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Take My Wife — Prithee
Happy marriages may have been all alike in the eighteenth century, but the unhappy ones fought it out in the newspapers
April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
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
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…”
“… 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 …”
Posting didn’t serve the function for women that it did for men. The wife, though legally entitled to life’s “necessaries” from her husband as long as she hadn’t been adulterous and taken up quarters elsewhere, couldn’t curtail a man’s spending, couldn’t deny him employment, couldn’t keep him from accepting sanctuary from a friend. Posting could only assuage a woman’s sense of justice denied. It allowed her to tell her side of the story. It allowed nothing else.
As a vigorous means of personal (or legal) expression, posting may have lost its steam in the early nineteenth century for two reasons. The first had to do with the Courant ’s changing format. In posting’s heyday, the type fonts used for the Courant ’s legal notices differed hardly at all from those used for news dispatches. And any difference—usually a larger font for a posting’s introductory line—made it more prominent. In 1794 the Courant shifted from a three- to a four-column page format; three years later to five columns; and in 1816 to six. With each change, postings became proportionally less significant to the eye and the ego, though they never lost their legal force.
Coincidentally, in the very year the Courant changed to five-column pages, a new legal notice made its first appearance in the weekly paper. This one, called a Petition for Divorce, was made mandatory by the state legislature for anyone wishing to initiate divorce proceedings. Women who so wished—as readers quickly learned—were legion. The scales were now almost balanced: as 162 husbands were posting their wives between December 1797 and December 1819, there were 183 wives filing Petitions for Divorce (the grounds most often cited were desertion and adultery). Where 94 percent of all postings in that period were the handiwork of men, 93 percent of all petitions were the doing of women. Where posting had fostered a one-sided view of marriage, the petitions now permitted perspective. Posting, as punishment, sank into relative obscurity. And parents had one less reason to christen their daughters Concurrence, Prudence, Patience, Obedient, Mindwell, Submitte.