One wife too many …!
Whenever I want to cause a stir at cocktail parties I like to announce that my grandmother was a bigamist. This is a little unfair of me as it was not intentional. Grandma had assumed that when the War Office told her that her first husband (the two had separated some years previously when he emigrated to Australia) was missing in action, she was free to marry again, which she did to my grandfather in 1916. Cue husband number one appearing back on the scene. Sadly her first husband was seriously injured and died shortly afterwards, when she quickly re-married just in time for my aunt to make her appearance on the scene.
Now you may think that my grandmother was perhaps not the most sparkly star in the ancestral firmament but in her defence, she was no different to many women who had been brought up at the time to blindly trust both in Authorities and in men in general.
From my research experience it would seem that bigamy was pretty rife in the UK before they relaxed the divorce laws by varying degrees in the 20th century. It would be difficult to check if someone was a multiple offender and most of the bigamy cases seem to have been brought before the authorities by chance rather than any dedicated detective work.
Take the case of Edmund Lewis, who while in prison in a Birmingham gaol in 1882 had the misfortune to be visited by his two wives on the same day. It would seem that Edmund married his second wife, a Liverpool barmaid named Jane, whilst his first wife, Catherine was alive and well and presumably living in Cardiff where they married in 1865. Despite feigning madness (he ate vast quantities of soap to produce foaming at the mouth and only gave up his ‘shamming’ after being subjected to “repeated galvanic shocks” to cure his affliction) he was sent to trail at Warwickshire Assizes. Although he wrote a pleading letter to his second wife imploring her not to prosecute, and reminding her of a visit which they paid to the Liverpool Assizes, and how wretched the prisoners looked, he appeared on 11 February 1892 and received 12 months.
And Edmund wasn’t the only one with a certain amount of chutzpah. I loved this example reported in the Norfolk News of 19 March 1870:
Experienced Bigamy: A curious bigamy case has been tried at Maidstone. Mr Richard Foster of the ripe age of 70, was indicted for having married one lady of the name of Jane Smith in 1842, and with espousing another Smith, a Mary Anne in 1869, whilst Jane was still alive. The veteran bigamist confessed the soft impeachment. But he argued that his marriage to Jane in 1842 was illegal because he had been married once before, in 1828, to Maria Frazer. Now this lady was alive in 1842, so that the marriage with Jane was void, but she was not alive in 1869, and therefore the marriage with Mary Ann was good. The jury acquitted him. The judge, however, pointed out that if he did not commit bigamy in 1869, he did, on his own confession, err in 1842. He must, therefore, exchange the frying-pan for the fire, and remain in custody.
Whilst it appears to have been far more common for men to have had multiple wives rather than women multiple husbands, it did occasionally happen. Many newspapers around the UK picked up the story of Eliza Hathaway/Bradley, perhaps for the curious and frankly bizarre stories she told to the authorities.
In 1881 Eliza married Thomas Bradley at the parish church, Kidderminster, and she described herself on the marriage certificate as being a widow. This was despite her husband Edwin Hathaway, who she had married in the Primitive Methodist Chapel, Brierley Hill in 1870, being alive and well and living barely 10 miles away. The 1871 census shows the couple living in Stourbridge and they have a 5 month old daughter named Louisa. Edwin was over twice her age and a widower himself so perhaps Eliza tired of the marriage and sought out someone a little more exciting and nearer her age. Ten years later the 1881 census shows Eliza and Thomas Bradley living with Eliza’s daughter Sophia [Louisa?] Hathaway aged 10.
However, her sins caught up with her. The Worcestershire Chronicle of 20 May 1882 tells of her being caught out but also reports on her ‘story’.
It states that shortly after her marriage, Eliza left her husband to seek her own fortune and went on to marry Thomas Bradley, after which her story starts to get a little involved. She stated that she had visited the Salvation Hall, became a zealous soldier, and “harangued meetings”. Her passion attracted the attention of the commanding officers of the Army and she was promoted to a captain. Her husband, Bradley, did not agree with her making visits to the hall and eventually she left him and was sent on behalf of the Salvation Army to open a campaign at Hafferton [probably Nafferton] in Yorkshire. Her success was so great that she was employed to open another campaign at Goole. At the latter place her “exhortations were also highly successful”, perhaps so successful that the work became too hard and she returned to her friends at Stourbridge.
So far so good – or was it?
In the same newspaper, the following statement was given:
The Daily Chronicle is asked to state that Eliza Hathaway, arrested at Stourbridge on a charge of bigamy at Kidderminster, never was a member let alone a “captain” of the Army, and that the Army has never held a service at either Haffleton (sic), Nafferton or Goole in Yorkshire where she was id to have conducted very successful campaigns in connection with the Army.
It would appear that Eliza was something of a fantasist and perhaps even displayed some mental health issues. Certainly the judge was fairly lenient with her sentence, committing her to only 14 days in the common gaol on 5th July 1882.
So, was bigamy a sort of ‘poor man’s divorce’? I’m inclined to think it was. In my grandmother’s case, her first marriage had basically fallen apart and her desire to remarry had rather eclipsed any thoughts of ensuring she was free to do so. Eliza was young, possibly a bit flighty and regretted her marriage to a man old enough to be her father. Edmund Lewis and Richard Foster may be classed as ‘cads and rotters’ but perhaps they were simply lively young men who made wrong decisions. True, it was a man’s world in that a deserted woman had a much tougher time of it than a deserted man and you could argue that Edmund and Richmond were not particularly honourable in their behaviour – but then again, neither was Eliza and my grandmother was uncommonly foolish and easily persuaded.
Newspapers are a great source for finding cases of bigamy and court records are another useful resource. We hold both these resources for Surrey here at the History Centre and they make fascinating reading.
I’m sure that there are dozens of cases of bigamy in the last 200 years or so that have never been discovered (or at least, not at the time!) and I wonder just how many second marriages or relationships were simply an alternative to a divorce. What do you think?
Keep safe and well and Happy Researching!
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