1865: Zebulon Blakeslee petitions for divorce

Sepia Saturday 484: Second in a series on the 1866 divorce of my third great-grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — what the court records reveal.

On 14 Dec. 1865, my third great-grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee filed for a divorce from my third great-grandmother Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — charging her with deserting him more than seven years before.

Zebulon was still living in Brookdale in Liberty, Susquehanna County, Penna., when he submitted his divorce petition to the county’s Court of Common Pleas to be heard during their January 1866 term.

https://pixabay.com/photos/train-station-canada-railway-1400657/
Country train station. The  Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad ran close to the Brookdale, Penna., home of my third great-grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee. Was that how Hannah left him on 1 Nov. 1858 — never to return? Photo: Pixabay

Meanwhile, Hannah had long since moved across the border to New York State — where by 1860 she was living with the family of her older daughter Rhoda Ann (Blakeslee) Whitney.

What prompted Hannah’s departure? How did Zebulon view it? What can the court papers tell us?  Answers to these questions and more will be the focus of this new series.

Zebulon makes his case

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania legally sanctioned divorce from 1785. The first step was to file a petition for the court’s review stating the reasons why the divorce was requested.

Addressing the “Honorable the Judges of the Court of Common Pleas for Susquehanna County,”  Zebulon’s petition gave the following rendition of the Blakeslees’ separation.

The petition of Zebulon Blakeslee of Liberty respectfully showeth: That your petitioner was on the 19th day of Nov. A.D. 1828, lawfully, joined in marriage with Hannah Blakeslee his present wife & from that time until the 1 day of Nov A.D. 1858 lived & cohabited with her & hath in all respects demeaned himself as a kindly & affectionate husband & although by the laws of God as well as by the mutual vows plighted to each other, they were bound to that uniform consistency & regard which ought to be inseparable from the marriage state.

[Y]et so it is that the said Hannah Blakesley in violation of her marriage vow that the 1 day of Nov A.D. 1858 hath willfully & maliciously deserted & absented herself from the habitation of this petitioner without any just or reasonable cause & such desertion hath persisted in for the term of Seven years & upwards & yet doth continue to absent herself from the said petitioner:

https://pixabay.com/photos/paper-font-old-antique-write-623167/
Antique documents. Under nineteenth century Pennsylvania divorce law, the first step in ending a marriage was to file a petition for the court’s review stating the reasons why the divorce was requested. My third great-grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee filed his petition on 14 Dec. 1865. Photo: Pixabay

Divorce officially requested

Zebulon then outlined his eligibility to request the divorce (he’d lived in the state for more than a year); asked that Hannah be subpoenaed to answer his complaint; and requested that the court divorce him “from the bond of matrimony as if he had never been married” — all of which were required by Pennsylvania law.

Wherefore your petitioner further showing that he is a citizen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, & hath resided therein for more than one whole year previous to the filing of this his petition, prays your Honors that a subpoena may issue in due form of law directed to the said Hannah Blakesley commanding her to appear in this Honorable Court at January term next to answer the complaint aforesaid.

And also that a decree of this honorable Court may be made for the divorcing from him, the said Zebulon Blakesley from the bond of matrimony as if he had never been married.
And he will ever pray. [Signed] Z Blakeslee

Dec. 14,1865: Signature of my third great-grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee on his petition for divorce. Photo: Molly Charboneau

And just to be sure…

The court also  apparently required divorce petitioners to swear to the truth of their allegations — and to state that they were not collaborating with their spouse to frivolously break their marriage bonds. So Zebulon swore to this before a witness.

The above named Zebulon Blakesley being duly sworn according to the law doth depose & say that the facts contained in the above petition or libel are true to the best of his knowledge & belief & that the said complaint is not made out of levity or by collusion between him the said Zebulon Blakesley & the said Hannah Blakesley his wife & for the main purpose of being freed & separated from each other but in sincerity & truth for the causes mentioned in the said petition or libel. [Signed] Z Blakeslee

Sworn & subscribed before me this 13th day of Dec. A.D. 1865 – [Signed] A. O. Warren J.P. [?]; Let subpoena issue. [Signed] C.F. Ready [?], Associate Judge – Dec. 14, 1865.1

Well — quite a petition! Yet it only reveals Zebulon’s side of the story. Was something amiss in the Blakeslees’ marriage that prompted Hannah’s departure?

More on this, and additional court documents, in the next post. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2019 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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1800s: My Blakeslee ancestors & Pennsylvania divorce laws

Sepia Saturday 483: First in a new series on the 1866 divorce of my third great-grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — what the court records reveal.

In July 2019, I made a genealogy road trip to Montrose, Susquehanna Co., Penna. in search of the 1866 divorce records of my third great-grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee.

Unfortunately, I was not able to obtain the Blakeslees’ records during that trip — in part because I was unfamiliar with the divorce procedures in Pennsylvania in the 1800s and where exactly the records could be found.

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/507147608019272564/
Historic postcard showing Susquehanna County Courthouse, Montrose, Penna. (undated). Public Ave. is now paved, but otherwise looks much the same as it did when my Blakeslee ancestors’ divorce was finalized in 1866. Photo: Pinterest

So on my return home, I decided to learn more about 19th century divorce in Pennsylvania in hopes of trying again to find my ancestors’ decree — and help arrived from a geographically unlikely source.

