Every now and then I meet someone who thinks that people “back then” were all highly religious and led straight-laced, pious lives. Those people haven’t read newspapers of the era. Legal notices appeared frequently in which husbands and wives absolved themselves of responsibility for the debts and dissipations of spouses who’d abandoned them. Sometimes competing accounts appeared in which spouses attacked each other in the public media. While in most cases we have nothing more than a single legal notice, there are some for which additional information has come to light. There were even marriages that became so tumultuous or ended so tragically that they received national attention. And of course the newspapers reveal only a sample of the unions that yielded anger, tumult and tragedy.
Here are a ten examples of Revolutionary War era marriages gone bad, selected for no other reason than that they’re interesting and reasonably easy to learn more about. They’re a stark reminder that social issues such as marital discord transcend both war and time.
Thomas Melody and Hannah Andrews
When sent to Connecticut as a prisoner of war after the Battle of Princeton, Thomas Melody did not do as most British soldiers and await exchange or escape to rejoin his regiment. Instead, he married an American woman, Hannah Andrews. Sounds like a wonderful wartime love story – and maybe it was while the war lasted. By 1791, however, things had fallen apart, and Thomas placed a notice that Hannah had “forsaken my bed and board.” Some months later Hannah took the unusual step of publishing a lengthy notice defending her character and claiming that Thomas’s transgressions “would make a larger volume than I am able to get published, or any one have patience to read, and they would bring disgrace on me and all the human race;” he then published a response to these “aspersions of a malicious, vindictive, vagrant vixen.” The war of words continued; although we’ve found no resolution to the dispute, we can be sure it provided great entertainment to readers of the newspaper. Read more about this troubled couple.
Joshua Spooner and Bathsheba Ruggles
The daughter of prominent Massachusetts loyalist Timothy Ruggles, Bathsheba was a flamboyant character in her own right. Whether she married Joshua Spooner because of her own appreciation of his family’s wealth or because her father wished for her security is not known, but by 1778, after a decade of marriage, she’d grown quite bored of her husband. Although their Brookfield, Mass., home was far from the fighting, many American soldiers and British prisoners passed through the town. Bathsheba’s beauty and extroversion gave her great influence over men, and she saw in the itinerant soldiers a path out of her uninteresting marriage. She entered into a scheme with an American private soldier and two British prisoners of war to remove her husband from her life. Although the plot itself was successful, its secretiveness was not; the story ended with not one but five people dead. The entire tragic tale is detailed in Deborah Navis, Murdered by his Wife (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).
Margaret Moncrieffe and Lt. John Coghlan
After losing her mother as an infant, Margaret Moncrieffe was sent away to school in Dublin instead of living with her father, Captain John Moncrieffe of the 59th Regiment of Foot. His remarriage gave her connections in America to both sides of the brewing conflict, and when she returned the colonies in 1774 she found both friends and detractors everywhere. She lived in the home of British commander Thomas Gage and then with American General Israel Putnam. She fell in love with an American colonel, but was forced to join her father who then forced her to marry a British officer, Lt. John Coghlan of the 23rd Regiment of Foot. She was miserable. So miserable, in fact, that in 1793, after sixteen years of marriage, she wrote and published Memoirs of Mrs. Coghlan (London: privately printed, 1794). She summarized the union that caused emotional, financial and legal dissipation: “My union with Mr. Coghlin I never considered in any other light, than an honorable prostitution, as I really hated the man whom they had compelled me to marry” (her italics). Her memoir was reprinted in New York in 1864 and again in 1971; it’s sad but well worth reading and includes many anecdotes of prominent figures on both sides of the war.
Henrietta Overing and Major Andrew Bruce
Unlike Margaret Moncrieffe, Henrietta Overing loved the British officer she married in 1778, a major in the 54th Regiment of Foot, part of the garrison in Rhode Island where she lived with her loyalist family. Twice her age, he stressed to her the importance of keeping the marriage secret until his elderly father in Scotland died, so as not to lose a substantial inheritance. She complied, and remained at home caring for her own sickly father when the British left Rhode Island and Andrew Bruce took a staff position in New York. Then he stopped writing to her. After her father died, she went to New York but he refused to see her. Her brother, although a junior officer in the same regiment, was unable to intervene favorably. Andrew Bruce addressed a final letter to Henrietta that coldly began, “My Dear Madam.” In 1783, with the British about to evacuate New York, she made a plea to the British commander in chief but to no avail. She returned to Rhode Island humiliated, with a meaningless marriage and an administrative nightmare because her loyalist family’s property was now in American hands. She did, however, remarry a few years later and eventually had her portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart; Andrew Bruce, on the other hand, died in obscurity soon after the war, while his elderly father outlived him. The full story will appear in the Spring 2014 issue of Newport History.
Isaiah Thomas and Mary Dill
Newspapers played a key role in fomenting rebellion in America, and Isaiah Thomas was one of the Boston printers who manned the presses. As a partner in the Massachusetts Spy, it’s not entirely clear whether he embraced the radical politics that he published or simply saw it as a good business niche; his 1770 marriage to Bermuda-born Mary Dill was as tumultuous as the politics of the era. He apparently didn’t know until after their marriage that she’d had relations with other men before him, and she never was happy in her union to him in spite of having three children together. Just two months before hostilities broke out, she went on a trip to Newburyport, Mass., with another man – Benjamin Thompson, a militia colonel from New Hampshire who became a British cavalry officer during the war, then became a prominent scientist and inventor in Europe. Perhaps Mary found him more interesting than her printer husband. Isaiah Thomas divorced Mary in 1777, and went on to have two other ill-fated marriages. There’s more about him and Mary Dill.
