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New Haven County Court Records: Blog

Trespass Against Women, Revisited

by Sarah Morin on 2022-03-08T08:30:00-05:00 in Archives, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, Diseases and History, History, Women's History | 0 Comments

In honor of Women’s History Month, we examine two cases involving female plaintiffs. The first lawsuit was for trespass that caused harm to a woman’s physical health, the second was for slander that proved both socially and economically damaging to a woman and her family.

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.

A Case of Trespass: James and Elizabeth Jones vs. Hopestill Crittenden

In January 1775, James and Elizabeth Jones of New Haven sued Hopestill Crittenden, also of New Haven, for trespass that was, essentially, bad doctoring. As noted in a previous post, married women served as plaintiffs and defendants alongside their husbands due to the legal principle of coverture that placed them under men’s dependency.

single page of paper with handwriting

Writ for James and Elizabeth Jones vs. Hopestill Crittenden

For a long time, Elizabeth had been “in a poor State of health affected by a certain disorder called a Menstrual Hemorrage.” Her husband James allowed Crittenden to treat her, as the man “did assure and affirm that he was a Doctor of Physic, and a Skilful practitioner and did affirm to the pl[aintif]fs that he was able to effect a Cure in such disorders, and would undertake to cure her the said Elizabeth.”

However, after four months of treatment, James and Elizabeth alleged that Crittenden “did ignorantly and unskilfully attend and manage her the pl[aintif]f, and did administer various noxious & unwholesome medicines; wholly unfit and improper for her said Disorder and even dangerous & pernicious, nor did ever relieve or help her said Infirmities nor effect any Cure.” James further claimed that his wife “was greatly impair’d & injured and She a long time languished under the unskilful operation of the def[endan]t as aforesaid and endured great pain & anxiety her constitution ruined & her life endangered to the great expence & impoverishment of the pl[aintif]f.”

The Joneses requested 200 pounds in damages. Unfortunately for them, the Court determined that the defendant was “not guilty in manner and form” and that the plaintiffs owed him his court costs. Unsurprisingly, James and Elizabeth appealed to the Superior Court, and Mr. Amos Botsford of New Haven was bound on recognizance on their behalf, accepting liability for all damages “if they make not their plea good” (County Court Records, New Haven County, Vol. 8, 1774-1783, p. 86).

A Case of Slander: Robert and Ruth Fairchild vs. John Wise

In April 1775, Robert and Ruth Fairchild of New Haven sued John Wise, constable of New Haven, for slandering Ruth as a liar and a whore.

two pages of paper with handwriting

Writ and verdict for Robert and Ruth Fairchild vs. John Wise

As plaintiffs suing for slander and defamation often do, the Fairchilds articulated an eloquent plea of Ruth’s innocence, stating that she “has been always free from all Lewdness & unchastity & from all Lying whatsoever, by means of which Chast[e] conduct & veracity she hath ever greatly contributed to the aid and Help & comfort of her Husband.”

Robert and Ruth claimed that Wise, “being not ignorant of but envying the Happy State of the Pl[aintif]fs & maliciously contriving & intending to bring them into Disgrace & Infamy by prejudicing the Character of s[ai]d Ruth,” repeated on more than one occasion that “‘she (meaning s[ai]d Wife) is a Lyar’, ‘she (meaning her) is a Whore or else she is plaguily belied.’”

Wise’s words apparently carried significant weight in the community, as Robert alleged that “by means of which words [Ruth] is greatly prejudiced and many good People who before s[ai]d words spoken held her in esteem have in consequence thereof avoided her Company as the Company of a Lewd Woman, & by means thereof, many have avoided using the Pl[aintif]f[’]s House as a Tavern whereby he hath lost Gain & Profits.”

As the above statement indicates, such slander wasn’t only personally damaging to Ruth, it also cost her economically by harming her husband’s tavern business. The Fairchilds therefore requested 200 pounds in damages. While the Court found the defendant “guilty in manner and form,” they only awarded the plaintiffs three pounds along with their court costs (County Court Records, New Haven County, Vol. 8, 1774-1783, p. 146).

One can’t help but wonder what influenced the Court to reduce Wise’s fine to such a stunning pittance. Even more interestingly, the writ initially “commanded [the sheriff] to attach the Goods & Estate” of Wise “to the value of £500,” but this line was later crossed out. Per the updated writ, all Wise had to do was appear in Court to answer the summons.

The Colorful Legal History of Constable John Wise

Constable John Wise of New Haven was no stranger to being summoned to the County Court. From November 1773 to April 1775 alone, he habitually appeared as a defendant in at least 25 lawsuits. A whopping 16 of these suits were for failure to serve writs of execution per his duties as constable (plaintiffs included Charles Bishop [Apr 1774]; Daniel Olds [Apr 1774]; Dudley Woodbridge [Apr 1774]; Peter Van Brugh Livingston and William Alexander [Nov 1774]; John Miles Jr. [Nov 1774]; Francis Wilcocks [Nov 1774]; Jonathan Fitch [Jan 1775]; Asahel Hall [Jan 1775]; Abraham Hickcox [Jan 1775]; Peter Van Brugh Livingston [Jan 1775]; Robert Lord [Jan 1775]; Nehemiah Marks [Jan 1775]; Thomas Pearsall [Jan 1775]; Jacob Thompson [Jan 1775]; Thomas Wooster and George Olney [Jan 1775]; Jeremiah Atwater Jr. [Apr 1775]).

Only Jonathan Fitch, Esq., Sheriff of New Haven County, was a more prolific defendant in failure to serve lawsuits—and even he sued Wise for such delinquency on one occasion! Wise’s other offenses included three trespass cases involving seizure of goods, property damage, and bodily assault (plaintiffs included Mary Harrison [Mar 1774]; Paul Noyes [Jan 1775]; William Carter [Apr 1775]). The notorious constable was also sued six times for debts owed or defaulted on (plaintiffs included Barnabas Baldwin [Nov 1773]; Jacob Barney [Apr 1774]; Gerard G. Beekman [Jan 1775]; Jonathan Fitch [Jan 1775]; Thomas Hannin [Jan 1775]; Joseph Smith Jr. [Jan 1775]).

Although the damages Wise was ordered to pay to Robert and Ruth Fairchild were laughably trivial, he still elected to appeal this verdict to the Superior Court. Mr. Pierpoint Edwards of New Haven was bound in recognizance on his behalf.

We look forward to discovering more about the outcome of both Ruth Fairchild’s and Elizabeth Jones’ lawsuits when we process the Superior Court records.

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).

The Connecticut State Library would like to thank the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for their generous support of this project.

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