Divorce & Custody
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Vermont was known for its liberal legal attitude towards divorce from the very beginning. Women were especially likely to petition the courts to end their marriages. In addition to desertion, impotence, refusal to support, and adultery, “intolerable severity” was accepted as grounds for divorce. The latter might be broadly interpreted by judges. Evidence was presented in the form of affidavits, depositions, and testimony. Vermont’s supreme court ruled in divorce cases until 1869, when jurisdiction passed to the county courts.
In her 1809 divorce petition against Nathaniel Pever, Laura Pever went into some detail regarding impotency, albeit “with crimson blush.” Supreme court judge Royall Tyler granted the divorce. Nathaniel Pever had already ended one marriage, just the year before. Judge Tyler had presided over that case as well, approving a divorce from Hannah Pever on the grounds of her adultery. Curiously, Hannah’s father testified in favor of Laura’s divorce petition, describing his daughter’s similar marital experience with Nathaniel Pever.
Betsey Farnsworth charged that husband Samuel Farnsworth had “kept a strumpet” and deserted her to live with another woman in Hagersburgh, NY. In addition to a divorce, the supreme court in Orleans County awarded Betsey farm equipment, livestock and domestic furnishings in 1827.
The Bigamous Belle
Julia or Josephine Hall -- alias Fullerton, Goodwin, Macomber, Chase -- is one of the more resourceful characters in Vermont court history. She devised a scam to take advantage of young Civil War recruits. Julia would go to a training camp, identify a likely prospect, and entice him into marrying her. Then he would go off to war, and she would collect his pay. She had pulled this off several times before marrying Derby resident George Chase at Burlington. After George was shipped south, he found out about Julia from some comrades, and asked brother Eugene to have the marriage annulled.
Meanwhile, Julia had appeared in Derby with a child that Eugene knew was too old to be George’s. She talked her way out of the situation and left town.
Afterwards Julia wrote several times, trying to get money on various pretexts. In her last letter she asked for bail to get out of Newfane jail, from which she had briefly escaped, in male dress. Eugene sent young attorney (and future supreme court judge) Benjamin Steele to get evidence for an annulment. Steele succeeded, despite Julia’s threats and bluffs. The case includes letters and depositions that detail her “career”.
In 1893 Agnes King filed a habeas corpus petition to have her two-year-old son produced in court and placed in her custody. She charged that her husband had deserted her, and had left Walter King with his father, who refused to give the boy up. The supreme court in Lamoille County awarded Mrs. King custody, with visitation rights for the father.
Divorced parents Lamora Whittier and FH McFarland battled over daughter Blanche in 1906. McFarland had won custody, but the15-year-old ran away from his Hyde Park home and returned to her mother. In a detailed, thoughtful decision, Judge George Powers considered what was best for the child, then gave custody to Ms. Whittier. He admonished both parents for their behavior, and warned each not to do anything to decrease Blanche’s affection for the other.
Although nuptial agreements are not commonly found in Vermont court records, a few cases came up in the early 1900’s. In 1920 the supreme court upheld an “antenuptial agreement” between Hannah and Wingate Munsell. Both were “advanced in years” at the time of marriage, and the wife owned property worth more than $15,000. Hannah Munsell had wanted her own children to inherit all of her property. After she died, Munsell claimed part of her estate due to his legal entitlement as surviving husband. He claimed that his signature on the agreement had been obtained fraudulently. The court concluded otherwise.
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