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New Haven County Court Records: Blog

More Marriage Controversies

by Sarah Morin on 2023-05-09T08:30:00-04:00 in Archives, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, History, Women's History | 0 Comments

Victorian genre scene of young man and young woman wearing circa 1780s clothes; “one-knee” proposal

The Proposal, an oil on canvas painting by John Pettie, 1869. Image courtesy of Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Last May, we examined a selection of court cases that evoked the ancient superstition, “Marry in the month of May, and you’ll surely rue the day.” This May, we discuss more cases we’ve discovered that illustrate various types of legal controversies involving marriage in colonial and early American Connecticut.

When quoting from documents, we will use the actual spelling, including transcriptions of individual words as necessary. (For more information about colonial spelling practices, see The Standardization of American English at In certain circumstances, we will add missing letters to abbreviated words or substitute modern spelling in brackets to enhance reader comprehension.


Given that married women in colonial and early American Connecticut were legally dependent on their husbands under the principle of coverture, they were in danger of being reduced to poverty when they were widowed.

In Connecticut, conditions were particularly harsh for women when it came to property rights. “[M]arried women in Connecticut had no property rights at all until the second quarter of the eighteenth century. Men had absolute rights to their wives’ realty as well as personalty under rules of law that deviated sharply from the laws of England... [In addition,] widows of Connecticut men held fewer dower rights than widows elsewhere. They could claim only shares in what their husbands owned at death, and therefore they had no right to control the sales or mortgages of husbands’ lands during marriage” (Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America, p. 122).

Under these already abysmal circumstances, it was even worse for abandoned wives with still-living husbands. As discussed in a previous post, towns were generally expected to support their impoverished inhabitants, so they often sued the absconding men for financial restitution:

  • In January 1776, the town of Wallingford sued Reuben Hall, who was originally from Wallingford but now “an Obsconder Debter in Some unknown Parts of the world,” for abandoning his wife Mary. His abandonment left her “Poor and Impotent... and unable to Support or Provide for her Self and said Mary falling into Distraction and said Town of Wallingford took said Mary under the Care of said Town as one of the poor of said Town and hath [Disbursed?] Large Sums of Money for her Support and Maintenance.”
  • In March 1808, David Hitchcock and Philo Bassett, “two of the principal Inhabitants” of Derby, sued William Davis, “late of s[ai]d New Haven but now an absent & absconding Debtor in parts out of this State to the Pl[ain]t[if]fs unknown,” for “leaving his wife Rachel poor, & destitute of any means of support.”


several pages of paper with handwriting

The many papers from Rex vs. James Baldwin and Mary Wheeler, 1717

The Puritans who founded New Haven followed the Old Testament standard for adultery, which only applied to sexual acts committed with married women. (Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789, p. 32)

Given that adultery cases were usually heard at the Superior Court level due to the legal severity of this crime, the following cases are technically for lesser offenses such as unchastity or lascivious carriage, the latter of which was prosecuted in Connecticut until 1971:

  • In 1717, Rex (the Crown of England) prosecuted James Baldwin and Mary Wheeler of Durham for lascivious carriage. Mary was married to Thomas Wheeler, but testimony from several witnesses alleged that Baldwin and Wheeler were “very often, and unnecesaryly together, which thing hath been so commonly observed that thereby many Rumors and Reports have beene Scattered abroad to the Scandelizeing of the s[ai]d James Baldwin and Mary Wheeler, and to the Greate desatisfaction of Sundry of his Majetis Relegious and well affected people.” According to the complaint, they “did lodge together in Bed in the s[ai]d [Nathaniel] How’s dwelling house.” Although Baldwin and Wheeler adamantly maintained their innocence, the grand jury found them guilty and sentenced the pair to a fine of two pounds apiece, “or Each of them to Receive on the Naked body fifteen Stripes and also pay the Costs of prosecution” (County Court Records, New Haven County, Vol. 3, 1713-1739, p. 93). While the records do not reveal which penalty Baldwin and Wheeler received, they would most likely have opted to pay the fine—if they could afford it or had a generous benefactor who took pity on their plight. Two pounds apiece was not an inexpensive amount of money in 1717. And they still had to pay their court costs regardless of which punishment was meted out to them.
  • In 1749, Rex prosecuted Elizabeth Allin, who was married to Ephraim Allin of Waterbury, for breaking the law “against polegamy and unchastety” with Daniel Scott “in that they not having the fear of God before their eyes did on the night next after the 26 day of april instant in an unlawfull manner witingly and evilingly & with evil intent and design lodg[e] together in one and the same bed in the house of the said Daniel Scott in Waterbury.”
  • In November 1777, the State of Connecticut (under the name “Governor and Company”) prosecuted Miriam Parker of Wallingford (who was married to Ephraim Parker) and Benjamin Parker of Wallingford (who was most likely a relative of Ephraim) for displaying “Lascivious Carriage each to the other & did then & there undress themselves get into Bed together & lodge with each other.”

