What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“I am so unhappy in my last marriage.”
Samuel Pettibone, John Savage, and Richard Smith had something in common. Each of them experienced marital discord and failed to exercise proper patriarchal authority to maintain order in their households. The situation for each spiraled so far out of control that all three men resorted to placing advertisements in the Connecticut Courant to instruct others in their communities not to extend credit to their wives.
“I am so unhappy in my last marriage,” lamented Pettibone, “as to inform the public that my wife Mary has privately run me in debt at many places, and has absented herself from my bed and board.” Furthermore, she “carried off with her all she bro’t with her” to the marriage “and thirty pounds or upwards of my estate.” Smith told a similar tale about his wife, Hannah, who “makes it her steady business to pass from house to house with her [busy] news, tattling and bawling and lying.” Just as Mary Pettibone supposedly had done to her husband, Richard accused Hannah of “carrying out things out of my house, things contrary to my knowledge.” Savage was not nearly as animated in his account, instead resorting to standardized language that appeared in many “runaway wife” advertisements. “Whereas Nancy the wife of me the subscriber,” he stated, “has eloped from my bed an[d] board and has run me in debt … I utterly refuse paying any debt contracted by her after this date.” Pettibone and Smith could have also deployed formulaic accounts; that they did not testifies to the exasperation they felt in the face of such recalcitrance and disobedience by their wives.
Pettibone, Savage, and Smith intended for others to view them as aggrieved husbands. They published unflattering narratives about their wives, using the power of the press to frame events according to their understanding or liking. Eighteenth-century readers, especially those who knew the families or heard gossip, certainly realized that none of these men provided all of the details of what transpired in their households. Arranged one after another, these advertisements served as a catalog of misbehaving women, but they also demanded readers ask questions about how the men who placed the notices comported themselves. In what ways did the husbands contribute to the turmoil in their households?