Thursday, June 23, 2016

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

So, the other day I was reading an issue of The Investigator from 1822 when I came across this little gem:
Notice posted in The Investigator, an Elmira paper, on March 16, 1822
It got me thinking.  How common was divorce in the early 1800s?  How did it even work?  Why did James Decker feel compelled to announce it in the paper?

 Today in America, half of all marriages end in divorce, but it wasn’t always that way. While today couples have the option to dissolve their union with relative ease, in the early 1800s, New York law made getting a divorce really difficult.  The Divorce Act of 1787 (originally proposed by Alexander Hamilton) officially transferred the right to grant divorces from the New York State Legislature to the courts.  The law stipulated that divorces could only be granted in cases where one party had been convicted of adultery and barred the guilty party from ever marrying again. 
Not every act of adultery resulted in divorce, however.  In 1817, Elmiran John McCann was successfully sued by Miss Betsey Jennings for the upkeep of their bastard child, which he fathered while his wife was pregnant with their first child.  Why didn’t Mrs. Susannah McCann divorce her cheating husband?  Maybe because she was already pregnant with her second child when John’s lovechild was born.  Or maybe it was because divorces were expensive and she was entirely depended on her husband’s financial resources.  Or just maybe she loved him enough to forgive him.  I guess that’s always a possibility. 

Court order requiring John McCann to pay for the upkeep of Betsey Jennings' bastard daughter, 1817

Even without adultery, there were plenty of reasons a couple might want to split.  Some common complaints included abuse, abandonment, and excessive drinking.  Unfortunately, unless someone was cheating, unhappy couples were all legally stuck together.  Around the turn of the 19th century, several states with more lenient laws became divorce havens.  During the 1800s, nearly one-third to one-half of all divorces obtained by New York State residents actually occurred out of state.  For couples who could not afford the move, separating and posting a notice in the paper renouncing each others’ debts was the best they could do.
The only change in New York marriage law in the 19th century came in 1830, when the legislature decreed that annulments could be granted if the participants were underage, related, had been married under duress, were insane, or were physically incapable of consummating the marriage. 

Happy couple or trapped in a loveless marriage?  You decide

1 comment:

  1. interesting article regarding divorce, re-marriage etc as we still have a lot of those same problems in todays society, Yes you still have to go through the court system to get a divorce but today its a lot easier to drop your spouse than in the past.