What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“After reading the above I leave the World to judge of my unhappy State.”
Most newspaper advertisements concerning runaway wives went unanswered, at least in the public prints. Friends, neighbors, and acquaintances almost certainly discussed the circumstances of the marital discord that prompted wives to depart from the households of their husbands, sharing what they knew or heard from others and checking for new developments when they engaged in the rituals of gossip. On occasion, however, some of those wives published their own advertisements in response. Such was the case with Judith Walker.
Her husband, Simeon, inserted an advertisement in the March 29, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. It ran for three weeks. Simeon did not provide much detail, instead resorting to formulaic language that readers would have associated with any notice from the genre. “WHEREAS Judith, my Wife,” Simeon announced, “has Eloped from me, and refuses to Bed and Board with me:— I now forbid all Persons trusting her on my Account, as I will not pay any Debt of her contracting after this Date.” Curiously, Simeon dated the advertisement January 18, though it did not run until ten weeks later.
Judith’s response was anything but formulaic. She spilled a lot more ink than her estranged husband, first citing his advertisement and then offering her reasons for “absenting myself from him.” Judith asserted that Simeon did not provide “the common Necessaries of Life,” but instead perpetrated “abusive Treatment … for a Number of Years.” She contended that Simeon “oblig[ed] me to take the Care of Cattle thro’ several Winters, and many unreasonable Tasks he used to compel me to, which I, nor scarce any other Woman, could perform.” Rather than asking readers to take her word for it, Judith presented a note “from [Simeon’s] own Handwriting, and attested by two credible Persons,” Stephen Felton and Ruth Wheeler, in which he acknowledged that his wife “hath been a faithful, just Attorney in my Business … and she has just Occasion to harden her Heart against me.” Furthermore, this passage concluded with Simeon expressing his desire for “Church and State to have Charity for my Wife, for she has been obedient to me in Sickness and in Health.” That note bore the date “February 20th, 1773,” after the date on Simeon’s advertisement but before his advertisement appeared in the newspaper.
Their relationship apparently did not improve over the next several months. Nearly half a year after Simeon first placed his notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy, Judith took to the pages of the same newspaper. Those relatively few women who did respond to “runaway wife” advertisements usually did so within weeks. Why did Judith wait months? Given the sentiments in Simeon’s handwritten note, had the couple perhaps reconciled temporarily and then found themselves at odds once again? Whatever had occurred, Judith presented her perspective to the public. “After reading the above,” she declared, “I leave the World to judge of my unhappy State.” Husbands usually controlled the narrative in the public prints, but in this instance Judith Walker managed to gain access to the power of the press to offer a competing account.