The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times by Ilyon Woo. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010. Available at Amazon.com.
Imagine a world where marriage meant the end of a legal identity for a woman. She could not own or inherit property; she did not have legal custody of her children. Whatever choices her husband made, whether they be alcoholism, relocation, desertion, lack of support, violence, crime, or insanity, she might have no right to divorce. Subservience was legally required of her. In the event of the death of her husband, she could not determine the future custody of her children. She could not vote or hold office.
This was the 1814 world of Eunice Chapman of Albany, New York. In her case, her husband made a somewhat common choice for those times: he took the three children and joined a Shaker community. A woman of almost incomprehensible nerve and strength, Eunice set out to change her circumstances. This well-researched and documented book chronicles the true story of her efforts to reclaim her children.
For genealogists, this is an important read for many reasons. I think I will never again assume that I know the legal circumstances of my ancestors. Family law differed widely from state to state, and was constantly shifting as the new republic re-shaped its ideas about freedom and virtue. No matter what circumstances I find my ancestors facing, I’m going to wonder about the real story and emotions that don’t appear in the documents left behind. Then, as now, people often disagreed with the public policies they were forced to live by.
My husband and I have visited many of the Shaker communities featured in the book. Next time we make such a journey, I’m going to ask myself more questions about the idyllic life depicted in those villages. The story is always a little more complicated than it seems.
While reading this fascinating book, I think any genealogist will identify with the qualities of stubborn determination and creative problem-solving that were the genius of Eunice Chapman.
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