Nineteenth century Texans deemed that a girl had reached the “age of consent” on the day of her tenth birthday. Any man having carnal knowledge of a female under the age of ten — with or without her consent — was guilty of rape. The revised penal code, as amended in 1887, raised the age of consent by only two years. The Lone Star State was not alone in that mindset; other states had also followed the old English common law. After the age had been raised to 16 in New York, two attempts were made to lower it to 14, first in 1890 and two years later. The Encyclopedia of Social Reform (1897) reported that earlier in Delaware, “the age was at the shockingly low period of 7 years!”
“Are the fathers who pass such laws drunk or insane?” asked a journalist in 1905. By that year Texas had raised the age of consent to fifteen. In the Carolinas, however, it remained at the age of 10.
In Texas, a man eloping with a seventeen-year-old girl was guilty of breaking the law because he did not have parental consent. Yet, had he merely seduced her without eloping, no harm had been done — unless he first promised her marriage. And that could have led to an indictment for seduction. Even though a 15 year-old girl had reached the age of consent, the seduction of an adult female as old as 25 was still an indictable offense if her lover first promised marriage. The guilty party could face a five-year prison sentence or a fine up to $5,000. But such cases were hard to prove in court. A female was considered “an incompetent witness,” at least until the law changed in 1891 which allowed her to testify.
Texas’s statute provided an escape clause if the male were willing to make good on his promise. “If the parties marry each other at any time before the conviction of the defendant in good faith…no prosecution shall take place, or, if begun, it shall be dismissed,” the law stated.