A messy divorce, 19th century style

Sometimes, our volunteers and interns have all the fun!  If you can call divorce fun.  In the papers of Augustine Harlow (Ms 68508), processed by Zac Mirecki, are a series of letters from Augustine’s sister Flora Barry who was living in Boston.  The letters date from 1872-1873,  and in them she details the actions of her husband, Charles A. Barry, in obtaining a divorce.

The first indication that all was not well is enclosed in a letter dated November 16, 1872.  He wrote: “I have fully resolved to make a change in my domestic affairs on the first of December next.  I am not happy here, and the expense to me in carrying on so large an establishment as this is greater than I can any longer than the first of December willingly meet.”  On December 4, he wrote again: “A few days before you went away from this City–on the 27th of November last–I made known to you that I could not continue to live as we have lived–in an expensive manner. You have been away from home–against my wishes–a large part of the time for several years.”  He tried to get her to agree to a separation, which she refused to do.  Flora was a singer and was on frequent concert tours  and she mentions trips to Maine, Nova Scotia, and Chicago.  Evidently Charles did not like her independent life style.  When he issued his ultimatum to move to a smaller house and stop traveling, she refused and he sued for divorce.  But not before punching her in the eye and cheek and publishing slanderous articles in the Boston newspapers.

The end of the story is that Flora finally filed her own divorce suit against Charles, and when he did not bother to show up, the divorce was granted.  These letters are intriguing in that rarely do we get to see the inner workings of a marriage in total failure.

The  Augustine Harlow papers are a study in contrasts.  The bulk of the collection consists of letters exchanged almost daily between Augustine and his wife, Ella, who had a very happy and loving marriage.  The less positive side of life is reflected in the letters of Emma Jean Ritner, Ella Harlow’s sister, in which she mentions local incidents of rape and sexual assault as well as instances of childhood injury.  Love, courtship, divorce, assault all in one collection.  The research possibilities are endless!

This entry was posted in Collections, Manuscripts and tagged , , by Barbara. Bookmark the permalink.

About Barbara

Barbara Austen is the Archivist at CHS and is responsible for all of the incoming manuscripts, which means she gets to read people's diaries or mail. She has a master's Degree in Library and Information Science and has been working in the museum and historical society world for 30 years.

2 thoughts on “A messy divorce, 19th century style

    • Calum, thanks for your comments. When one has only one side of a story, like in this case, it can be somewhat hard to take an entirely objective view. One of the hazards of doing history.

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