Rape in a Small Town: The Florence Holway Story

Calla Lily ProfileArleen Solomon Rotchin9 Comments

Unless you live in Alton, New Hampshire (population a smidge over 5,000), or have not seen the compelling HBO film ‘Rape in a Small Town’, you’ve probably never heard of Florence Holway.

Monument Square in the center of Alton, New Hampshire

Monument Square in the center of Alton, New Hampshire

In 1991, on the eve of Easter, a 25-year old intruder broke into 76-year old Florence Holway’s home and brutally raped her.  The assault lasted four hours.  He hog tied her, choked her and smashed her teeth.

There was no doubt John LaForest raped and sodomized her.  He was caught by police still in her bed fast asleep, his head resting on a pillow stained with her blood after she managed to escape to her son’s house next door.  Her son stood guard outside her home with his rifle until the police arrived.

Although LaForest was captured still in Mrs. Holway’s bed, the county attorney said there was not enough evidence to convict him.  Florence was subjected to a rape test and despite rectal and vaginal bleeding due to bruising, there was no semen present because her attacker was wearing a condom and according to the law, there wasn’t physical proof that she had been raped.  The Alton police hired a contractor to pump the septic tank in search of LaForest’s condom but none was found.

Florence Holway’s story might never have been known outside her small New Hampshire town had the district attorney not offered her rapist a plea bargain without her consent.  This allowed John LaForest to serve a minimum of 12 years in exchange for his confession of rape and sodomy.  There were no charges of breaking and entering, assault and false imprisonment.  

Furious about not having her day in court and her rapist getting a reduced sentence, Florence Holway went public with her story.  

‘I was raped twice,’ she said.  ‘Once by my assailant and once by the inept justice system.’  The Associate Press picked up her story originally buried in the back of a cautious local paper, and before long she became a National hero.  The New Hampshire Legislative formed an ad hoc committee to review laws regarding rape and has since changed the definition of rape; semen not being required as physical evidence, longer sentences for convicted rapists and it is mandatory that victims be notified about potential plea bargains.

In 1991, a rape conviction carried a sentence of 1-15 years.  In 1993, heavier sentences went into effect, making a first offense punishable by 10-20 years and second by 20-40 years.  Today, thanks to Holway’s crusade, the state also has a sex offender registry and prosecutors are barred from offering plea deals without the victim’s knowledge.

Photo by Wendy Maeda The Boston Globe

Photo by Wendy Maeda The Boston Globe

In June, 2012, Florence Holway passed away.  She was 97 years old.  

As a single mother, she raised 5 children and put herself through Keene State College by working nights in a hospital.  After receiving her degree in Education, she moved to Alton to continue raising her children, taught school, farmed and gardened and painted portraits.  

She had fought long and hard to change both federal and state legislation for victims of rape.   Even to the very end, she was a woman of great determination and courage.

Florence Holway’s story, which includes her annual pilgrimages to the prison where LaForest served his sentence to testify at his parole hearings, is told in a brilliant HBO documentary ‘Rape in a Small Town’.   It is an important story which examines  her case and its aftermath, as well as the lasting impact it had on her family, and her community.  It addresses the real problems our justice system has dealing  effectively with sex offenders.   

We may imagine that the rape of elderly women is a rare and peculiarly unnatural crime, but it is not.  Looking at newspaper articles covering the past few years, it becomes clear that the rape of older women is not only commonplace but the number of reported incidents are increasing.

There is no research, there are no studies of the after-effects of rape among elderly women.  Despite the large amount of literature on date rape, there is almost nothing on the rape of this population.  

What are we to make of it?  Here are women not young, not sexually desirable by society’s norms, beyond menopause, still being considered fair game by rapists. What do the experts say-the psychologists, the specialists in the treatment of sex offenders, rape counsellors, Victim Support, national charities that promote interests of older people?