Tag Archives: Social History

Runaway Wives of Salem

I don’t think I’ve posted enough about women’s history for this women’s history month so I have put some extra effort into this last March post! Two caveats to the preceding statement: 1) If I do say so myself, my deep dive into local women’s history in the 2020 commemorative year should have earned me “surplus merit” and; 2) extra effort was not a hardship because the subject of this particular post is so interesting but yet elusive: “runaway wives” notices from the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Every historian, or every social historian I should say, wants to get into the house (or even into the bedroom) of people who lived in the past so these notices of women who left the “bed and board” of their husbands are interesting entryways, but in most cases the door slams shut before you can learn too much!

What’s going on behind closed doors? Illustration from The Life of George Cruikshank in Two Epochs by George Cruikshank and Jerrod Blanchard, 1882. Courtesy of Forum Auctions UK.

The notices are certainly numerous: in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, nearly every issue of the Salem Gazette and the Salem Register contains one or more. They are legal and financial notifications first and foremost, in which husbands announce that they will take no responsibility for the expenses of their runaway wives going forward, but depending on the nature of the separation, they are also an airing of dirty laundry or downright slander. The wives respond occasionally but not consistently, so we are left with only one side of the story for the most part. Sometimes the notice is on the very first page, above the fold (like this first example below) and sometimes it is buried deep inside the paper. Some notices are pro formawhile others contain considerable detail.

Front and Center, 1806, and for some reason 1804 was a banner year for runaway wives.

Let’s look at my sampling in chronological order to see if we can spot any trends. This IS a sampling: there are a lot more of these notices, and reoccurring ones as well. For example, George Felt disavowed his wife Sally in 1807 (below) and then again in 1818. So your eyes don’t blur and headaches occur, I’m breaking up the notices with a few images from chapbooks of the period from the collection at the National Library of Scotland. In general American chapbooks seem more concerned with instruction than relationships, and these British ones are a bit more bawdy, often highlighting the exploits of marital strife in a humorous, lyrical manner.

A Collection of New Songs, etc. Edinburgh 1802. National Library of Scotland Chapbook Collection.

In this first batch we have a combination of the straightforward (Daland and Young) and the slander. Note the phrases and adjectives utilized among the latter: “unbecoming the character of an honest woman,” and “intemperate, quarrelsome and troublesome,” even evil: clearly the men want to justify their abandonment of legal responsibility for their wives. The last notice, just above, is the most detailed and therefore the most interesting: Mrs. Teague has absented herself “frequently” and run up “extravagant” debts, and Mr. Teague provides several aliases for her so people in the “many” towns she visits can be on guard. This cautionary, “I’m doing you a favor” tone is very consistent in runaway wife notices.

The Farmer’s Son; or The Unfortunate Lovers, Glasgow, 1805. National Library of Scotland Chapbook Collection

The batch of notices above contains pretty standard examples, save for the removal of furniture from the family homes by Molly Ives and Mary Vincent. By the 1830s, these notices were clearly old hat, and even a decade before the editors of the Salem Gazette conveyed that sentiment by running an opinion piece which called them “excessively tiresome” as well as one which conveyed the other side of the story in a rather amusing way (notice that the word elope was generally used to refer to getting out of a marriage rather than into one in the early nineteenth century). I wish we had more responses from Salem women, but there are only a few, generally referencing fear of bodily harm (I researched all the women referenced above and found nothing). Going back to the very beginning of our period, Hannah Peele posted publicly in the Gazette that the reason she left her husband Roger’s house for one of their daughter’s as “because I have conceived my life to be imminently in danger while I lived with him: the reasons for which suspicion are too well known to many.”

Just as separations were public, so too were divorces in Colonial and Federal-era Massachusetts. From my perspective as an English historian, it’s pretty clear that divorces were much easier to obtain in New England than Old England. The Puritans of Massachusetts considered marriage a civil contract rather than a religious sacrament and so divorce could be, and was, granted by the authorities  on grounds of bigamy, adultery, abuse and abandonment (although there were also a few successful cases of claims of their husbands’ “insufficiency” on the part of female petitioners): maintaining the social order was the primary consideration. Massachusetts Bay granted the first divorce in British America in 1639 and between 1692 and 1785 the Massachusetts General Court heard 229 petitions for divorce and granted 143. Divorce was not common or easy, but it was an option for Massachusetts men and women. And as is the case with any conflict or schism, we can learn a lot about the parties involved than in cases of peaceful continuity.

Four Excellent New Songs, including Over the Moor to Maggie, Edinburgh, 1780. National Library of Scotland Chapbook Collection.

In contrast to Salem’s most famous divorce, the well-publicized and  scandalous split of elites Elizabeth Derby West and Nathaniel West in 1806, I think that Mrs. Anderson’s 1815 suit (above) is probably more representative. The wife of a mariner during Salem’s most prosperous age, she had not seen or heard from her husband in five years and had no “maintenance” for herself and her child. He was the “runaway” rather than her, and I wonder how many other contemporary Salem women found themselves in such situations. The lives of mariner’s wives: yet more uncharted territory in the history of a city which is overwhelmingly focused on that well-trodden.


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