GUEST CURATOR: Olivia Burke
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“JUDITH, the Wife of me the Subscriber, hath Eloped from me”
In this advertisement in the New Hampshire Gazette, William Sampson said that his wife left him and would no longer live with him. He cautioned the public from trusting her or letting her charge things to his account; it was a typical warning in advertisements similar to this one. Sampson reported that his wife had “eloped” from him. Eloped in this sense meant she left suddenly. There is no information in the advertisement about what transpired between the couple to give readers an understanding of why she left.
At this time, divorces were nearly impossible to obtain, according to Dorothy Mays in Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival and Freedom in a New World. In a marital relationship, a wife’s duties centered around maintaining and running the household. Marital relations were conservative partnerships in which the wife was understood to act faithfully to her husband at all times. Women were not able to act independently for themselves. Once they got married to a man, they had no legal options to leave. The only way to get out of a marriage was to leave on their own accord. In this advertisement it appears that Judith did just that. This is a daring move given the way colonists looked upon women who disrupted and acted outside of their place in society, a move met with public humiliation in the newspaper.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Olivia is correct that advertisements like the one William Sampson placed concerning his wife Judith departing from their home and refusing to live with him were intended to humiliate women when they engaged in such acts of resistance. Yet Judith would not have been the only partner in that relationship who experienced public scrutiny and disgrace for her actions. By placing a notice in the New-Hampshire Gazette, William made a public pronouncement that he was incapable of exercising the patriarchal authority that he was supposed to wield. He had been unable to keep Judith in her place as a dutiful helpmate and had to resort to cutting off her credit when she “Eloped” from him.
As Olivia indicates, this advertisement does not provide much detail about what transpired between Judith and William. It succinctly deployed formulaic language that appeared in such advertisements in newspapers throughout the colonies. Some readers, especially those who lived near the Sampsons in Arundel, may have been quite familiar with the causes of the domestic discord. Considering that the situation got to the point that Judith eloped, friends and neighbors had likely already witnessed some of the disagreements between the couple. They did not need William to rehearse them in a newspaper notice, nor did he necessarily wish to air all of his grievances with his wife in a public forum and, in the process, demonstrate his shortcomings as a husband to a much broader audience.
Other husbands who placed such advertisement, however, did provide much greater detail about the misbehavior of their wives. They accrued personal embarrassment when doing so, but may have calculated that the public would direct greater opprobrium at recalcitrant wives when presented with evidence of their impudence. In placing these advertisements, husbands exercised one more form of authority usually beyond the reach of wives: using the public prints to advance their version of events to the disadvantage of wives who had “eloped.” Very rarely did runaway wives publish notices in response. The printers who published advertisements on behalf of their husbands already knew not to extend them credit; they reserved whatever resources they had in their possession for necessities rather than newspaper notices.
Like advertisements for runaway indentured servants and enslaved men and women who escaped from those who held them in bondage, advertisements for runaway wives tell truncated stories from the perspectives of those who believed they had been aggrieved by the runaways. When considered from the perspective of the subjects of the advertisements, however, these notices tell stories of resistance that contribute to a more complete rendering of the past, one that incorporates the agency and experiences of colonists often marginalized in the historical record.
 Dorothy A. Mays, Women on Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 251