16 March 2010

Women Under English Common Law in America

This is not a COG submission, but rather a history lesson. The poster for this month's COG is what prompted me to post this.
This past Saturday was Lunch & Learn at SCGS. The first lecture was on Catholic Records. Afterward several of us were talking about what records would historically be available to trace women. And from there it morphed into what records were available outside of the Catholic church and in the civil sphere. From there it went to English Common Law and coverture. Coverture? Ah, now the history lesson (this applies to coverture laws in America):

Under English Common Law a women does not have her own legal standing. Rather, she draws it from from her father and then from her husband. Think of it as the husband "covering" his wife with his legal status.
She has the legal standing of feme covert. Since a woman has no "body" of her own, she cannot do things like own land, bring a suit in court, earn her own salary, etc. Upon her marriage, everything she owned is now her husband's. However, if her husband wanted to sell land that she brought to the marriage, the wife had to sign off on it, some times being questioned outside of her husband's presence to make sure that she was not coerced into the sale. Prenuptial agreements did exist, however the property was generally set aside in a trust for the children (once again, a married woman cannot own land). The law where a woman cannot testify against her husband stems from coveture (after all, you can't testify against yourself).

A spinster, or woman who never marries has the legal status of feme sole. She is her own legal body. This status also applies to widows of wealth who chose to never remarry. A feme sole is allowed to own property, enter into contracts, run a business and keep the profits, etc. She is still a woman and subject to all the laws that apply to or exclude her as well as social and cultural conventions.

Divorce. It was possible for a woman to sue for divorce on (a) abandonment, (b) adultery, or (c) extreme cruelty (it was legal to beat your wife, however, it was not legal to repeatedly beat her to within an inch of her life). Divorces were not often granted. Legal separations were recognized, where the woman, although still married, took on a feme sole like status. Children remained under the guardianship of their father.

Guardianship. If the husband died, leaving minor children, a male guardian had to be appointed. Children 14 years of age or older generally chose a guardian. If you have any ancestors were this was the case, then check for guardianship papers. They may or may not be with the probate or estate papers. Guardianship papers will list the children by name and usually their age(s) and who their guardian(s) are.

Dower Rights. A wife had a legal right to one-third (1/3) of her husband's estate upon his death. You will see in a will: "I leave my wife, [name], her dower..." It could be in the form of property (which she could not sell without permission from the eldest son or will administrator) or most commonly the income generated from a property during her lifetime. A husband might even dictate where the dower will be transferred to upon his wife's death. He might also "give" her the house to live in during the remainder of her life. I had one ancestor leave his wife the cow, with the express permission that she could sell the milk. The animal was to go to a daughter upon the wife's death. A famous example is George Washington - in his will he freed his slaves, an action to take place upon the future death of his wife. A wife could contest a will if she was left out or received left less than her right.

Some interesting tidbits:

The state of New Jersey's original constitution allowed anyone who met the requirement of wealth, in pounds or property, to vote. The constitution was amended in 1844, limiting voting rights to white males.

Abigail Adam's famous Remember the Ladies letter is not about equal rights for women, but rather unequal rights in marriage: "Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power onto the hands of the Husbands."

Keep all of this in mind when you are researching your ancestors in the colonial and early Republic eras.

   Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March 1776, in The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, ed. L.H. Butterfield, Marc Friedlaender and Mary-Jo Kline (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 121.
   Wikipedia has a good article on coverture.
   About.com has a good article on dower rights in America.
For more detailed information look in legal books, journals, and articles.

04 March 2010

Saving Save America's Treasures

I'm not usually political, but this is something I feel strongly about. The preservation program, Save America's Treasures, was cut from next year's proposed federal budget. The program provides matching grants to preservation projects. Please watch the video. There's a link at the end if you would like more information. As always, for your voice to be heard in our government, you need to contact your congressmen.

The link at the end: http://www.preservationnation.org/treasures

03 March 2010

Fearless Females Blog Post: March 3 — Names and Naming Patterns

March 3 — Do you share a first name with one of your female ancestors?  Perhaps you were named for your great-grandmother, or your name follows a particular naming pattern. If not, then list the most unique or unusual female first name you’ve come across in your family tree.

My name is Jennifer. I think I am the only Jennifer in my tree. My mom named me after a cover girl. My middle name, Eileen, is from a childhood friend of my mom's.

My sister got the family names, or at least my Dad tried (he got a bit mixed up). She is Beth Anne, after her great-grandmother, Vasiliki (called Bess), and grandmother, Anastasia. Needless to say Beth is glad she is not a Bess.

