What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“My Husband has attempted by an Advertisement to ruin my Character.”
Advertisements warning against extending credit to runaway wives were a standard feature in American newspapers in the eighteenth century. The one that Benoni Griffen, Jr., inserted in the September 10, 1770, edition of the Connecticut Courant resembled so many others that appeared in newspapers from New England to Georgia. “Whereas Martha the Wife of me the Subscriber,” Griffen proclaimed, “hath for some Tome past, behaved herself in a very Disorderly Manner, by endeavouring to run me in Debt, THESE are Therefore to want all Persons not to Trust of Credit her on my Account, as I will pay no Debt she may Contract after this Date.” Like Griffen’s notice, most advertisements concerning runaway wives did not provide further details about the alleged “Disorderly” conduct.
Most also did not garner a response. Usually husbands had the last and only word in the public prints. Yet Martha objected to how Benoni described her to friends, acquaintances, and strangers in the pages of the Connecticut Courant. She inserted her own advertisement, more than twice the length of his, to set the record straight. Martha accused Benoni of attempting to “ruin my Character,” but she asserted that she could “produce the fullest Proof that my Conduct has been prudent and blameless, especially with Respect of running my Husband in Debt.” Furthermore, she had a very different tale to tell about which spouse had treated the other poorly. Martha complained that Benoni’s “Temper and Conduct and Disposition has been extremely Ill.” Indeed, he had abandoned her and “a Family of small Children” more than once. During his most recent escapade, he had been away for almost two years, leaving Martha and the children “in bad Circumstances.” When he finally appeared again was not a free man but instead “a bound Servant.” Martha found it irritating that Benoni warned against extending credit to her on his behalf because she and her father had so often paid off his debts. Benoni’s shenanigans became so notorious that the town’s selectmen intervened.
Martha did not expect that Benoni’s advertisement had influence anyone who actually knew the couple. “[W]here he and I are known,” she stated, “‘tis beyond his Power to injure my Character.” Yet not all readers knew Martha and Benoni. It was for the benefit of “Strangers” that she ran her own advertisement to dispute her husband’s version of events. He used the public prints to defame her. In turn, she inserted an advertisement in the same newspaper to defend her reputation. Martha and other women who absconded from their husbands and became subjects of newspaper advertisements asserted their will in a manner considered unbecoming of their sex, further compounding any offenses they supposedly committed within their households. Martha’s challenges to her husband’s authority, however, did not end there. She continued to exercise her own will, publishing an advertisement that portrayed Benoni as an unsavory character incapable of fulfilling his responsibilities as husband and head of the household.