The “widowhood” of Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee

Sepia Saturday 477: Sixth in a series on the odd 1860 separation of my great-great-great grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — a summertime census mystery.

After the 1866 divorce of my great-great-great grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee, their lives took different paths.

Zebulon moved to a new town and married a younger second wife. But Hannah took a different route, characterizing herself as a “widow” until her dying day — a portrayal so convincing that it has taken me years to unravel what really happened with their marriage.

https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-02f1-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Widow walking through a cemetery (1901). Rather than admit to being divorced at age 54, my ggg grandmother Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee portrayed herself as a “widow” for the rest of her life — a socially acceptable ruse that her family apparently went along with. Source: NYPL Digital Collections

How was Hannah so successful at recasting her life? Perhaps because the tenor of the times made her explanation plausible — and her family seems to have gone along with the socially-acceptable ruse.

A sea of war widows

When the Blakeslees separated circa 1860, the U.S. was undergoing a period of rapid change. Better transportation led to greater mobility, and women’s rights were also expanding — so moving to Delaware County with her daughters Mary and Rhoda to escape an unhappy marriage was a viable option for Hannah.

When Zebulon’s divorce petition was granted in 1866, the U.S. Civil War had recently ended — leaving in its wake a sea of bereaved war widows. By then, Hannah no longer lived where she had when married, and none but her family members knew about Zebulon — so why not become one more “widow” at a time when there were many?

Hannah’s daughters and their families appear to have concurred with her decision. For when the census takers called in subsequent years, she was consistently listed as “widowed” — even though Zebulon was still alive in Jessup, Susquehanna Co., Penna., according to his census returns.

1873-1886: Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee in New York and U.S. censuses & Binghamton, N.Y., city directories – Sources: FamilySearch/Ancestry
Year Record Name/Age Job/Status Household
1873 Binghamton, N.Y. city directory Hannah Blakesley, 61 Widow Zebulon, domestic 196 Court
1875 NYS Census, Binghamton 4th Ward, Broome, N.Y. Hannah Blakeslee, 65 (indexed as “Hannah B. Cackster”) Now a widow Son-in-law William W. Whitney
1880 US Census, Binghamton, Broome, N.Y. Hannah Blakesley, 68 Widowed/ Divorced (hashmark in column) Grandson Albert E. Whitney, 4 Butternut
1885 Binghamton, N.Y. city directory Hannah Blakeslee, 73 Widow Zebulon 4 Butternut
1886 Binghamton, N.Y. city directory Hannah Blakeslee, 74 Widow Zebulon 4 Butternut

Hannah’s tale turns true

I have not yet located a death record for Zebulon — or any record past his 1880 U.S. Census entry, at age 70, in Jessup Township, Susquehanna County, Penna. Nor do I know where he is buried.

Zebulon’s date of death is given as 5 Jan. 1880 in a multigenerational chart of Hannah’s Hance family — published in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record as “John Hance and Some of His Descendants.”1

However, Record articles at that time were not footnoted or sourced –and his date of death appears be inaccurate.

Zebulon was enumerated in the 1880 federal census and I have not found him in the 1880 mortality index — indicating he was likely still alive on 5 Jan. that year.

My ggg grandmother Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee’s stone in Shawsville Cemetery, Conklin, Broome Co., N.Y. When she died, Hannah was living with her daughter Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull and son-in-law Arthur Bull, a Union Army veteran,  in Salamanca, Cattaraugus Co., N.Y. Although divorced from Zebulon since 1866, Hannah carried her public persona as his “widow” to the grave. Photo: Paul R. (Find a Grave)

Yet as the 1880s progressed Zebulon probably did pass away — lending credence to Hannah’s public persona as his “widow.”  And her family went along to the end — giving her marital status as  “widowed” on her death certificate and memorializing her as the “Wife of Zebulon Blakeslee” on her tombstone.

There will be more on the Blakeslees once I (hopefully!) obtain their divorce decree and related records. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

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16 thoughts on “The “widowhood” of Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee”

  1. Molly, if only our ancestors knew that we might be interested a century and a half later, they might have been more considerate of leaving us the answers to our questions. Lol It is an interesting story, and I think that you & the other commenters have found very good possible answers to this story.

  2. I love the strength of Hannah, to overcome a divorce at that time and raise her daughters. I have loved learning about my strong women ancestors and all they have overcome in their lives.

  3. I love how you exposed possible motivations for Hannah to go by “widowed” rather than “divorced.” The tombstone makes me kind of sad though. Sounds like she was much, much more than the wife of Zeb. But that’s a fact of the period. Great post.

    1. Yes, she was much more that just a wife — and she worked as a domestic and nurse in later life. I suspect the tombstone inscription had to do with the cemetery in Conklin, N.Y. being in a community where she and Zeb lived when married — so best to keep up the illusion of widowhood to the end, since there may have been cemetery visitors who knew the Blakeslee family.

  4. My great grand aunt was divorced, always listed as a widow, and her obituary says she was the wife of so-n-so. It was an ugly divorce. The children had nothing more to do with their father, yet there he was mentioned by name in the obituary. What a puzzle.

    1. Sometimes we are left with only a “best guess” at what motivated our ancestors — but social conventions of the time probably accounted for much of their behavior.

    1. Distance probably made many things easier for Hannah — allowing her to adjust to the end of the marriage and convincingly portray herself as a “widow.”

  5. My first thought was that one reason Hannah might chose to be a known as widow was a spiteful attempt to completely remove Zebulon from her life. But now I’m wondering if there might be a legal or property issue that caused a woman to claim to be a widow even though they were a divorcee. I know a woman who separated from her husband, a military veteran, and made a new life with another man but never actually re-married. Instead she kept her first husband’s name so that he would continue to pay for the care of her children and she would retain military benefits.

    Could there be some property or inheritance that Hannah wished to protect? Here are two links to articles on women’s legal rights, or lack of, in the 19th century which describe situations where a woman in a difficult marriage had few protections under state laws.

    https://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/wes/collections/women_law/
    https://www.connerprairie.org/educate/indiana-history/women-and-the-law-in-early-19th-century/

    1. Thanks for these links, Mike. Particularly interested to read the Indiana divorce info. In addition to property considerations, I wonder of there might have been a religious factor in Hannah’s profession of widowhood — perhaps her church did not recognizing civil divorce, making “widowhood” a preferable option. She also apparently worked as a domestic (per her city directory listing) and a nurse (per her death certificate) so her “widowhood” probably made it easier to find work and remain employed.

  6. I wonder if Hannah or family members even knew where Zebulon lived after he moved and remarried. That might have contributed to their claim of widowhood. Even these days you haven’t been able to find out where he died. I wish you luck!

  7. Divorce left a sigma back in those days – especially on the women, so it sounds like Hannah did what she had to, to protect not only her own, but her daughters’ reputations as well and how luckily convenient it was for her to be able to do so by becoming a ‘widow’ instead of a divorcee! 🙂

    1. Yes, Hannah may have been considering her daughters’ reputations as well, since she lived with one or another of them, or their children, after her marriage ended.

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