If a married man slept with a single woman, it was legally deemed fornication. While the penalties for this offense were not as steep as those for adultery, it was still considered a crime:

  • In November 1806, the State of Connecticut prosecuted Simeon Grannis of Cheshire, “then being a married man,” for the complaint that he “did with force and arms, wantonly and lasciviously lye down and abed wherein Sarah Clark and Abigail Cooper were then lying... to commit wanton and lascivious acts.”
  • Also in November 1806, the State of Connecticut prosecuted Jabez Parker of Cheshire, “being a married man,” for the complaint that he “did with force & arms... wantonly and lasciviously pull up the cloaths of” Sarah Murray “with an intent to commit fornication.”

Regardless of this double standard for adultery, which “would remain on the books in Connecticut for two centuries” (Dayton, Women Before the Bar, p. 32), both men and women were concerned that rumors of sexual misbehavior would damage their reputations as well as their marriages, and took gossipers to court for slander:

  • In November 1785, David and Elisabeth Thorp of Washington sued Reuben Hicock of Derby for claiming that Elisabeth was “a whore for I have had the carnal knowledge of her body since she was married to [David], & she will suffer me to do it at any time.”
  • In November 1787, Charles Hall of Wallingford sued Moses Gaylord of Wallingford for seeking “to bring [him] into Shame & Contempt as well as to destroy the Comfort, Solace peace & happiness af[oresai]d with his said Wife” by claiming that he fathered a child with Rebeccah Camp of Durham.
  • In November 1802, James M. and Thankfull Cook of Waterbury sued Jonathan Barnes of Waterbury, alleging that he did “utter and publish, the most foul, fals[e] Malitious & scandalous words & suggestion” that he “frequently had carnal knowledge” of Thankfull.
  • In March 1803, Ithamar Todd of North Haven sued Polly Blakeslee of Hamden for trying to ruin his marriage. He claimed that Blakeslee “with intent to... deprive him of every Domestic enjoyment of his said Wife” falsely stated that he committed adultery and fornication with her.
  • In June 1810, James Lindsly of Branford sued Dennis Talmage of Branford for claiming that he “had been Guilty of the crime of fornication and adultery.”
  • In March 1812, Enos Warner of Waterbury sued Reuben Brown of Waterbury, alleging that Brown claimed Warner “has been after my wife... and had committed adultery with her.”

Alienation of Affections

Although this kind of lawsuit is now abolished in Connecticut, aggrieved spouses in the colonial and early national period had the option of suing their spouse’s paramours in court for alienation of affections. These grounds were invoked in cases ranging from seduction to rape:

