Mary and Stephen Tilden: Marital Woes in the 1730s

“I do believe he hath committed ye sin of fornacation [sic] with Sarah Ellis,” explained Mary Tilden in a letter to the pastor of the First Church of Lebanon, Connecticut. Tilden wrote of her husband, Stephen, with whom she refused to live following his transgression. A committee of church members had been formed to advise her regarding this failure of duty on her part.

Divorce certainly was uncommon when Nicols wrote in 1732, but as remains true, not every relationship was successful. The letters and testimonies comprising the Mary Tilden court documents collection (Ms 71053-58) depict the tale of a woman jealous of her husband’s infidelity and the twists and turns of their relationship as they tried to reconcile. The collection contains Mary Tilden’s letters to the pastor, letters to her husband, one letter of testimony in favor of Mary, and one in favor of Stephen.

Humphrey Davenport of Coventry, Connecticut wrote on behalf of Stephen Tilden. “By ye singular expressions of his love and tender regards towards her, which he so variously manifested & so often repeated that during ye whole of my abode at his house I did esteem him…a real patern of conjucal love.” A much different view of the relationship was presented by Mary Nichols. In relating her interaction with the couple, Nichols described an incident in which Stephen Tilden threatened to beat a boy’s brains out because a part for his cart was missing. Nichols concluded, “the little time I was there, I see him act so towards his wife and children, I thought he had ye least tenderness I ever see in any man in my life.”  There is no way for us to know precisely what transpired between Mary and Stephen Tilden, though Mary’s letters are more closely aligned with Nichols’ view than with Davenport’s.

In February 1733 Stephen tearfully requested Mary return home. Two days later he told her she should not. Some time within the next month the Tildens went before the church appointed committee. The documentation does not indicate precisely what the committee recommended, though Mary was advised to return to Stephen. Stephen, however, did not comply with the advice given to him. “Since you do utterly refuse to comply with the advice of ye committee on your part,” Mary wrote in March, “I do hereby offer myself to return to you if you will discover your self willing to receive me as your wife….I think it very hard I must lye in the bosome of a man by his words and actions hath made me jealouse of him…yet I am advised it is my duty to return.”

Mary Tilden letter to her husband, 1733 March 12, Ms 71053-58. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT

Mary wrote two letters that day in March 1733; in both she spoke of jealousy. In one letter she declared that though she “laboured under many difficulties by reason of your carriage towards me while I lived with you,” she did find she “was in an error in leaving you as I did.” Neither of these letters would resolve the issue. A church meeting was held in November 1733 and Stephen agreed he would take Mary back as his wife, after she made a public apology. When Rev. Solomon Williams wrote to Mary in December, this had not occurred.

Mary Tilden’s brother, Joseph Fowler, replied to Williams’ note. His sister had left town. Rev. Williams had the final word on the subject, as it is presented to us in this collection.

At a church meeting December 21, 1733. Whereas Mary Tilden is gone of ye town ye Reasons of which are unknown to us & we can’t at present be certain whether she has any reason to offer why she did not comply with ye direction of ye church in returning to her husband or what reasons she has to offer- therefore voted to suspend the consideration of said case for some time till something farther appears.

If the situation was ever resolved, the documentation does not exist within this collection.

It would be easy, with our 21st century ideas, to judge Mary and Stephen Tilden’s actions and decisions. Laws and societal norms have changed significantly in the past 278 years. It is obvious, though, that troubled marriages are nothing new.

This collection is open for research. Come visit!

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