Women’s status in the early 1800s
I was surprised while doing microfilm research in the oldest newspaper records of the 1820s of Bloomington, Indiana, to find three different classified notices placed by aggrieved husbands regarding wives who had run off. Then I remembered that this was the era in which men owned their wives as surely as they might own a slave or a piece of land.
In the early 1800s wives were property and had no legal existence of their own. They could not enter into contracts nor write wills, and they had no legal recourse against cruel or violent husbands. The men who placed these advertisements were undoubtedly bad men, because a woman in those days would only leave her home if she feared for her life. Without her spouse’s protection she faced a penniless life in hiding, begging her food, clothing and shelter from others. Yet under his roof, she faced brutality and the risk of serious injury or death.
Each of the three notices in the Indiana Gazette followed the same format, which was probably necessary in order to meet the legalities on the husband’s side at that time. They all announced that [wife’s name] had left the bed and board of [complainant’s name] and that he would not pay any debts she might contract afterward. One of the three notices granted an exception for any expenses incurred by his young children, who had been taken by the wife when she escaped.
One wonders what ever happened to Betty Johnson and the other women who also chose to escape intolerable conditions at home. They were desperate, but they were also brave. They wanted to live; they did not want to submit to being killed or maimed. They wanted a better life for their children. Without legal protection, they were as vulnerable and as powerless as escaped slaves making their way North. There was no Underground Railroad for runaway wives; their only hope was that their friends and family might be able to give them a little bit of money and food, and help them to get far away.
Events like this were obviously common. One wonders if they left any trace in the historic records upon which modern people base their genealogies and their family trees. Did these women immigrate on foot to the next state and then portray themselves as widows, and marry again? We’ll never know, just like we’ll never know the fate of those who were recaptured by their angry husbands.
For more information about women’s rights in the early 1800s, see a fascinating essay by the good folks at Conner Prairie, http://www.connerprairie.org/Learn-And-Do/Indiana-History/America-1800-1860/Women-And-The-Law-In-Early-19th-Century.aspx