After doing Tuesday ten for lo these many years, we have decided to cut ourselves a little slack. Mostly because it’s darned hard to come up with ten of anything, never mind ten Victorian things. I am much relieved. So this week for my blog, I’m doing Divorce in Victorian America and not actually counting how many little tidbits I can put down.
All of this information comes, by the way, from The Road to Reno, Nelson Manfred Blake. This book fascinates me, mostly because I had believed for many years that divorce in America was strictly a 20th century phenomena, mostly late 20th century. When I was growing up (I’m dating myself here) divorce was still one of those things people whispered about. No one knew anyone who was divorced, and if you were, well, there was something wrong with you. Considering that one of Yale’s Presidents, Timothy Dwight was appalled at the rate of divorce in his state–estimated at 1% of marriages over a period of 5 years–the stigma was much worse back then. But consider again–1 in 100 divorces in five years. As much as we often think differently, you could get divorced in the 19th century, you could in fact get divorced in the U.S. in the 18th century, and people did. Thus my fascination.
The book is not written in a time line, so coming up with information along those lines is hard. But I’ve seen a few things both interesting and puzzling, and I’ll do my best to get the dates straight.
1.) It appears that at the time of the revolution, divorce was obtained based upon English common law. That is to say if a couple wanted a divorce, they had to apply to the ruling body, not the court system. Thus at the start of the 19th century the colonies-turned-states were in transition. The northern states seem to be the first to change the application of divorce from applying to the legislature, who would have to create a separate bill, to the court system. It took some time to do this, and often for a period of years a couple could obtain a divorce either way. However, by 1867, 33 0f 37 stares had prohibited legislative divorces. Why? Too much time, too little consistency. One year the legislature made up of a,b, and c, might decided to grant a divorce to one couple based upon these ground. The next year, the legislature made up of x,y and z, would not.
2.) There was such a thing as partial divorce. This was basically separation of bed and board, and was often, in the earlier years the answer to “extreme cruelty.” Eventually this sort of thing went out the door, often because it seemed to cause more lapses in morality than corrected–if you couldn’t marry, well many people were still going to get their lovin’ somewhere, maybe several somewheres. Better to allow these people to divorce and remarry with the hope that they’d stay faithful to once person, than risk the souls of all those others, right? Right.
3.) In the beginning of the period, many states provided quite a number of grounds for divorce. Some of them, such as consanguinity (marrying a relative) seems just logical. The often sighted bigamy gives me pause (if the person has been married before, than you can’t be married to them now, right? So how would divorce apply?) others seem well thought out and not something I’d have considered the “very conservative Victorians” to have allowed–desertion, imprisonment, former criminal charges (unknown at the time of marriage), intemperance (aka alcoholism) and extreme cruelty. Granted, at a time when women were just beginning to have some legal standing in the country, “extreme cruelty” often referred to behavior that was hazardous to life, but still. . . if you thought no one could divorce, this seems almost kind and compassionate.
4.) Not all states were kind and compassionate. In South Carolina there was no divorce (it was the only state that stood by this). Period. None. Not for adultery, not for desertion, not for imprisonment. Be sure you know whom your marrying, baby, ‘cuz you’re stuck with them.
5.) The second strictest state was–hold onto your hats–New York. Who would’ve thought it of the state that had New York City in it? What with Five Points Gangs, and contraception readily available even after the Comstock Laws. But yes, New York was strict. Divorce was only allowed for adultery and then for many years only the injured party was allowed to remarry. People could and sometimes did, however, manage to get annulments. You could do this based upon many factors, the best one being “fraud”. The judges decided what “fraud” was, and sometimes it was a simple as “He said he was honest. But I found out he operates a poolroom”. Annulment granted.
In 1879, New York finally passed a law allowing remarriages for both parties–as long as they were not divorced before 1879. If so, they would have to do what everyone else appeared to do–leave the state to remarry.
Which brings me to my 6th and final interesting fact:
6.) Divorce colonies. What if you could not get a divorce in your state? What if you desperately needed one–we’ll take, for example a woman whose husband drank so much he could not support her or her children, and even if she was able to work, he stole her money and spent it on alcohol. How to cope?
Go to another state.
Granted this would not have been much of an option for our poor example (being poor that is) but for many it was an option. The procedure–establish a temporary residence, then sue for divorce. States whose residence laws were lax would often become “divorce colonies”. Eventually they would correct for that, of course. But for awhile, people took advantage of the situation. In the eastern states a year’s residence was required, still for true misery, it was deemed worth it (Connecticut, however, even with pretty liberal divorce laws, required 3 years). Some known divorce colonies: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois (Chicago was “the place to go” during the Civil War) and the Dakotas. Indiana had virtually no residence requirement until 1859. The Dakota’s had a 3 month residence requirement through much of the period.
So, when you’re thinking of the good ole’ days when everyone stayed married–well they didn’t. And many traveled great distances to get that divorce. And for those who didn’t do that–well here’s another option. Remember there were no Social Security numbers, very little way of keeping track of people back then. What was to stop anyone from abandoning his/her spouse, running away with a lover to another state and “marrying” there and starting a new life? Who would know?