In 1915 a Philadelphia woman appeared in court charged with attempting suicide. The judge discharged Margaret Reeves without penalty – but not before giving her a stern talking to:
“A woman with a husband, a family and a home should be too busy to think about suicide,” was the gist of the lecture that Magistrate Harris gave to Mrs Reeves, of 87th Street and Laycock Avenue. Early in the week she attempted to end her life. She is the fifth wife of James Reeves, 65 years old, a mail clerk on the Pennsylvania Railrod.”
After qualifying as a doctor, Jacques Bertillon (1851-1922) chose not to practice medicine, going instead into statistical analysis and demographic research. Bertillon was also an active writer, contributing articles to medical and sociological journals. In 1872 a French medical guide published an essay on marriage written by Bertillon. Despite his inexperience (Bertillon was still shy of his 21st birthday), he preached instructions and advice for newlyweds and their families. The fathers of young ladies, urged Bertillon, should carefully but discretely evaluate the manhood of any prospective son-in-law. If a suitor showed any “doubtful traits of virility” – such as “a voice that is pitched high or often breaks”, “a thin, patchy or wispy beard” or any feminine traits – then the future father-in-law, as a condition of marriage, should drag him off to a doctor:
“…Have the physician inspect the testicular sac, to affirm the presence of testicles, whether there be two or one… and whether one or both be shrunken and flaccid… The so-called man who seeks a wife may be capable of erection or carnal lust, but may not possess true virility or fertile embraces. He is a being who, if he possesses any sense or tact… should remain a stranger to the matrimonial state.”
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 of judges 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. But there were also some notable dissenters. In 1939 a Chicago woman, Mary Kuhar, petitioned for divorce from her husband John, a dance band drummer, on the grounds that he often slapped her. But unfortunately she struck 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.
In 1911 Charles H. Daly petitioned a Washington D.C. court, seeking to have his wife Edith institutionalised. According to Daly he married Edith in Rockville, Maryland about two years before. Since then she had conducted herself very poorly, “making faces” and being “impudent to her elders”. Attempts to restrain and discipline her had failed. In short, Edith was behaving like a child – not unsurprisingly, since she was 15 years old:
“He has been unable to control his wife. So he haled her, gold wedding ring, marriage vows and all, before Judge De Lacy… a few days ago, and charged her with being incorrigible.”
The judge approved Charles Daly’s request and sent Edith to the House of the Good Shepherd, a reformatory for girls and young women in Burleith.
This amusing though unsubstantiated story comes from rural Lincolnshire, just north of Gainsborough. According to press reports from 1839, a tailor named Kellett was in nearby Epworth on business when he went on a bender and:
“…sold his wife to a saddler of that place, for a tub (twelve pecks) of Swede turnips… One huge turnip was given as deposit to make good the bargain.”
The drunken tailor may have forgotten the arrangement or not taken it seriously. The Epworth saddler, however, had different ideas. He organised for the balance of the turnips to be delivered to Kellett’s home in Owston Ferry. But delivery of the turnips was taken by the tailor’s wife, who had not been informed of the deal and certainly did not approve:
“…Having heard of the whole transaction, and not liking to be disposed of in such a manner, [she] fell on the poor unfortunate tailor and did beat him about the head with the turnips, then turned him out of the house.”