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In the colonial period, married Virginians had very few legal grounds for divorce. Over the years, though, standards loosened up a bit, and eventually the old justifications of adultery and impotency were joined by reasons such as abandonment, cruelty, or being a fugitive from justice. In 1873, a new justification was added to the list: if either party was sentenced to confinement in the penitentiary. One of least common reasons for divorce, this kind of suit does pop up in chancery from time to time when the spouses of criminal Virginians took advantage of the law to get rid of the old ball-and-chain.

W. H. Bonaparte and Emma G. Lee were married in Hampton in 1888. In January 1889, W. H. was convicted of a felony for transporting a woman named Ruth Tennelle into Hampton for the purpose of concubinage and was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary. Emma filed for divorce in February 1891 and her petition was granted one month later. (Elizabeth City County chancery cause 1891-007 Emma Bonaparte by etc vs. W. H. Bonaparte)

In 1898, Rosalie Mayo and Daniel N. Huffer were united in matrimony. In 1901 Rosalie filed for divorce while pregnant with her second child, stating that her husband had recently been sentenced to one year in the penitentiary for a terrible assault on their little daughter Adeline. Testimony from a doctor who examined the child noted that she was covered in bruises and had been choked, her collar bone was broken, and there was evidence of a prior break in an arm bone. Rosalie herself testified that Daniel had threatened to take her life once he got out of prison. In August of 1901, Rosalie received a divorce and was allowed to resume using her maiden name. (Elizabeth City County chancery cause 1901-015 Rosalie Huffer vs. Daniel N. Huffer)

It wasn’t just disappointed wives who were seeking disunion. Married in October 1885, Robert Henry Carter sought a divorce from his then-wife Emily who was arrested for murdering Lila, his child from his first marriage, by poisoning her. Emily was convicted in February 1886 and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary.  (Middlesex County chancery cause 1889-009 Robert Henry Carter vs. Emily Carter)

Cornelius Edmond filed for divorce in March 1913 after his wife had received yet another jail sentence in 1911 for keeping a house of ill-fame. His wife, Sallie Ann Edmond, went by various names around the town: Annie Taylor or Sallie Ann Taylor or Sallie Annie Taylor. Charles Curtis, a deputy sheriff deposed in the divorce suit, stated that Sallie Ann was generally a woman of bad character and had other prior jail sentences for adultery and being not of good fame or character. Cornelius freed himself from this scarlet letter in April 1913. (Elizabeth City County chancery cause 1913-021 Cornelius Edmond vs. Annie Edmond alias Sallie Ann Edmond)

–Sarah Nerney, former Local Records Archivist

Vince Brooks

Local Records Program Manager


  • Diane S Sanfilippo says:

    It is my belief that the first divorce in the Virginia Colony was that of Elizabeth Underwood and Dr. James Taylor who had taken a servant woman as his companion and had a child – Elizabeth went back to her father’s home and said she was frightened to stay under Taylor’s roof – she was awarded a divorce and remarried at least three more times, left widowed and wealthy from each – Married well and often

  • Diane S Sanfilippo says:

    Sorry – dates are only approximate as she is not my direct line and I have not concentrated on her but she was born abt 1632 in England and Dr. Taylor, uncle of Col. James Taylor, was born 12 May 1609/10 England. He had one known child by his companion, Ursula Kettle (they may have married), James Taylor Jr. b. 18 Oct 1653, Surry Co., VA – I suppose the fact that the parties were wealthy and known helped Elizabeth obtain her divorce – one of her husbands was Col John Catlett and their son, John Jr, married Mary Gaines, daughter of Col. Daniel Gaines and Margaret LNU who was the widow of Ralph Rowzee Sr. and, through him, my 7th great-grandparents

    • Calley Savage says:

      I’m a descendant of Elizabeth’s. Take a look at “Surry County Virginia Court Rcords 1652 – 1663” Weynette Parks Haun, pgs. 18 and 19 (pgs. 40 & 41 of the actual record book). On 26 March 1654, Edward Skyner, who appears to be a family friend, petitioned the governor, in Elizabeth’s behalf, for a legal separation and maintenance from James Taylor. There was no such thing as divorce, so this was the best she could have done. There are also depositions on the same date from Elizabeth and Ursala Kettle (the servant in question). According to Elizabeth, James was violent, and Ursala had been sent away. On 20 June 1955 Elizabeth’s new husband, Francis Slaughter, is in court settling James’ estate. I’ve always been curious about exactly what happened in that year, and what the circumstances of James’ death were. A couple of questions: is there documentation that confirms that Ursala’s child was the James Taylor you mention, and that his birth date is 10 Oct. 1653? I’ve never been able to track down what happened to Ursala.

  • Ashley says:

    I found my great-great-grandma’s divorce records in the Chancery Index from about 1912. In it, not only does one of her paramours testify to their affair (the other having fled the state), but he states that he also sought other men at her request. I’d normally think that these stories were made up or exaggerated at the behest of her husband, until I spoke to some older relatives about it, who remembered stories from her grandchildren about her doing the very same thing, decades later. Apparently, her husband missed her wild ways… because he remarried her less than a decade later (and yes, these later stories were after the remarriage… perhaps they came to some kind of understanding).

    • Vince says:

      If nothing else, chancery records reveal that some of our ancestors were anything but stodgy old Puritans! We present day folks like to believe that we invented all sorts of shenanigans, but our forebearers raised plenty of cain on their own. Thanks for reading and sharing your family story!

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