Epilogue: Life moves on for the Blakeslee divorcees

Sepia Saturday 476: Fifth in a series on the odd 1860 separation of my great-great-great grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — a summertime census mystery.

Research into why my great-great-great grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee were living separately during the 1860 U.S. census turned up the startling news that they divorced in 1866!

Quite an unexpected solution to this summertime mystery — and one that deserves an epilogue. For the Blakeslees’ marriage did not end in a vacuum, and they went on to very different lives after they parted.

Divorce the lesser evil (1900). The lock reads: Unhappy marriage. The sword says : Divorce law. 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

Hannah moves out

The first hint of possible marital discord was when Hannah left Brookdale, Penna. — where she and Zebulon lived circa 1856 — and moved with her daughters and their families to Walton, Delaware Co., N.Y., where she was living in 1860. Zebulon was left behind.

Was Zebulon impossible to live with? Had economic hardship strained the marriage? Did she object to his owning a tavern in Binghamton, N.Y. circa 1859? The records are silent on Hannah’s motivation — but it was enough for her to move more than 60 miles away to a place where Zebulon had not lived and was not known.

Zebulon files for divorce

Perhaps a separation and geographic remove were enough for Hannah — but apparently not for Zebulon. In the news announcement of their settled divorce case, which was filed in Pennsylvania, it says “Zebulon Blakeslee vs. Hannah Blakeslee.” So he appears to have initiated the proceedings.

“What was his motivation?” I wondered. Divorce rates in the U.S. were on the upswing in the mid to late 1800s — in part because it became easier and less costly to file once the statutory waiting period had passed. But why not just live separately?

Was Zebulon worried that the Married Women’s Property Act, passed in New York and Pennsylvania in 1848, might give Hannah rights to some of their property — or to sue for divorce herself? Or was something else afoot?

Zebulon’s census entries tell a tale

So I checked Zebulon’s federal census returns for 1870 and 1880,  the years after the divorce — and that’s when I found out about his move to Jessup, Penna., and his younger second wife.

U.S. Census Enumerations for Zebulon Blakeslee. Source: FamilySearch
Year  Location Head Job Wife Job
1870[1]1870 U.S. census: FamilySearch requires free login to view records. Jessup Township, Susquehanna Co., Penna. Zebulon Blakesley, 59, born in Conn. Day Hand Sarah Blakesley, 48, born in Penna. Keeping House
1880[2]1880 U.S. census: FamilySearch requires free login to view records. Jessup Township, Susquehanna Co., Penna. Zebulon Blakeslee, 70, born in Conn. Shoemaker Sarah Ann Blakeslee, 57, born in Penna. Keeping House

Seems both Hannah and Zebulon wanted to get away from their previous home in Brookdale, Penna., and start over in new locations where they were not known.

In Zebulon’s case, the clearest motivation to file for divorce in 1866, at age 55, was so he would be free to marry his second wife Sarah Ann.

And Hannah? From that point on, she lived with one family member or another and characterized herself as a widow.

“Any why not?” one friend quipped when I told her story. “After the divorce, he was dead to her.”

More on Hannah’s “widowhood” in the next post. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

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1 1870 U.S. census: FamilySearch requires free login to view records.
2 1880 U.S. census: FamilySearch requires free login to view records.

17 thoughts on “Epilogue: Life moves on for the Blakeslee divorcees”

  1. Hmm, this is reminding me of my grandmother’s uncle’s divorce case. I might need to drag that out into the open. I like the historical context you have added to this series.

  2. It would be interesting to find out what rights (legal and financial) rights a woman had after a divorce and if rights varied by state. After my great-grandfather died in Ohio in 1896, my great-grandmother had to go to probate court to receive legal guardianship of the minor children in the family. It seems that marriage didn’t provide automatic custody rights for widows. I wonder what happened with custody rights after a divorce back then.

    1. I was so astonished to discover this divorce — just last month — that I have not yet had time to pursue its legal and financial nuances. Thank you for suggesting this future line of inquiry. Fortunately, custody was not an issue because Zebulon and Hannah’s daughters were grown and married, with children of their own, at the time of the divorce.

  3. Reading between the lines I’d say that Hannah was probably left in a precarious financial position after the divorce, as women mostly were. This is the first of this series that I’ve read but I am going back to read the others in the series. Found you via #geneabloggerstribe

    1. Welcome, Jennifer! You make a very good point. There is some documentation that Hannah worked after her marriage ended — as a domestic (per her city directory listing) and a nurse (per her death certificate). However, she lived with either her children or grandchildren for the rest of her life suggesting that she did not earn enough to live independently.

  4. All of us are waiting for the movie – or the play.
    I think it says something that Hannah lived with family members later. Likely she had to financially but this would not be uncommon for widows. And family must have ‘accepted’ and supported her calling herself a widow. No matter the circumstances, being a widow would be more socially acceptable than being a divorcee.

    1. Thanks, DiAnn…this seems to be the general consensus! Guess I’d better put on my screenwriter’s hat and brush up on Scrivener 🙂

    1. It would make an interesting period piece…maybe a mini-series set in the 1800s? And there’s more to come, so stay tuned…

  5. Picking out the threads of family lives from the sheer fabric of census records is impressive detective work! The cartoon on divorce would fit with my post this week too. And in my research It was only because there a confusing contradiction in the census records the made me hunt for an answer. Here in the 21st century we forget how marriage or the promised of marriage was essentially a contract about property and women did not have many legal rights or protection from an abusive spouse.

    1. Thanks, Mike…and yes, this would be the perfect cartoon to illustrate the musical divorce you blogged about. When I began researching, simply finding an ancestor in the census was a big deal. Now I’m going back through those returns and finding there’s much more there than just the names!

  6. Good question that Gail posed. I just am happy that Zeb married again and his ex was living the widows life with her children and grandchildren. Of course if there were new children of Zeb and Sarah, that would be the beginning of half-sisters/brothers, and then cousins.

    1. It would be great to find new Blakeslee cousins. However, Zeb and Sarah married later in life, so unlikely they had children together. He divorced in 1866 when he was 55; Sarah was then 44. There are no children living with them in 1870 or 1880.

  7. So . . . did Hannah wind up getting some of their joint property when they divorced? Or perhaps that’s in your next installment? 🙂

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