  • In January 1775, Jonathan Crampton of Guilford sued Nathaniell Bishop of New Haven for “an assault made on the body of Phebe the wife of the pl[aintif]f.” Crampton claimed that Bishop “with force and arms, and her did beat and evilly intreat and also he the said Phebe took, carried away, ravished and carnally knew, and also intice, Seduce and lead away the affections of said Phebe... for the space of six months against the Will & mind of the pl[aintif]f.”
  • In December 1788, Doctor John Spaulding of New Haven sued Ezra Curtiss of New Haven for assaulting his wife Elizabeth, alleging that Curtiss “did ravish & carnally know and... did intice seduce & lead away the affections of the said Elizabeth,” which deprived Spaulding of "the Comfort Fellowship Society & Assistance of his said Wife.”
  • In March 1791, Samuel Little of New Haven sued John Clark of New Haven for abducting his wife Martha, saying that he “carryed away from the Pl[aintif]f & her carnally knew & did detain & keep s[ai]d Martha.”
  • In November 1795, Oliver Blakesley of North Haven sued Joel Blakesley of North Haven. Oliver was married to Elizabeth Humiston, but Joel “wickedly intending to seduce the affections of the said Elizabeth... committed adultery with the said Elizabeth by having carnal knowledge of her body untill the Pl[ain]t[iff] was compelled to leave the said Elizabeth, she having ferociously refused to the Pl[ain]t[iff] the performance of any of the duties required of her as a wife.”
  • In November 1796, Stephen Smith of Branford sued John Beardsley of Branford for “commit[ting] the crime of adultery” with his wife Hannah and depriving him of her affection and service.
  • In November 1805, John M. Hall of New Haven sued Eden Johnson Jr. of Woodbridge with the complaint that Johnson “with force and arms... [did] lie with debauch & carnally know” his wife Loly, and then did “take & carry away the said Loly... whereby the Pl[aintif]f hath lost the affections of his said Wife.”
  • Also in November 1805, William Trowbridge Jr. of New Haven sued Thomas Cowens of New Haven, claiming that Cowens “did by divers[e] arts and intrigues steal away the affections” of his wife Eunice.

Divorce and Separation

single page of paper with handwriting

Petition submitted to the County Court by John Fere, 1712

As discussed in a previous post, colonial Connecticut had some of the most liberal divorce laws in the Western world at the time. This was because Puritans believed that marriage was a civil contract, not a sacrament. If a marriage was deemed invalid in Connecticut—justifications were largely limited to adultery, abandonment, or fraud—it could be dissolved completely, giving both spouses the freedom to remarry. (Salmon, Women and the Law of Property, p. 61)

While divorce cases were handled at the Superior Court level, we have come across the following mentions of divorced spouses:

  • In 1733, Hannah Hall of New Haven sued Stephen Barnes of New Haven for a debt owed. Her status as a divorcee was not only specifically stated in the writ, but also in the promissory note. More information about this case is available here.
  • In March 1793, Lois Dudley of Wallingford, who had previously petitioned for and was granted a divorce from John Dudley, sued him for her lawful dower from the estate.

We also discovered a case of what appears to be extralegal separation:

  • In 1710, John Fere of Springfield, MA married Elizabeth Hall of Wallingford, CT and brought her to his home in Massachusetts. According to Fere, she was very unhappy there and “fell into great discontent... She would go up and down wringing her hands saying she could not live here it would kill her to live here.” He sent her home to her father, hoping she would recover from “this evil frame” of mind and then be able to “do her duty” as wife. However, when he went to fetch her six weeks later, she refused to go back to Springfield. In 1712, he submitted a petition to the County Court asking them to order her to return to him. Unfortunately, all that exists of this case is the petition pictured above—there does not seem to be any entry in the official record book as to what happened, which indicates that this case was most likely settled, in one way or another, outside of court.

Domestic Violence

Given that the Connecticut legislature did not consider cruelty alone as grounds for divorce until the 1780s and did not officially codify this principle into law until 1843 (Dayton, Women Before the Bar, pp. 107, 144, 156), there are several heart wrenching cases of battered wives suing for bonds of peace against their husbands:

  • In 1736, Mehitable Yale of New Haven complained to the justice of the peace regarding her husband Elihu’s “Cruell & Harsh Treatment towards her.”
  • In 1740, Abigail Mansfield of New Haven complained that her husband Joseph was “Daily and Continually (without provocation on her part) Quarralling Traducing beating & [assaulting?] of her to her great Terror & Affrightment.” Joseph seems to have had issues with violence in general, as he was previously prosecuted in 1739 for assaulting Jonathan Ives of New Haven.
  • In 1768, Anna Teal of Guilford complained that her husband Samuel’s “Cruel Treatment & Threatning Words and turbulent Behavior had greatly Terrified and Disquieted her... So that She was obliged to flee from his Cruelty, and was in constant fear of Life, or bodily hurt being done to her by him, and prayed the Surety of the Peace against him, and made Oath that She did not do it from hatred or Malice but for Safety of her Person.”
  • In April 1773, Sarah Wolcott of Branford claimed that her husband Jeremy “with force and Arms Secretly made an assault on ye Body of her... did then & thear outrageously beat wound bruse Strangle & Evilly treat & her did then & theare thretten to Kill & Distroy.”
  • In June 1806, The State of Connecticut prosecuted Joseph Moss of Derby for assaulting his wife Eunice “with intent to take her life.”
  • In March 1811, the State of Connecticut prosecuted Abijah E. Brown of Milford for assaulting his wife Mary “in a cruel and outrageous manner.”
  • In June 1811, the State of Connecticut prosecuted Amos Northrop of Milford for assaulting his wife Elizabeth “with high handed violence.”

