Court, was riding circuit. A politician who had held elected judgeships and was a close associate of New York power broker Roscoe Conkling, Hunt had never presided over a criminal trial.
The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) sent no official representative to the trial. Matilda Joslyn Gage, then an NWSA officer, attended the trial in her personal capacity to show Anthony support.
The trial lasted just three days and ended controversially. Justice Hunt had written his decision prior to the trial. Rather than allow the jury to deliberate, he instead directed it to return a guilty verdict. He ordered the court clerk to enter that verdict immediately and fined Anthony $100. Hunt then routinely requested whether Anthony had anything to say. Anthony responded with a lengthy and impassioned speech condemning the trial and Justice Hunt’s conduct. Ignoring Hunt’s repeated commands to be quiet, Anthony thundered that Hunt had “trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored.” Anthony concluded, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.” Under the law of the day, Anthony could have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court only if Hunt had ordered her jailed until she paid the fine. Hunt prudently declined to do so, leaving Anthony with no avenue for appeal.
The trial received extensive media coverage. Daily reports by the Associated Press appeared in newspapers across the nation, and editors wrote prolifically on both sides of the controversy. When the drama subsided, the trial had further cemented Anthony’s stature as a suffrage leader and thrust the suffrage movement even more prominently into national attention.
Anthony never paid the $100 fine. In January 1874, she petitioned the U.S. Congress to remit her fine, arguing that Hunt’s use of the so-called directed verdict had been grossly improper. The Senate and House Judiciary Committees both debated the issue. A bill to remit the fine reached the House floor but did not pass.
Despite cursory subsequent efforts to collect the fine, Anthony never paid a penny of it.
The fourteen other women who had voted with Anthony were arrested and indicted, but U.S. Attorney Crowley opted not to try them. The election inspectors—whom Anthony’s rhetoric had persuaded to let the women vote—were tried, immediately after Anthony’s trial. They were found guilty of violating the Enforcement Act and fined; refusing to pay the fine as Anthony had, they were jailed. Anthony and others campaigned for their release, a cause taken up by some members of Congress. On March 3, 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant pardoned the inspectors. By now quite popular in Rochester, they were immediately re-elected to their posts.
Justice Hunt’s directed verdict provoked years of legal controversy. In 1895, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sparf v. United States that federal judges could not order a jury to return a guilty verdict in a criminal trial.
The courthouse bears no historic marker commemorating the trial, but a bust of Susan B. Anthony is displayed outside the courtroom entrance and a portrait of Anthony hangs in the courtroom.
The Ontario County Courthouse was dedicated in 1858, replacing an 1824 structure sited diagonally across the street; the older structure was re-purposed as the Canandaigua City and Town Hall, which stands today. The new courthouse’s Greek-inspired design featured a large golden dome. The structure was built at a cost of about $57,000. It was significantly enlarged in 1908 with the addition of a third story and footprint extensions on the north and south sides. A 1987–1988 renovation, the most ambitious historic preservation project in Ontario County's history, preserved the building’s historic appearance while converting interior areas in the basement and attic, long used for storage, back into working offices. After a further renovation in 2016, the structure included courtrooms on the first, second, and third floors.
The statue of “Lady Justice” atop the dome is the fourth such statue to grace the building. Placed in 2012, it holds the original scales of justice from the first such statue placed in 1858.
The Ontario County Courthouse and the Canandaigua City and Town Hall form part of the Canandaigua Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. They are two of some 338 contributing structures within this District, which encompasses the village’s historic core.
Thanks to Edward Varno for research assistance. Special thanks to Deputy County Administrator Brian Young for site access for photography.