Domestic Disputes: Public Announcements of Private Affairs

Arts & Literature

August 3, 2015
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


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A browse through the eighteenth century newspapers turns up more than just political news, op-eds and want ads. Sometimes there’s marital mud-slinging of the sort that we’ve come to expect only from television and the internet. Although we’re tempted to think of our forebears as more refined and moralistic than today, there was no shortage of public assertions of domestic non-tranquility. Marriages that were anything but blissful spurred declarations of indebtedness, abandonment, infidelity and other ill behaviors. The fundamental motivation was legalistic: one partner didn’t want to bear responsibility for the actions of another. Ads like this one appeared regularly:

Whereas Freelove Cooper, wife of me the subscriber, has left me, & kept other men, and also run me in debt; this is to forbid all persons, trusting said Freelove Cooper, on my account, as I am determined not to pay any more debts of her contracting. James Cooper.[1]

Perhaps her name should’ve been a clue to her behavior? No, this sort of name was common in New England at the time. So, too, were ads like this; forty ads like this one appeared in The Provi­dence Gazette between 1770 and 1783:

Whereas Sarah, the Wife of Benjamin Dexter, hath eloped from him, and in her Carriage towards him, both as to Bed and Board, and acting contrary to his loving and lawful Requests respecting his Interest, hath conducted herself in a very indecent and unbecoming Manner: He hereby forbids any Person trusting her on his Account, as he will pay no Debts of her contracting. Benjamin Dexter. East Greenwich, May 3, 1782.[2]

The phrase “absented herself from my bed and board” (or some variation thereof) apparently carried some legal weight, making it official that the person described had not fulfilled their spousal duties:

Whereas Sarah Manning, the wife of Ephraim Manning of Princeton, New-Jersey, has absconded herself from his bed and board, and has taken considerable of his effects with her, without any just cause or reason; therefore this is to forewarn all persons from harbouring or trusting her on his account, for he will pay no debts of her contracting after the date hereof; as witness my hand, this 24th day of May, 1777. Ephraim Manning.[3]

Some ads were more descriptive, giving physical details so that the accused parties could be identified:

Pennsbury, Chester county, April 7, 1776.

Whereas my wife Mary Munks (about 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, black hair, dark eyes, brown complexion, thin visage, one eye larger than the other) hath eloped from my bed and board, with a certain Francis Bloomer, an Irishman; they have taken with them several articles of my property, therefore this is to forbid all persons trusting her on my account, for I will pay no debt of her contracting after this date; the said Francis Bloomer is about 5 feet 8 inches high, a well set man, dark brown hair, mostly tied behind, a cut down his forehead that always looks red, with a scar on his right cheek; had on a blue coat, brown jacket , old buckskin breeches, &c. Whoever apprehends and secures him in any goal, so that he may be brought to justice, shall have a reward of Five Shillings, paid by Thomas Munks.[4]

In some cases, the war itself was instrumental in the strife:

Whereas Desire Phillips, the Wife of me the Subscriber, hath in my Absence, while in the Army as a Soldier, in Defence of my Country, run me in Debt, and greatly wasted and squandered my Estate, although I left her a Sufficiency to subsist on; and hath also violated her Marriage Covenant, by cohabiting with another Man: I therefore forewarn and forbid all Persons whatever to trade with or trust her on my Account, as I am determined to pay no Debts of her contracting from the Date hereof. John Phillips.[5]

Whereas Ann, the Wife of the Subscriber, hath, during his long Captivity with the Enemy, made great Waste of his Property, and otherwise conducted herself in a very unbecoming Manner: I therefore forbid all Persons crediting her on my Account, as I shall not pay any Debts of her contracting from the Date hereof. Thomas Wescott.[6]

There are, of course, two sides to every story. Sometimes the other side was also published in the newspapers, affording an opposing view. We can only wonder whether either of the views were factual, or if each party was trying to outdo the other. This pair of ads provides a valuable perspec­tive on the situation of many married couples during this time period:

Whereas Deborah Taylor, of East Windsor, wife of the subscriber, has deserted my bed and board, and refuses to live and cohabit with me, these are therefore to warn all persons not to trust her on my account, for I will not pay any debt of her contracting from the date hereof. James Taylor. East Windsor, Feb. 24 1777.[7]

In the Connecticut Courant, March 17, 1777, James Taylor was so ungenerous, unhumane and abusive as to advertise Deborah his wife as a deserter from his bed and board, which is so abuse to the unfortunate Deborah as to oblige her to declare to the public, that James Taylor never did provide neither bed or board for his wife or family, but was for most part of his time absent, but for what purpose I cannot say; he brought nothing home but abusive language for my comfort and the support of his children; and since this unhappy war, he has been inlisted as a soldier, and went to Canada, from whence he deserted, and his unusual return, on the account of the season of the year, he was suspected for a deserter, was the reason I would not find him any longer bed or board, and not now under the necessity of applying to my friends for necessary subsistance for myself and children. Deborah Taylor. East Windsor, April 16, 1777.[8]

At about the same time, a similar dispute was playing out in Pennsylvania:

Coventry Township, April 4, 1777.

