Take My Wife — Prithee


“… Mary… has in years past conducted so towards me by taking weapons and threatening to kill me and many times wishing of me dead …”

“… my wife … hath … taken her lodgings at Stephen Whites the noted petifoger, where she is not at a loss for medlar’s advices…”

“… Mary… by her great fondness of variety, has broken her marriage covenant…”

“… Catherine… [and] another man… [were] often seen together in the night season; and about two years ago were found late in the night in a tight room, partly undressed, and the bed clothes turned down, and sundry times been seen in an unbecoming posture…”

Husbands first sought simply to shackle their mates’ capacities to purchase, trade, or sell. Later, as women named Obedient, Patience, Concurrence, Thankful, Prudence, Mindwell, and Submitte walked out on them, men chose “further to forbid all Persons harbouring or entertaining” their absent companions. Later still, if a man’s wife possessed talents that commanded a wage, he would exercise his exclusive right to her earnings and “forbid all Persons … to employ her as a midwife, or in any other business. ” Thus, when husbands posted, wives were soon shorn of whatever succor was to be found beyond the front doorstep.

Once in a great while, however, the wife struck back. In the fifty-four years studied—a period of time during which 341 women were posted by their spouses—21 wives managed to publish notices of their own. The first— a Martha Griffen—did so after her husband posted her on September 10, 1770. Her powerful retort was a harbinger, in tone and content, of postings yet to come from indignant wives: “… my Husband… more than once [has] run Away … leaving Me and a Family of small Children in bad Circumstances. And the last time he Absconded he tarried almost two Years, and returned a bound servant, and almost naked. … Where he and I are known, ’tis beyond his Power to injure my Character.” A year later, the tart challenge of Hannah Smith—“As the woman is the weaker vessel, I think it high time to clip the wings of these public spirited gentlemen, that make so great an appearance in our weekly papers”—seemed to shame husbands into silence. The practice of posting ceased for an entire year.

As most wives were apt to be without independent means of paying for a posting and perhaps were also fearful of the consequence of such daring, years sometimes passed between one woman’s public utterance and another’s. But if wives weren’t often able or inclined to post, they nevertheless got their money’s worth when they did. Though men’s notices rarely exceeded 80 words in length, most wives were just then pausing for breath. Before affixing their names, they’d compose postings averaging 210 words. And they didn’t lack for things to say about male behavior in marriage:

Whereas I am afraid to live with him. … He has taken from me my bed and clothes … and for want of my bed, I have lain many nights on the floor.”

“He has … in instances too many to be enumerated … kick’d me out of the bed … dragged me across the room and flung ashes upon me to smother me… haul’d me … in the dead of night, and flung cold water from the well upon me till I… was obliged to flee to … the neighbors. … He has commanded me to be gone out of his family, or he would horsewhip me like a dog…”

“Abner Hancock… would not Provide for me Nor Children. … He Provided an old Cows tripe with out Salt… the Children have Cried to Sleep many a time for want of Vitles when I was Sik not able to Raleve them… Bacouse I Could not Provide no Longer He beat me and kicked me out of the house… I Cant Pay any more Debts for him… my Poor Children… he has let them suffer abusively for a twelve month Past…”

“… Mary … has in years past conducted so towards me by I taking weapons and threatening to kill me and many times wishing me dead …”

Of the twenty-one wives who resorted to posting, all but three did so in self-defense, mortified at having seen their names in print first:

Whereas my Husband has attempted by an Advertisement shamefully to ruin my character…”

“Whereas my infamous false husband… has been pleased to say in your former papers …”

“In the Connecticut Courant… James Taylor was so ungenerous, inhumane and abusive as to advertise …”

“Observing yesterdays paper, to my great surprise I found myself advertised by him who ought to have been my friend and husband …”