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Harlots, Hussies, and Poor Unfortunate WomenHarlots, Hussies, and Poor Unfortunate Women

Crime, Transportation, and the Servitude of Female Convicts, 1718-1783

Edith M. Ziegler

Narrated by Sally Martin

Available from Audible

Book published by The University of Alabama Press

In Harlots, Hussies, and Poor Unfortunate Women, Edith M. Ziegler recounts the history of British convict women involuntarily transported to Maryland in the eighteenth century.

Great Britain’s forced transportation of convicts to colonial Australia is well known. Less widely known is Britain’s earlier program of sending convicts—including women—to North America. Many of these women were assigned as servants in Maryland. Titled using epithets that their colonial masters applied to the convicts, Edith M. Ziegler’s Harlots, Hussies, and Poor Unfortunate Women examines the lives of this intriguing subset of American immigrants.

Basing much of her powerful narrative on the experiences of actual women, Ziegler restores individual faces to women stripped of their basic freedoms. She begins by vividly invoking the social conditions of eighteenth-century Britain, which suffered high levels of criminal activity, frequently petty thievery. Contemporary readers and scholars will be fascinated by Ziegler’s explanation of how gender-influenced punishments were meted out to women and often ensnared them in Britain’s system of convict labor.

Ziegler depicts the methods and operation of the convict trade and sale procedures in colonial markets. She describes the places where convict servants were deployed and highlights the roles these women played in colonial Maryland and their contributions to the region’s society and economy. Ziegler’s research also sheds light on escape attempts and the lives that awaited those who survived servitude.

Mostly illiterate, convict women left few primary sources such as diaries or letters in their own words. Ziegler has masterfully researched the penumbra of associated documents and accounts to reconstruct the worlds of eighteenth-century Britain and colonial Maryland and the lives of these unwilling American settlers. In illuminating this little-known episode in American history, Ziegler also discusses not just the fact that these women have been largely forgotten, but why. Harlots, Hussies, and Poor Unfortunate Women makes a valuable contribution to American history, women’s studies, and labor history.

Edith M. Ziegler is an adjunct lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of New England in Australia. She is the author of Schools in the Landscape: Localism, Cultural Tradition and the Development of Alabama’s Public Education System, 1865–1915.


“This compelling study traces the transportation of female convicts from Britain to Maryland in the 18th century.  Piecing together evidence from merchant letter books, runaway advertisements, and court records, Ziegler (Univ. of New England, Australia) places female convicts into the historical dialogue of criminal transportation to North America.  Though the scholarship on gender relationships in the US is expanding, Ziegler emphasizes that female convicts are overlooked.  She argues that like female slaves and servants, women convicts faced similar (and significant) experiences of displacement, family loss, maltreatment, social exclusion, and reinvention and therefore deserve their own analysis.  In the first three chapters, the author examines the economic and technological circumstances that drove women to crime, the types of crime they committed, and the physical and emotional impact that Britain’s Transportation Act had on female criminals.  The next four chapters cover their exile in Maryland, including hostile encounters with colonists, being sold, abuse, sexual relationships, attempted escape, and life after servitude.  The conclusion situates female convicts within the turmoil of the American Revolution, raising more questions about the struggle of this unique group to obtain an identity in a patriarchal (and increasingly revolutionary) society.  The author’s methodology makes this book a valuable resource. Highly recommended.”


“Ziegler describes the significant impact of British penal and mercantile trade policies as well as the neglected gendered world of white servitude in a predominately slave economy. This well-researched work will contribute significantly to early modern gender, colonialism, and transatlantic studies and provide lively required reading for undergraduate courses in these areas.”

—Debra Meyer, author of Common Whores, Vertuous Women, and Loveing Wives: Free Will Christian Women in Colonial Maryland and co-editor of Colonial Chesapeake: New Perspectives

“Edith Ziegler offers a compelling social history about women convicts from the British Isles who were sent to Maryland under the Transportation Act of 1718. Harlots, Hussies, and Poor Unfortunate Women carefully reconstructs each step of these women’s experiences, beginning with their crimes and imprisonments in England, and following them as they journeyed to Maryland to complete their sentences as bound laborers. As these women left behind few first-person accounts, Ziegler skillfully utilizes a variety of primary sources, including ship records, court records concerning legal disputes, runaway notices, and estate inventories, to reveal the challenges and harsh conditions women convicts faced as a result of their dislocation from family, friends, and home.”

—Lucia McMahon, author of Mere Equals: The Paradox of Women‚Äôs Education in the Early American Republic

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