My favorite "unique" name is Lucretia. My brickwall ancestor for a long time was Lucretia Putnam. Every time I hear her name I think of the song "Lucretia MacEvil" by Blood, Sweat & Tears. It's especially ironic since I've linked her to the Putnam family of Salem fame.

02 March 2010

10 Ways to Identify a Witch

In honor of my Putnam family (yes, that Putnam family), article from Mental Floss:

Today is a rather painful day in American history – the day the first three accused women were brought before the court in the Salem Witch Trials. As we know today, some of the measures taken to “prove” a person’s guilt or innocence were absolutely ludicrous. But in case you’d like to employ some of them for yourself, here are 10 ways to identify a witch according to those running the Salem Witch Trials.
witch cake1. Make a witch cake. What’s a witch cake, you ask? Unlike the gorgeous cake in the picture, it’s definitely something you don’t want to eat. You take the urine of the people who are thought to be under the spell of the witch in question, mix it with rye meal and make a little patty. Then you feed the patty to a dog. Because some of the powers the witch used to cast a spell on the afflicted people were in their urine, when the dog eats the cake, it will hurt the witch and she’ll cry out in agony.
2. Weigh them against a stack of Bibles. If the suspected witch is heavier or lighter than the stack of Bibles, then clearly she’s guilty of evil-doing. If the scales balance out, she’s in the clear. You can imagine that a perfect balance doesn’t happen often.
3. Check for moles, birthmarks, scars, or extra nipples – they’re marks of the Devil. That’s a sure sign right there, but if you need even more proof, try pricking the Devil’s Mark with a blade. If it doesn’t bleed or hurt when it’s pricked, you’ve definitely got a witch on your hands. During the Salem Witch Trials, some unscrupulous witch-hunters actually used knives with retractable blades, so of course when they appeared to puncture the Mark, nothing happened.
4. Observe them talking to themselves. During the Witch Trials, one accused woman, Sarah Good, was partially damned based on the fact that she was sometimes seen muttering to herself, and sometimes this even happened when she was leaving people’s houses. Her accusers knew she was casting spells on people, even though Sarah claimed she was just reciting the commandments or a particular psalm. Her claims weren’t enough to save her, because she was hanged on July 19, 1692.
5. See if they can say the Lord’s Prayer. If they don’t, they’re guilty. If they do, they’re guilty too. George Burroughs, the only minister to be executed during the Trials, ran across this problem. He was standing at the gallows to be executed when he recited the Lord’s Prayer to prove his innocence – it was believed that a witch (or warlock, in this case) would be unable to utter the holy words. People were momentarily convinced that the jury had wronged him until a minister named Cotton Mather told the crowd that the Devil allowed George Burroughs to say that prayer to make it seem as if he was innocent. Ahhh, of course. With Satan himself apparently working right through him, Burroughs’ fate was sealed and he was hanged moments later.
hanging6. Ask a hard-of-hearing elderly woman if she’s guilty while her good ear is turned the other way. If she doesn’t respond, she’s definitely a witch. This happened to 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse. She was known to be a very pious woman and most people in the community were hesitant to accuse her or believe the pointing fingers that were. In fact, she was found not guilty during her first trial. But when there were more outbursts from young girls who said they were being tormented by a witch, Nurse was reconsidered. When another prisoner claimed that “she was one of us” during the trial and Nurse failed to respond, she was immediately assumed guilty and hanged.
7. Observe the number of pets she has. A woman who has pets – or says hello to the neighbor’s cat – is surely using that animal as a familiar. In fact, if a fly or a rat entered a woman’s cell while she was awaiting trial, it was assumed that the witch had used her powers to summon a familiar to do her bidding.
8. Take their sarcastic comments seriously. John Willard was the constable in Salem responsible for bring the accused to court. After bringing in so many people, including those who were known for their church-going ways and elderly woman who barely understood what they were being accused of, Willard began to doubt how real these accusations really were. In May 1692, he finally put his foot down and declared that he would no longer take part in any arrests, sarcastically saying, “Hang them all, they’re all witches.” Wouldn’t you know, Willard was immediately accused of witchcraft himself, stood trial, was found guilty, and was executed just three months after his sarcastic comment.
WITCHES9. Ask if they’ve had dreams about Native Americans. Sarah Osborne, one of the original three to be accused on March 1, denied all witchcraft accusations that were thrown her way. Her downfall was when she admitted she had recurring dreams that an Indian would seize her by the hair and drag her out of her house. Apparently that was enough to convince the village she was likely casting spells on them. However, Osborne ended up dying while being held captive and never stood trial for her “crimes.”
10. Check to see how many times they’ve been married. At least a couple of the women tried for witchcraft were married two or more times and were accused of killing their former husbands (“bewitching” them to death) or evilly seducing them.