1866: The intriguing divorce deposition of James E. Whitney

Sepia Saturday 486: Fourth in a series on the 1866 divorce of my third great-grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — what the court records reveal.

In 1865, my third great-grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee filed a petition for divorce in Susquehanna Co., Penna., charging his wife Hannah with desertion.

My third great-grandmother Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee was duly subpoenaed (twice) to answer his charges. But by then she was living beyond the court’s jurisdiction — and there is no response from her in the case file.

So the next step was for Zebulon’s attorney to take depositions from witnesses to support his divorce petition.

Man working in a pumpkin patch (circa 1890-1920). The first deposition in Zebulon Blakeslee’s divorce case came from James E. Whitney — and acquaintance and neighbor who for some 19 years lived and farmed near the Blakeslees in Conklin, Broome County, N.Y. Photo: Franck Taylor Bowers collection – Broome County Historical Society

The Whitney deposition

Three depositions were submitted to the court on 16 Aug. 1866. The first deposition from James E. Whitney is by far the most intriguing — and worth examining in detail. Below is what he told the court.

Deposition taken in case of Zebulon Blakeslee vs. Hannah Blakeslee – James E. Whitney sworn

Am acquainted with Zebulon Blakeslee and his wife have known them for 19 years — and while they were living together as man and wife some twelve years lived within fifty to sixty Rods of them for 8 years and so far as I know they lived amicably together and never heard but what he treated his family well and provided for them well. Had two children I believe.

Was living about five miles from them when they parted. She left him about seven years ago and has not lived with him since. Know of no reason for her leaving and in consequence of it it broke up his family. She went to live with her son in law and has remained away ever since. I could never see any cause for her leaving and always heard him spoken of kindly so far as regards his treatment of his family.

I was quite often at his house for eight years and in that time never saw any but kind treatment toward his family and that she was as well provided for as other women in like circumstances according to the best of his ability.

[Signature] James E. Whitney

Was James Whitney an in-law?

Genealogy best practice is to research individuals whose names appear on family-related documents — such as birth, marriage and death certificates — as they may turn out to be relatives. So why not apply this to court records as well?

The first thing I noticed about this deposition was the Whitney surname. The Blakeslees’ older daughter Rhoda Ann was married to William Whitney — so I suspected that William and deponent James E. Whitney might be related.

Sure enough — a review of James Whitney’s U.S. census returns quickly revealed that he was William Whitney’s brother!

Specifically, the 1900 U.S. census for Conklin, Broome, N.Y. (excerpted below) shows widow Rhoda Ann (Blakeslee) Whitney living in James’s household after her husband’s death. Her relationship to James was sister-in-law.

1900 U.S. Census – Town of Conklin, Broome County, N.Y. – Household of James E. Whitney – Source: FamilySearch
Name Relationship Birth Age Marital Status Job
James E. Whitney Head Sept. 1829 70 S Farmer
Pamela Whitney Sister April 1821 79 S Housekeeper
John B. Whitney Brother March 1826 74 S Farm Laborer
Rhoda A. Whitney S. in Law Dec. 1831 69 Wd.

So James E. Whitney and Zebulon Blakeslee were more than just longtime acquaintances and neighbors — they also had family ties.

Also of interest is the fact that Rhoda Ann moved in with James’s family after she was widowed — suggesting that she harbored no animosity for his role in her parents’ divorce.

Other deposition details

In his 1866 deposition, James E. Whitney stated that he had been acquainted with the Blakeslees “for 19 years — while they were living together as man and wife some twelve years lived within fifty to sixty Rods of them for 8 years.”

That would date their acquaintance to about 1847 — two years before the Blakeslees’ daughter Rhoda Ann married James’s brother William.

Not surprisingly, in his deposition James sings Zebulon’s praises as a good provider who treated his family well. Yet about Hannah’s departure he claims to “know of no reason for her leaving and in consequence of it it broke up his family” — a less flattering statement that will be discussed further in the next post.

Meanwhile, wanting to learn more about James E. Whitney at the time his deposition was taken, I looked up his enumeration in the 1865 New York State census for Conklin, Broome Co., N.Y.

That’s when I found yet another surprise in the convoluted path of the Blakeslees’ separation and divorce .

Up next: 1865 – Where in the world was Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee? Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2019 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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13 thoughts on “1866: The intriguing divorce deposition of James E. Whitney”

  1. Family connections are always useful in situations like this. The phrase “she was as well provided for as other women in like circumstance” is an interesting qualifier. Do you think that James’s deposition may have left out some of the whole truth because he knew she was not going to contest the divorce proceeding?

    1. I was interested in that phrase, too — particularly since being “well provided for” was clearly not enough for Hannah. I agree that James may have left out portions of the story because he was called as a witness to support Zebulon’s version of events.

  2. What Kristin said! Thank you for sharing this story. I really liked your other post too about 19th-century divorce in Pennsylvania.

  3. What aways seems so simple in genealogical research just leads us along a twisted path in old documents…and we come to one conclusion or another, until something new (from the past) comes to light. I congratulate you on your due diligence!

    1. Thanks, Kristin 🙂 It seems every time I’m headed for some conclusion another surprise pops up that requires its own dedicated post!

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