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.
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.
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
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.