Chester County to the rescue

On the official website of Chester County, Penna. — which is located west of Philadelphia — I found an excellent document titled “Guide to Divorce Records – Chester County Archives.” This document provided an invaluable statewide history of Pennsylvania divorce laws that presumably applied to all counties.

The first Pennsylvania divorce law was passed in 1785. This was the first divorce law in the nation to include cruel treatment as an acceptable reason for divorce. This law would be the foundation for future Pennsylvania divorce laws, outlining the divorce process, as well as the acceptable reasons for divorce.

Main hallway, Susquehanna County Courthouse, Montrose, Penna. (2018) While in Montrose, I visited the offices of the Prothonotary (l.) and Register & Recorder (r.) in search of records on my Blakeslee ancestors. Photo by Molly Charboneau

The document then outlined the Pennsylvania divorce process, which remained much the same through the 19th century.

The process began with a written petition from the libellant to the court. After reviewing the petition, the court would release a subpoena for the respondent to appear in court and contest the charges laid against him/her. If the charges held merit, a court date would be set. Both parties would choose whether to be judged by a jury or the court. Court proceedings similar to the ones seen today were also followed in the 18th and 19th century: depositions of witnesses, testimonies, etc.

Two types of divorce

The Chester County document delineated the two types of divorce that were possible when my Blakeslee ancestors parted ways.

There were two types of divorces that could result: bed and board and annulment. A divorce from bed and board was, essentially, a legal separation. The woman would retain her dower rights and could also petition for alimony, but she could not legally marry again; an annulment was a complete dissolution of the marriage vows. With this type of divorce, both parties could legally marry again. The legal grounds for divorce also changed overtime. They began with only a few, such as desertion, adultery and cruel treatment and then expanded to also include fraud and felony convictions.

Since my third great-grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee married again in 1867, it seems likely the Blakeslees had the second type of divorce — “an annulment with complete dissolution of the marriage vows.”

The Blakeslees & the divorce laws

Court of Common Pleas docket books, Susquehanna County courthouse, Montrose, Penna. (2018)  After learning more about Pennsylvania divorce law, I realized that my Blakeslee ancestors’ divorce decree was likely entered into the 1866 Court of Common Pleas docket book. Photo by Molly Charboneau

The Chester County document also gave a timeline of Pennsylvania divorce laws, and several stood out as applicable to my Blakeslee ancestors.

1804, Section II – Any Supreme Court, Circuit Court, or Court of Common Pleas were empowered to rule on divorce cases. This was to compel both parties, libellant and respondent, to appear in court.

1843 – Only Pennsylvania citizen can petition for divorce in Pennsylvania. In order to be considered a citizen, one must have a residence located in Pennsylvania one year prior to writing the petition for divorce.

1878 – Prothonotary empowered to keep a separate divorce index docket

Divorce records found!

From this timeline, I deduced that the Court of Common Pleas docket books (specifically the 1866 volume) were the likely place where the divorce decree was housed. I had seen the docket books on my visit (as shown above) — but at the time I was unaware that divorces might be logged in them.

Also, Zebulon was able to initiate the 1866 divorce because he was a citizen of Pennsylvania — unlike Hannah, who had moved to New York State circa 1860.  And the divorce index didn’t begin until the late 1870s when the Prothonotary was empowered to begin recording divorces — which is why the index was not useful during my Montrose trip.

Armed with new historical knowledge of Pennsylvania divorce law — and the Blakeslees’ divorce date from the newspaper — I got back in touch with staff at the Susquehanna County Courthouse to see whether I had enough information to pinpoint exactly where they might find my ancestors’ divorce decree.

And I am gratified to report that not only they did they locate and send me a copy of the Blakeslees’ divorce decree — but they also discovered fourteen pages of related court documents and sent copies of those to me, too!

More on the Blakeslees’ 1866 divorce in the next post. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2019 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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Series summary: The odd 1860 separation of Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee

Sepia Saturday 482: A recap of the series on the odd 1860 separation of my great-great-great grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — a summertime census mystery.

Two months ago I began a quest to discover why my paternal third great-grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee was living separately from his wife Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee at the time of the 1860 federal census.

https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/66b6f080-a7ca-0136-2f49-0d2629ed7326
Divorce the lesser evil (1900). Original caption: The Church  – Stop this awful immorality! Justice – You are wrong! Divorce is rather an aid to morality. Statistics prove that countries where divorces are granted are more moral than countries that forbid them! Source: NYPL Digital Collections

That journey took me through census records, county histories and digital newspaper archives — and led to the surprise discovery that my Blakeslee third great-grandparents were divorced in 1866!

As each question about the Blakeslees was answered, new queries arose — and before long I was headed on a Genealogy Road Trip to the Susquehanna County seat in Montrose, Penna.,  to see what more I could learn about my third great-grandparents and their final rift.

Susquehanna County Court House, Montrose, Penna. (2019). As each question about the Blakeslees was answered, new queries arose — and before long I was headed on a Genealogy Road Trip to Montrose, Penna. Photo by Molly Charboneau

I discovered a great deal on that trip — which will be the subject of future blogs. But for now, here’s a recap what I have learned about my Blakeslee ancestors so far.

Separation and divorce

Life moves on

New Discoveries

Many thanks to the readers of Molly’s Canopy for following along throughout this series and posting insightful comments. There will be more on the Blakeslee saga in coming posts.

Up next: A new series on the Blakeslees’ divorce proceedings, as revealed by the court records. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2019 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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Growing family trees one leaf at a time