William and Mrs. Whitlow, 44th Regiment of Foot
Besides being a private soldier, William Whitlow was a member of his regiment’s band of music. He had spent his entire life in the regiment, and by 1779 had a wife and child; it was said that “there was not a happier Couple in the Regiment.” But only when he was in his right mind; as a child in Ireland he had fallen from a wall and hit his head, which was the supposed reason he was sometimes “out of his senses.” At such times he had been known to beat his wife (whose first name, unfortunately, is not known) because of imagined transgressions; sometimes his officers locked him up to protect her and their child until he regained his senses. In September 1779 when on board a transport ship, he had thrown himself overboard for no apparent reason. Still on board ship some days later, while accusing his wife of imagined misbehavior, he picked up a bayonet and pushed it into her chest. Other soldiers restrained him, but the damage was done; the wound festered and she died a few days later. At his trial for murder, although not disputing that he’d inflicted the wound, Whitlow testified that he had no recollection of the act and called many witnesses who described his bouts of insanity. He was acquitted of the charge because it was not considered a willful murder, and he served many more years in the regiment. One witness testified that during the days Whitlow’s wife languished “she frequently said she forgave him, and…that she believed the Cause of his Wounding her was owing to his having too much love for her.”
The Demarests of New Bridge
The cliché is that civil wars pit brother against brother, but sometimes it’s husband against wife and the whole family gets involved. David and Jane Demarest lived in New Bridge, New Jersey, on ground that was a front line and changed hands several times during the course of the war. When the British army seized New York in 1776, David Demarest went to join a loyalist regiment, the New Jersey Volunteers. His son Gilliam joined the Bergen County Militia on the other side of the conflict. Jane Demarest stayed home, espousing the American cause in spite of her husband’s proclivities. During the war father and son each spent time as prisoners of war on the other’s side; in fact, the son was captured by the father’s corps, and thrown into a harsh New York prison. Meanwhile, American authorities confiscated the family property and cast Jane out because the title was in the name of her husband who was serving on the British side. At war’s end, David Demarest went with other loyalists to Canada, while his wife and son remained in America. The full story can be read in Todd W. Braisted, Bergen County Voices from the American Revolution (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2012).
Cornelius and Mary Driscoll
Some marriages were torn apart by war but not by discord. Cornelius Driscoll joined the British army in 1767 and a decade later was a grenadier in the 10th Regiment of Foot. In a tangle with American troops under General Lafayette at Chestnut Hill near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he was killed and his wife Mary was taken prisoner. She was confined with other British prisoners of war (it was typical for wives of prisoners to accompany them in confinement); although pregnant with twins, she escaped but was recaptured and put in jail. She gave birth to twins in captivity, but this did not prevent her from escaping yet again, with her children, and making her way with two other women to New York where she petitioned for support as an army widow. What she didn’t know was that her husband had not in fact been killed; he continued to serve, but was drafted into another regiment and sent to the West Indies before she arrived in New York. He continued in the army until 1791 when he received a pension, but it isn’t known whether the couple was ever reunited or even knew of each other’s survival. Read more about them.
The James Yates Murders
Everyone has read a news story where friends and neighbors of a perpetrator say that they saw no warning signs, no indication that anything was amiss. Such was the case with James Yates, a farmer from Pitts Town in Albany County, New York. Known as a person with “nothing remarkable in his character,” he awoke one morning in late 1781 and, supposedly following the voice of a spirit, used a club to beat his wife and four children to death, and also his dog and two cows. He then ran naked to his parents’ house a half-mile away and told them what he’d done. He was locked up in an Albany prison but we’ve found no evidence that he was ever tried for the crimes. The story made newspapers from Pennsylvania to Boston, and was talked about and written about for decades. Read more about it on Wikipedia, under “James Yates Murders.”
Demise of the Beadle Family
While James Yates seems to have acted spontaneously, William Beadle of Wethersfield, Connecticut, planned and contemplated for years. He was a highly successful merchant but he did not adapt well to wartime conditions. Believing himself a true supporter of the colonies, he adamantly refused to raise prices when the value of Continental currency declined during the war. This was noble but foolhardy; by 1780 he was going broke. He spent much of this and the following two years preoccupied with the impact on his family of this desperate financial situation, concluding that it was his duty to prevent them from suffering. He wrote of his contemplations to friends, including a set of letters to be delivered after his death. One night in December 1782 he sent the maid to fetch a doctor, claiming his wife was ill. He then carefully killed his wife with an axe, slit the throats of each of his four children, then held a pistol in each of his hands and took his own life. The horrid affair was recorded and discussed in broadsides and newspaper accounts all over the northeast for the next six months; the full story can be read in James R. Smart, A Life of William Beadle (Princeton, NJ: Senior thesis, Princeton University, 1989).
From The Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University]