What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“My Character of an honest and industrious Woman can be asserted to all who may inquire.”
Runaway wife advertisements were a particular genre of paid notices that frequently appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers. In such an advertisement an aggrieved husband reported that his disobedient wife departed from the household without his permission. The husband warned others that he would not pay any debts contracted in his name by his wife. Some advertisements went into greater detail than others in recording the various offenses committed by runaway wives. No matter how elaborate, publishing such advertisements must have been just as embarrassing, if not more so, for husbands than wives. After all, it was a public confession that a husband had not been able to exercise patriarchal authority or maintain order in his own household. Instead, he turned to the community for assistance in disciplining his wife.
In the fall of 1769, John Kennedy repeatedly inserted a runaway wife advertisement in Green and Russell’s Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. Dated “Bridgewater, Sept. 29, 1769,” it stated, “WHEREAS Margaret Kennedy, the Wife of me the Subscriber, has left my Bed and Board, and refuses to live with me:— This is to forwarn all Persons from trusting the said Margaret on my Account, for I hereby declare I will not pay one Farthing of her contracting from the Day of the Date hereof.”
Rarely did such notices generate a response, but occasionally wives did publish their own advertisements to address the accusations made by their husbands and defend their reputations. Margaret Kennedy did so in the November 13 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. In an advertisement dated “Bridgewater, Nov. 10, 1769,” she expressed her dismay that she had been identified in “Green and Russell’s Weekly Paper as an Eloper from the Bed and Board of my Husband.” She did not acknowledge that her husband had placed the advertisement, but instead asserted that “an ill-minded Person” published an account that was “an absolute Falshood.” She also declared that she had never incurred any debt on his behalf, not “one Shilling Lawful Money.” Having been maligned in a newspaper that circulated well beyond Boston, she defended her reputation and references for anyone uncertain about which spouse to believe in the course of this public altercation. “[M]y Character of an honest and industrious Woman,” she declared, “can be asserted to all who may inquire it by a Number of my Friends in Boston, and the Community I belong to.”
Margaret met John’s advertisement with another act of resistance, one exceptionally visible to friends, neighbors, and strangers. His original advertisement continued to run in the November 13 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, appearing on the page following Margaret’s response. Readers now had both sides of the story in a single issue, witnessing the Kennedys’ marital discord play out in print, even if not in person.