Who were the subjects of advertisements in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“THE Publick are hereby requested not to trust Susannah Crane the Wife of me the Subscriber.”
“THIS is to inform the Publick, that I have been compelled to leave my Husband’s House.”
For four weeks in August and September 1772, Jeremiah Crane ran a “runaway wife” advertisement in the New-York Journal to inform the public “not to trust” his wife, Susanna, “on my Account … for I am determined to pay no Debts of her contracting.” He complained that “she has already run me very considerably in Debt,” forcing him to place the notice “to prevent my entire Ruin.” Similar advertisements frequently appeared in newspapers throughout the colonies, often deploying formulaic language as they described marital discord in full view of the public. Jeremiah took a harsher tone in his advertisement, not only accusing Susanna of “living and behaving herself in so scandalous and notorious a Manner” to justify a “publick Notice” but also accusing her of leading “the Life of a common Prostitute.” Even when they made insinuations about infidelity, husbands who placed “runaway wife” advertisements rarely leveled such accusations so explicitly. That Jeremiah took that approach testified to the tumult in the Crane household.
In most instance, frustrated husbands set the narrative, at least in the public prints. Wives could share their version of events via conversations and gossip, but usually lacked the resources to place their own notices in newspapers. Susanna, however, did run her own notice, declaring that she had been “compelled to leave my Husband’s House, in which I had long received the basest and most unmanly Usage.” She described a “Disposition naturally jealous, and often inflamed with Liquor,” suggesting that the problems in the Crane household did not originate with her. Without naming names, Susanna addressed the allegations made by her husband, stating that “he was excited by the Insinuations and base Aspersions of a Person at whose House he spends the best Part of his Time and Substance.” Jeremiah spent so much time away from his own home that he neglected his wife and her “poor Babes” by not providing “the most scanty Maintenance at Home.” According to Susanna, the problem was not her comportment, falsely represented by an acquaintance, but rather her husband spending too much time drinking and partaking in tales told by that acquaintance.
In those relatively few instances when wives did place their own advertisements, they almost always appeared in response to notices placed their husbands. Susanna, however, managed to publish her notice in the same issue in which Jeremiah’s advertisement first appeared. The compositor chose to place those notices together, perhaps to aid readers with a more complete story or perhaps in sympathy with Susanna. Either way, readers saw her rebuttal immediately following Jeremiah’s notice. In most instances when wives responded, their advertisements appeared separately, often on another page completely. That increased the likelihood that some readers perused only a husband’s side of the story. The placement of Susanna’s notice aided her in using the power of the press to defend her reputation against Jeremiah’s “churlish Disposition.”