Crawford County, Pennsylvania

© Thomas L. Yoset


    Pennsylvania was the first state to legalize divorce.1  Initially, the action had to be brought before the state Supreme Court, and based upon sterility or impotence, bigamy, adultery, desertion for four years, or remarriage upon the false rumor of a spouse’s death.2  Jurisdiction over divorce proceedings was extended to the circuit courts and the county courts of common pleas in 1804, and marriage between related parties was added to the list of recognized grounds.3  The divorce laws were further liberalized in 1815 (desertion for only two years, cruel and barbarous treatment endangering the wife’s life, or the wife’s constructive desertion),4 1854 (marriage procured by fraud or coercion, two years’ imprisonment for a felony, or the husband’s constructive desertion),5 1855 (the abuse or constructive desertion could occur outside Pennsylvania),6 and 1858 (either or both parties could be domiciled in another state when the cause of action arose).7  Crawford Countians sought unsuccessfully in 1841 to also allow divorce for habitual drunkenness.8

    But judicial proceedings were not the only route to a divorce.  The colonial legislature in 1769 released Curtis Grubb from the bonds of matrimony, and after the Revolution, an additional 398 couples were divorced by legislative enactment.9  The following statute from 1844 is typical:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in General Assembly met, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That the marriage contract entered into by James A. M’Allister and Elizabeth, his wife, late Elizabeth Allen of Crawford county, be and the same is hereby annulled and made void; and the parties released and discharged from the said contract, as fully and effectually and absolutely, as if they never had been joined in marriage.
    These private divorce laws are abstracted here.10  Some acts reveal nothing more than the names of the parties, but in other instances, the preamble provides extensive biographical information.11  An effort to determine at least the location of the couple has been made wherever none is given in the statute.  Of those petitioners whose residence could be readily ascertained, more were from Crawford than any other county except Philadelphia – even though nearly 400 divorces were awarded by Crawford County courts during the same time period.

    Divorce bills were generally referred to a committee on divorces,12 but the committee papers apparently do not survive.  Additional details, however, may be discoverable in the Minutes of the … General Assembly of Pennsylvania or the Legislative Journal for the sessions when the bill was introduced and debated upon.  Information added from the state Senate, House of Representative, and Legislative Journals (abbreviated Sen., H.R., and Leg. Journal, respectively), and references thereto, are rendered in the accompanying abstracts in italics.13

    Legislative enactment offered a means by which the impoverished as well as the affluent could obtain a divorce.14  Ordinarily, however, application was made to the legislature only where the asserted grounds were not encompassed by the current divorce statute, or because the applicant did not have standing before the courts.15  The Constitution which Pennsylvania adopted in 1874 nevertheless barred the General Assembly from passing “any local or special law granting divorces.”16  The era of statutory divorce had ended.17

1 “An act concerning divorces and alimony,” The Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania, 18 vols. (Harrisburg, 1896-1915), 12(1785-1787):94 (passed 19 Sept. 1785, and also providing for a “divorce from bed and board,” the equivalent of a legal separation); hereafter cited as [vol.] Statutes at Large.  Roderick Phillips, Untying the knot: A short history of divorce (Cambridge, 1991), 43-44.  Nelson Manfred Blake, The Road to Reno (New York, 1962), 48-49.  See generally George J. Edwards, Jr., Divorce: Its Development in Pennsylvania and the Present Law and Practice Therein (New York, 1930), 1-15.
   Divorce had been theoretically available as a remedy for incestuous marriage, adultery, bigamy, and sodomy or buggery, but previous statutes lacked any procedural mechanism.

2 For a discussion of the earliest cases, and the background to the 1785 divorce act, see Thomas M. Meehan, “‘Not Made Out of Levity’: Evolution of Divorce in Early Pennsylvania,”  Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 92(1968):441.  For a compilation of the earliest court cases, see Supreme Court Divorces, rearranged chronologically from “Divorces granted by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania from December, 1785, until 1801,” Publications of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania [now PGM] 1(1898):185-92; rptr. at Pennsylvania Vital Records (Baltimore, 1983), II:425-31.  Some of these are abstracted in the late Eugene F. Throop’s series on south-central Pennsylvania divorces (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1995-1996).

3 “A Supplement to the Act, entitled ‘an act concerning divorces and alimony,’” 1803-4 Pa. Laws 453 (Ch. 95, approved 2 April 1804), 17 Statutes at Large 834.

4 “An Act concerning divorces,” 1814-15 Pa. Laws 150 (Ch. 109, approved 13 March 1815).  “Constructive desertion” meant that the husband “shall have, by cruel and barbarous treatment, endangered his wife’s life, or offered such indignities to her person, as to render her condition intolerable and life burdensome, and thereby force her to withdraw from his house and family.”

