Sex and Sexuality in Small-town Nebraska

Sex and sexuality were not visibly recorded in Hayes Center, Nebraska in 1920. Under the Comstock Law, it would have been illegal for the newspapers or any other form of advertisements of birth control or abortion to be dispersed. There were no movie theaters in Hayes Center, so that medium of spreading information was not available either. What Ruth Ayer probably knew was very little, and this was probably limited to stories that were passed by word of mouth and from reading the few items that were featured in the newspaper.

There was no idea of sexual education in Hayes Center, and this is made obvious in Ruth’s initial reaction to her pregnancy. According to her boyfriend Watson Alexander, Ruth didn’t even know she was pregnant for some time. Alexander testifies that, “She thought that something was wrong – she really didn’t know – she thought perhaps it might be a cold.” Apparently, it wasn’t until the condition continued for almost two months that they decided that she might be pregnant and should go to Omaha to see a doctor. This lack of understanding of her body may have led to Ruth’s waiting too long before having the abortion, leading up to her death.

While it was rare, there was small discussion of a woman’s ability to control her body in the newspaper. These comments were not as frequent as they are in the Omaha papers, but the Hayes Center Times Republican does reveal instances where women’s issues are discussed. The first of these is an advertisement for Paxtine Antiseptic Powder “What Every Woman Wants.” This powder was recommended by Lydia E Pinkham, whose health suggestion column also ran every week. According to the add, this personal hygiene powder when, “Dissolved in water for douches stops pelvic catarrh, ulceration and inflammation… economical, has extraordinary cleaning and germicidal power.” While this is not an outright advertisement for a spermicide, it is a relatively progressive product to be placed in a small town, conservative newspaper. Whether or not the women of Hayes Center used Paxtine powder would be a different matter. Either way, its presence indicates that there was some discussion of, and maybe even a need for birth control in this community.

A more obvious example of birth control in the Hayes Center area is a case of infanticide in 1917 in nearby McCook, Nebraska. The body of an infant was found under a pile of stones in an empty lot. Later in the story, a couple and a woman are arrested on charges of first-degree murder . Although the details are few, and there is no follow up, this is an example of women in the Hayes County area trying to control their repoduction. What is more significant about this is that the same day, Ruth Ayer is mentioned in the same paper for having returned from Franklin. With her name on the same page as the story, it would be inevitable that Ruth would have seen this attempt to avoid a pregnancy. This might have influenced Ruth's decisions three years later.

It is impossible to know for sure what Ruth Ayer knew about sexuality and birth control. The evidence that we have is very scanty, but it shows that sexuality was not discussed, at least publicly, in Hayes Center, Nebraska. We know from evidence from the trial that Ruth herself was not sure if she was pregnant for almost two months. On the flip side, Ruth obviously knew enough to seek out an abortion. It is possible that the bungled attempt in McCook influenced her decision to go as far away as Omaha when she could probably have procured one closer. Another interesting fact is that Watson states that they had been intimate since the fall before. If that’s the case, either Ruth was aware of some way to prevent getting pregnant, or was very lucky until May of 1920. Either way, sexuality, for such a central part to this case, is not very widely discussed. When it is, it is either handled in the very sterile environment of a germicidal advertisement, or as a horror story.