Wednesday, November 25, 2015

17C - 19C Divorce & Wayward Wife Ads in Early America

"Stafford County, October 13th, 1751. RAN away from the Subscriber, this Day, a Servant Man, named William Frye...had on when he went away a bluish grey Kersey Coat, with yellow Buttons...The said Runaway went off with the Wife of the Subscriber, named Mary, a short, thick Woman of a dark Complexion, with black hair, black Eyes, aged about 30 Years, and has lost one of her front Teeth: She is a neat Woman in Sewing, Spinning, and knitting Stockngs, and can do almost any Manner of Taylors Work, but is oblig'd to use Spectacles when at Work. She took with her a striped Silk Stuff Gown...And, as the above-mentioned Mary has eloped from her said Husband, I hereby foreward all Persons from trusting her on my Account, for I will not pay any Debts she shall contract after the Publication hereof."  (Virginia Gazette (Hunter), Williamsburg, October 31, 1751.)

Because divorce was nearly impossible under the 17C - 18C laws of England & its colonial British American colonies, male colonists, ready to end their marriages, began to declare publicly that their wives had deserted their "bed & board," just as they had seen done in England. In England, desertion or elopement was one possible method of ending a marriage, whereby the wife was forced out of the family home, or the husband simply set up a new home with a new love. For husbands of the period, the ads were often accepted as an efficient & relatively inexpensive way to “self-divorce,” simultaneously protecting both their purses & reputations. 

In her book "Scarce Any Ways or Means;" The Separated Woman in Colonial Maryland 1634-1776, Karen Ann Lubienieck sees these adds as a husband's method of no longer having to assume responsibility for their wives debts, a major obligation of coverture. In the 17C & 18C colonial economy, there were few cash transactions, almost all were based on credit. "A man's advertisement in effect could quite literally 'discredit' his wife, and keep her from spending money that he would have to repay."

Before the American Revolution, a woman gave up so many civil & property rights when she married, that some said brides were entering a state of "civil death." Colonial law was based upon English common law. Predicated on "precedent & fixed principles," common law had dictated a subordinate position for women. Married colonial women generally were not allowed to make contracts, devise wills, take part in other legal transactions, or control any wages they might earn. All property & monies which the new wife owned before her marriage immediately became the sole property of her new husband, leaving her with nothing.  One of the few legal advantages of marriage for a woman was that her husband was obligated to support her & be responsible for her debts. One exception to this practice was in colonial Plymouth, Massachusetts, most notably contained in prenuptial agreements, where brides-to-be could enter into contractual agreements on the consolidation of property upon marriage. In some cases, especially in 2nd marriages, women in Plymouth were given exclusive right to retain control of their property separately from their husbands 

Wayward wife ads were useful as a punitive measure against the discarded wife as well. The term “elope” implied that the wife had committed adultery, so that the ad not only protected the husband’s finances, but also could ruin his wife’s reputation, whether or not the allegation of immoral behavior was true. Sometimes wives did leave their homes with the options for women in unhappy or abusive marriages tragically limited, many simply fled.

The earliest known example was in 1656, according to historian Kirsten Denise Sword, whose 2002 Harvard dissertation was on “Wayward Wives, Runaway Slaves and the Limits of Patriarchal Authority in Early America.” In 1656, Christopher Lawson posted notices around Boston warning that “none should trust” his wife Elizabeth, who he claimed planned to “blemish my name ... and ruine my estate.”

Each public ad, whether in a broadside or a newspaper, usually contained 3 consistent components: 

a reference to “my bed & board,” 
an indication that the wife had “eloped,” 
& a declaration that the husband would “no longer be responsible for her debts.”

Historian Sarah Leavitt, who analyzed such advertisements in colonial Rhode Island, described the “almost routine” phrasing: “After identifying the wife, the abandoned husband proceeded to an explanation of what she had done. Stating that she had left his bed & board was fundamental …‘My bed & board’ is perhaps the key phrase in the advertisements. Embedded in these words is the very essence of marital existence for women in the late 18C: in the eyes of the law, married women did not live in their own homes ...The most important reason for an abandoned husband to place a notice in the newspaper was to warn all local businesses, tavern & inn keepers, & other persons that he would no longer pay the debts incurred by his wife. This disclaimer of financial responsibility could have the most serious consequences for a runaway wife.”

Not all advertisements were posted by men. Women occasionally posted their own notices to get ahead of any speculation as to who had left whom, and why. Some women used the classified ads as a way to describe—in detail—the extent to which they had been victims of domestic abuse. Elizabeth Dunlap, a woman from Salem County New Jersey, had decided to leave her husband, James Dunlap, after years of abuse. During the week of March 18-25, 1742 James Dunlap published a notice in the American Weekly Mercury warning the public that his wife had “eloped” & that he would no longer be responsible for her debts. She denied the accusation on April 8, 1742, contending that she had fled the home for “the safety of her life.” In addition she warned that she would not agree to his sale of land to which she claimed a third by right of dower. James Dunlap published his own rebuttal during the week of June 10-17, 1742, denying Elizabeth's charges. (Documents relating to the Colonial History of New Jersey, 1895).