Illegal Marriage

According to Connecticut’s early marriage laws, couples had to publish their intention to marry, parents had to approve of the marriage, only licensed officials (e.g., magistrates, ministers) could perform marriages within their specific jurisdictions, and there were various types of kindred relations that were considered incestuous. The following case violated at least two of these tenets:

  • In March 1801, Timothy Fowler of New Haven sued David Daggett of New Haven for marrying Orchard Fowler (presumably his son) to Elizabeth “Betsey” Wolf without publishing their intention to marry or notifying their parents ahead of time.

Broken Engagements and Interrupted Weddings

single page of paper with handwriting; one yellow gold wedding band; one rose gold wedding band; one yellow gold and pearl ring

Writ from Linda M. Atwater vs. Wyllys Avery, 1810

Sometimes, couples couldn’t even make it to the altar without obstacles arising to thwart their intentions:

  • In March 1782, Alling Bradley of New Haven sued Enos Hitchcock Jr. and Noah Peck, also of New Haven, for crashing his wedding and assaulting him and his guests. More information about this case is available here.
  • In March 1783, Annah Wooster of Derby sued Gideon Hide of Derby for breach of promise when he broke their betrothal to marry another woman. More information about this case is available here.
  • In June 1810, Linda M. Atwater of Cheshire sued Wyllys Avery of Wallingford for failing to marry her on February 14 as promised, and wedding another woman on March 3 instead. More information about this case is available here.

A Final Postscript

While the majority of these cases are tragic and often infuriating to contemplate, they stand as important reminders of the stark consequences of a society where divorce was difficult to obtain, women were legally dependent on their husbands, and there was a rigid hierarchy of authority that placed men as the absolute head of the household.

Yet we can also consider that court records do not—indeed, they cannot—tell the entire story of an epoch. The ideal of marriage as a loving and companionate partnership gained considerable traction in America after the Revolutionary War. Per Enlightenment philosophy, “[b]y the time societies reached the highest stage of development... women were no longer to be considered men’s slaves or playthings but were regarded as their friends and companions” (Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, p. 48). However, as these court records demonstrate, this ideal was still very much a work in progress. “The romantic-love sentiments which had been conveyed in imaginative literature since the eighteenth century influenced women to hope for an ideal mate, although reality was always more contrary” (Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835, p. 76).

Despite the power imbalance between men and women, some marriages in the colonial and early national period still managed to be happy. Indeed, when Abigail Hempstead of New London died of complications after giving birth to her ninth child (who lived), her husband Joshua considered it a significant enough loss to note in his otherwise quotidian journal when other mothers in his community died and left children behind. But “[p]erhaps the most compelling sign of Joshua’s love for Abigail, and of his sorrow over her death, was the extraordinary choice he made once she was gone... Joshua was the rare widower who did not seek another wife—in a world where widowers with small children nearly always remarried, and usually with some haste” (Allegra di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, A Family Saga in Colonial New England, pp. 183-184, 191-192).

On that note, we can reflect that the marriages in colonial and early American Connecticut which did prove loving, stable—or at the very least, tolerable for both parties—would not have cause to appear in any of the legal controversies documented here.

As noted in a previous post, the records for these cases, as well as several of the cases previously profiled in this blog, are currently in the process of being digitized. They will eventually be available for public viewing at the Connecticut Digital Archive (CTDA).

This project is made possible through funding from the Historic Documents Preservation fund of the Office of the Public Records Administrator. We also recognize the past support of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

logo of stylized book and color splashes representing each department with text: CT State Library Preserving the Past. Informing the Future. logo of eagle with text: National Archives National Historical Publications ampersand Records Commission

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