Take My Wife — Prithee

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Augoft 2d. 1771.

Whereas Hannah, wife

makes it her steady business to pass from house to house, with her buisey news, in tattling and bawling andlying, and carrying out things out of my house, things contrary to my knowledge— these are therefore to forbid all persons of having any trade or commerce with the said Hannah.

Richard Smith (legal notice appearing in The Connecticut Courant , August 6, 1771)

After you is good Manners for me !

Whereas Richard Smith

… has represented me in a false and ungenerous light, to be wasteful, tattling, and willfully absenting myself, I think myself absolutely necessitated to ask the public how a woman ought to behave to a husband, who keeps himself (for the most part) intoxicated ten degrees below the level of a beast, and allows some of his children to treat a step mother with the most abusive, ignominious language, not sparing to kick her. … I think it high time to clip the wings of these public spirited gentlemen, that make so great an appearance in our weekly papers.

Hannah Smith (legal notice appearing in

The Connecticut Courant, August 27, 1771) 82

IF YOU THINK Hannah Smith got the best of Richard in the exchanges shown at left and right, you’re wrong. The most she won was a temporary advantage. Over the long haul Richard held the cards that really counted. For all intents and purposes, under English law of two centuries ago, the Richard Smiths of the world owned their Hannahs. “The very being or legal existence of the woman,” noted the great jurist William Rlackstone, “is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs every thing. … ” What’s more, said Blackstone, “the courts of law will… permit a husband to restrain a wife of her liberty, in case of any gross misbehaviour.”

One way to restrain a wife was to revoke her right to make purchases. A wife’s purchases were “obligatory on the husband,” said a Connecticut jurist, “unless [the husband] can prove an express dissent. …” The function of a legal notice—such as that published by Richard Smith —was to prove express dissent. An unintended function, in colonial and postcolonial times, was to lay bare the dark side of New World marriages. When the target of a legal notice was one’s wife, a man was said to be posting, or advertising, her. Posting was essentially retributive male behavior: men initiated the practice, effected all significant changes in language, and inserted 94 percent of all postings noted in The Connecticut Courant between 1766 (when the Courant carried its first one) and 1820. The first postings applied to that enduring marriagecrippler, money:

 

Whereas I am suspicious that my Wife… will without my Knowledge or Consent, involve me in Debt…”

“Whereas Ruth… hath for some time past Misbehaved herself towards me, by imprudently running me in Debt, with a View as I apprehend wholly to ruin me and my Family…”

Soon coupled with these rebukes was news that an offending wife had also bid farewell to the hearth:

“Ann … has for some time past behaved herself in a very extraordinary and cruel manner absenting herself from my Bed and Board and I am apprehensive she intends to run me in debt…”

And by 1770 a John Callis was describing the seeming boundlessness of domestic woe if unchecked by a timely legal notice:

“Whereas, Betty Ned … to whom I was once married, hath for several years eloped from my bed and board, and has had children by other men, hath run me in debt, and I am informed she intends to do so again…”

Postings appeared with little regularity until 1770. As they became commonplace, the language of aggrieved husbands became more aggressive and their accusations wider ranging:

Whereas she has had many fits of delirium and giving loose to passion, and a liquid appetite…”

“… this Cathrine… shew’d a great disposition for rebellion, and told her children not to mind me, and … my goods and stock were all attached for her debts …”

“… Mary my wife … is a crazy, deranged woman …”

“… my wife … used me with insolent behaviour, undutiful carriage, and hard provoking words, too bad to publish…”