August 27

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Connecticut Courant (August 27, 1771).

“I think it high time to clip the wings of these public spirited gentlemen, that make so great an appearance in our weekly papers.”

A trio of advertisements about “runaway wives” appeared in the August 13, 1771, edition of the Connecticut Courant, each of them describing the misbehavior of a woman who absconded from her husband and warning others not to extend credit because their aggrieved husbands refused to pay any debts they contracted.  Richard Smith placed one of those advertisements, claiming that his wife, Hannah, “makes it her business to pass from house to house with her [busy] news, tattling and bawling and lying.”  In addition, he accused her of “carrying out things out of my house, things contrary to my knowledge.”

Such advertisements told only part of the story.  In most instances, wives did not possess the same access to the press as their husbands, especially once husbands published notices that they refused to make payments on behalf of recalcitrant wives, so runaway wife advertisements largely went unanswered in the public prints.  Occasionally, however, women defended their behavior and their reputations by publishing notices of their own.  When Hannah Smith did so, she told a very different story than the one her husband previously presented in the Connecticut Courant.

Hannah blamed both her husband and his children from a previous marriage for the discord in their household.  She first pointed to the “perfidious instigation” of his children that “represented me in a false and ungenerous light, to be wastful, tattling, and wilfully absenting myself.”  Problems arose, Hannah claimed, because she had a husband “who keeps himself (for the most part) intoxicated ten degrees below the level of a beast.”  She also experienced emotional and physical abuse, reporting that Richard “allows some of his children to treat a step mother with the most abusive, ignominious language, not sparing to kick her.”  None of these details appeared in Richard’s advertisement!

Since Richard made accusations against her in a public forum, Hannah in turn insisted that the situation “absolutely necessitated” that she “ask the public, how a woman ought to behave” in such circumstances.  At the same time, she critiqued advertisements for runaway wives more generally, perhaps reacting to the three that appeared one after the other and concluded with Richard’s advertisement concerning her alleged misconduct.  “As the woman is the weaker vessel,” Hannah asserted, “I think it high time to clip the wings of these public spirited gentlemen, that make so great an appearance in our weekly papers.”  Richard Smith had not told an accurate or complete story in his advertisement; neither had Samuel Pettibone and John Savage in their notices.  In a rare rebuttal that appeared in print, Hannah Smith defended not only herself but also Mary Pettibone, Nancy Savage, and other women targeted by runaway wife advertisements.

August 14

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Connecticut Courant (August 13, 1771).

“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?