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