The issue of whether or not husbands had the right to slap, spank or beat their wives befuddled American judges for much of the early 20th century. A sizeable majority were opposed to domestic violence and dealt with it sternly. There are even two recorded cases of judges leaping the bench and assaulting wife-beaters themselves.
There were also some notable dissenters, however, who believed that corporal punishment was a husband’s right. In 1939, a Chicago woman named Mary Kuhar petitioned for divorce from her husband John, a dance band drummer, on the grounds that he often slapped her. Unfortunately for Mary, she landed on an unsympathetic judge, Philip J. Finnegan of the Circuit Court:
“Judge Finnegan… said it [wife-slapping] wasn’t just legal but also more or less a husband’s marital duty…
‘Under the law’, said Judge Finnegan, ‘cruelty must consist of violence great enough to endanger life. A slap does not endanger life. A man may slap his wife as hard as he wants to if he doesn’t kill her. If more wives were slapped there would be fewer divorces.’
The judge threw out Mrs Kuhar’s claim with a warning that “better evidence of cruelty must be presented” for him to grant divorces in the future.