Whereas Barbara Arnsdorff doth still continue in her wicked ways, and has of late acted very dirty actions; I think it proper to forewarn the public, a second time, from lending or trusting the said Barbara any thing on my account, as I am determined never to pay any debts of her contracting. John Arnsdorff.[9]

Coventry township, Chester county, April 16, 1777.

Thirty Pounds Reward. Run away from his wife and family of small children, in the night of the 9th inst. John Ornduff, a country born Dutchman, talks good English, wore his uniform brown coat, faced with blue, a knot on his shoulder, white jacket and breeches, about 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, fresh complexion, light brown curled hair, took a girl with him named Hannah Mucklewee; it is thought they will try to pass for man and wife; they were seen in Lancaster the day after they ran off, on their way over Susquehanna; they took a half silk gown from his wife, and a new chintz ditto, a lawn apron and handkerchief, a white silk bonnet; he rode a young black mare, and the girl a grey mare, with a new hunting saddle with silver gilt round the edge. Whoever takes up and confines them in any goal, so that they may be brought to justice, shall have the above reward, and reasonable charges, and if the man only, Twenty seven Pounds, and charges, paid by Barbara Ornduff.[10]

Four years later, yet another set of dueling ads in the same newspaper:

Whereas my Wife, Ann Robeson, hath absconded my bed and board, without any cause; therefore this is to forewarn all persons from trusting of her on my account, as I shall pay no debts of her contracting after the day of the date hereof, as witness my hand. Thomas Robeson. Lower Merion, March 5, 1781.[11]

Lower Merion, March 9, 1781.

Whereas my husband, Thomas Robinson, hath, in Messieurs Hall and Sellers Gazette of March 7th, adver­tised me as having eloped without any cause, &c. Now the truth of the matter is, I never eloped nor absented from him, unless I stayed at my father’s house, and that but seldom, on account of the abuse and ill treatment I received from him when he was drunk, at which times he beat and otherwise cruelly terrified a little bound servant girl, and forced her to tell him evil reports of me, which are all false and groundless; and now he is gone from his home and left me with five small children, two of which (twins) I now suckle, in a desolate forlorn condition, and since he hath been gone his father hath inventoried all the few houshold goods we had, by virtue of a power of Attorney, under a sham pretence of debt, who says he will make sale thereof and pay himself. Thus I have given the public a brief account of the matter, and submit to their impartial judgment whether I, who am still at home, or my husband, who hath absconded, be the runaway.

 Ann Robinson.[12]

How interesting would it be to have more information about these unhappy couples.


[1] Newport Mercury, November 1, 1773.

[2] The Providence Gazette, May 4, 1782.

[3] The Pennsylvania Journal, June 18, 1777.

[4] The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 1, 1776.

[5] The Providence Gazette, April 23, 1778.

[6] The Providence Gazette, August 6, 1778.

[7] Connecticut Courant, March 24, 1777.

[8] Connecticut Courant, May 12, 1777.

[9] The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 10, 1777.

[10] The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 24, 1777.

[11] The Pennsylvania Gazette, March 7, 1781.

[12] The Pennsylvania Gazette, March 14, 1781


  • After reading these “he said, she said” stories, it seems as if Jerry Springer-like tales have always played out in the mass media of the time. In that aspect, some things never change. Thanks for shining light on that angle, Don!

  • Don, I too enjoyed this piece. I had noticed several of these “public notices” while rooting around in some of the newspapers of the era looking for other information. Never thought of exploring these though. Neat topic! Some of your examples certainly point to the kind of strains brought on by wartime, then and now.

  • Indeed you are correct that “the phrase ‘absented herself from my bed and board’ (or some variation thereof) apparently carried some legal weight.” The phrase “Bed and Board” was during this period part of the marriage vows of the Church of England and legally was what is called “a term of art.”

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