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Divorce in the 19th Century

Divorce in the 19th Century

In 19th century America, divorce was a complicated issue. It involved civil rights, morality, and state versus federal authority. First, let’s talk about the reasons people divorced, which aren’t too different form today.

Common Reasons for Divorce

American divorce laws varied broadly from state to state. It seemed that none of the courts or legislatures could agree on what the grounds for divorce should be.

Some of the main reasons people filed for divorce were:

  • Sexual Infidelity
  • Physical Abuse
  • Abandonment
Robert Dale Owen- Advocate for a married woman’s property rights

In 1838 Indiana deemed that habitual drunkenness (for two years or more) by the husband was a justified reason for divorce. Indiana updated its divorce laws for clarity in 1843. Indiana’s six major grounds for divorce were:

  • Impotency
  • Abandonment
  • Cruel Treatment
  • Drunkenness
  • Adultery
  • And Commission of Crimes.

Furthermore, Indiana upheld the significant discretionary powers of its courts. In 1843, there was even an Indiana law that protected women from a violent husband while the divorce was pending (an early version of a restraining order). Indian divorce laws also included provisions for alimony and child support. If the divorce was the husband’s fault the wife was given immediate control of her share of land and property as well as the dowry she brought into the marriage.

On the other hand, if the wife was the adulteress, her husband could keep her personal estate forever. People could get divorces on many grounds in Indiana so couples came there from all over the country to end their marriages. In 1859, the state legislature voted to require that anyone suing for divorce in Indiana had to maintain a year’s residency there first.

In many states, like New York, once someone got divorced they weren’t allowed to remarry. This was meant to prevent spouses from trading in their first partner for a younger, richer, or more attractive model.

Were Men or Women More Likely to Want a Divorce?

More men filed for divorce than women. It varied depending on the state, but most men who could prove their wives had been unfaithful could get a divorce. Women usually had to show a better reason or additional reasons other than their husband had a mistress or slept around.

How Difficult Was It to Get A Divorce?

In most states in the early 19th century, an act of the legislature was required to end a marriage – and the process of obtaining one was long, expensive, and publicly humiliating, which discouraged most unhappily married couples. But by the 1850s, many states began to make changes to their statures that made it easier to get divorced.

However, in South Carolina divorces were not allowed, no matter the reason, except temporarily during reconstruction. In North Carolina, the “guilty party” in a divorce couldn’t remarry during the lifetime of the “innocent party.”

For the most part, women were not granted divorces as easily as men. For instance:

  • In 1862 the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court denied a divorce to a woman whose husband had horsewhipped her.
  • In 1861, a New York City judge refused to grant a divorce to a wife whose husband had beaten her unconscious in an argument over letting the family dog sleep on the bed – and, on a later occasion, tried to strike her with a wooden stick.

By the end of the 18th century, in ‘divorce mill’ states like Indiana, Utah, and the Dakotas there were restaurants, bars, and events catering to people coming in to get easy divorces. In 1887, Congress had the first divorce statistics compiled at a federal level. They covered divorces in the U.S. for the 20 years of 1867-1886. There were 328,716 divorces in those 20 years and 156.9 % more divorces in 1886 than in 1867.

Famous Divorces

Divorce itself was often considered scandalous in the 19th-century. Here are three famous or infamous divorces:

Edwin Forrest
  • Edwin Forrest, a famous nineteenth-century Shakespearean actor, and his wife filed for divorce in 1850, after his affair with actress Josephine Clifton. Edwin claimed he found a love letter to his wife from the actor, George W. Jamieson. The well-known writer Nathaniel Parker Willis defended Catherine, who swore she was innocent, in his magazine Home Journal and suggested that Forrest was just jealous of her intellectual superiority. On June 17, 1850, Forrest accused Willis of seducing his wife and beat him with a gutta-percha whip in New York’s Washington Square. Willis was recovering from rheumatic fever at the time and was too weak to fight back. Also, an anonymous letter was sent to Willis’s wife suggesting that Willis and Forrest’s wife were having an affair. Willis sued Forrest for assault and was awarded $2,500 plus court costs. In the divorce case, which lasted six weeks, several witnesses stated that Catherine Forrest and Nathaniel Parker Willis were having an affair. But the court sided with Catherine who received a liberal alimony and Willis’s name was cleared. 
    Nathaniel Parker Willis
  • The Beardsley Divorce Case began in November 1860, Alfred Beardsley claimed his wife, Mary Elizabeth met an Irish doctor named Francis Mahan in a Manhattan saloon. She dropped a rosebud on the floor, encouraging the doctor to follow her. Mahan caught up with Mary at P.T. Barnum’s Museum in New York, and she introduced herself as Emma Evaline Seymour, an heiress from Nova Scotia. In 1855, Mary committed bigamy by marrying the doctor under her false name. Mahan didn’t find out about her other husband until a few months after he’d married her. Beardsley’s divorce lawyer referred to Mary as “the harlot of the 19th century.”
  • Ann Eliza Webb Young
  • In 1875, Ann Eliza Webb’s case of divorce from the Mormon Prophet Brigham Young went to trial. The court ordered Brigham to pay $500 per month allowance and $3,000 court costs. He refused and was fined $25 and had to spend a day in jail for contempt of court. he was 67 and she a 24-year-old divorcee with two children when they married. She’s known as his 19th wife, which is the title of her tell-all book, published in 1876.

What was the Cost of a Divorce

The cost of divorce varied per state but many people in the 1800’s chose to remain married because of the cost and complexity of divorce.  Some of them lived apart and maintained discrete sexual relationships with other men and women. 

Divorce is a sub-plot in my latest book, Bay’s Desire, book 9 in the MacLarens of Boundary Mountain Historical Western Romance series. Available now!

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