5 “A further supplement to the act, entitled ‘An act concerning divorce,’”  1854 Pa. Laws 644 (No. 629, approved 8 May 1854):  “In addition to the causes now provided for by law, it shall be lawful for the courts of Common Pleas of this Commonwealth, to grant divorces in the following cases:  I. Where an alleged marriage was procured by fraud, force or coercion, and has not been subsequently confirmed by the acts of the injured party.  II. Where either of the parties shall have been convicted of a felony, and sentenced by the proper court either to the county prison of the proper county, or to the penitentiary of the proper district, for any term exceeding two years…  III. Where the wife shall have, by cruel and barbarous treatment, rendered the condition of her husband intolerable, or life burdensome….”

6 “An Act Extending the jurisdiction of the Courts of this Commonwealth, in cases of Divorce,” 1855 Pa. Laws 68 (No. 73, approved 8 March 1855).

7 “An act extending the jurisdiction of the Courts of the Commonwealth in Cases of Divorce,” 1858 Pa. Laws 450 (No. 451, approved 22 April 1858).  Note that a one-year residency requirement in this and all previous acts prevented out-of-state couples from taking advantage of Pennsylvania’s divorce laws.

8 On 18 Feb. 1841, “Mr. [Gaylord] Church presented the petition of inhabitants of Crawford county, for an alteration in the law relating to divorce.”  (1841 Journal of the [Pa.] House of Representatives, 1:342.)  This became bill No. 343, "in cases of habitual intemperance," reported 31 March 1841 from the Committee on the Judiciary System. (Ibid., 654.)

9 The Kehlme divorce bill of 1772 was disallowed by the English Privy Council, and the Roberts’ divorce act of 1865 was later repealed.  It is possible that some divorces were missed in this compilation, due to incomplete indexing of the statutes.  No distinction between a “divorce” and an “annulment” is made here.  The lower figures given by Phillips, Untying the knot [supra note 1], at 44, and by Edwards, Divorce [supra note 1], at 13 and 15, appear to be erroneous.
   See also 1869 Pa. Laws 743 (No. 717, approved 8 April 1869, giving full force and effect to a divorce decreed by the supreme court of Tompkins Co., N.Y., at special term, upon petition of Adalaid C. Chittenden, wife of William A. Chittenden, at the time he was residing in Pennsylvania).

10 The listing does not include the many divorce petitions which were not granted, e.g., “[12 Jan. 1852] Mr. Merriman presented the petition and documents of A. J. Carle, of Crawford county, for the passage of a law divorcing him from the bonds of matrimony.  Which petition and documents were referred to the committee on Divorce.” (1852 H.R. Journal 1:30).  Bill No. 217, “;An Act to annul the marriage contract now existing between Andrew J. Carle and Grazilla, his wife,” was reported (ibid., 197), but not passed.  The parties were nevertheless divorced 18 Nov. 1853 on the petition of Grazilla (Flaugh) Carle filed at #65 Aug. Term 1853 of the Crawford Co. Court of Common Pleas.

11 Eight divorce acts were passed over the veto of Gov. Francis Raun Shunk (1845-1848), who would reject a bill presented for his signature “without any reason upon its face, or any accompanying proof to show it should become law.”  Pa. Archives, 4th Ser., 7:187 (referring to a bill to divorce Emma M. G. & Jules Antoine Frontin).

12 For a discussion of legislative procedures, see Meehan [supra note 2], at 450.

13 For a bill’s history, consult the Senate and House of Representative Journals (many have been microfilmed) for the sessions prior to its passage.  The 1872 and 1873 Legislative Journals are indexed and available at Pellitier Library, Allegheny Coll., Meadville; those for 1858-73 (except 1862 and possibly 1870) are at Pattee Library, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College, under call number K16.E57 [apparently microfilmed in 1991].  The state law library in Harrisburg has all of the Sen. and H.R. Journals (stored on a lower level), and presumably the earlier Legislative Journals.

14 See, e.g., Elizabeth Burk and Ruth Kerr, and (the affluent) Elizabeth Biddle Baird.

15 By Article I, Section 14 of the Constitution of 1838, the legislature was, in fact, prohibited from granting divorces which could be obtained through the courts (1840 Pa. Laws i, v).

16 “Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Art. III, Sec. 7, 1874 Pa. Laws 3, 7.

17 For a historical perspective on the rise and fall of statutory divorce, as it occurred in Maryland (1790-1851), see Richard H. Chusel, Private Acts in Public Places, A Social History of Divorce in the Formative Era of American Family Law (Philadelphia, 1994).  A compilation of Maryland statutory divorces is included in the late Mary Keysor Meyer’s Divorces and Names Changed in Maryland by Act of the Legislature 1634–1867 (Mt. Airy, Md., 1991).