1866: Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee’s divorce subpoenas

Sepia Saturday 485: Third in a series on the 1866 divorce of my third great-grandparents Zebulon and Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee — what the court records reveal.

My third great-grandfather Zebulon Blakeslee, 55, filed for divorce on 14 Dec. 1865 — charging desertion. The next legal step was to issue a subpoena for my third great-grandmother Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee, 53, to appear in court to answer his charge.

So the same day, the first subpoena in the case was duly prepared, and the Susquehanna County sheriff was dispatched to deliver it to Hannah. By then she had been absent from Zebulon’s household for more than seven years.

Women’s wear in Dec. 1866. My third great-grandmother Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee was 46,  the mother of two daughters, and a grandmother, when she left her husband in 1858. Did she leave Zebulon, then 48, to move closer to her married daughters and their families — who had relocated to Hancock in Delaware Co., N.Y.? Or was something amiss in the Blakeslees’ marriage that prompted her departure? Graphic: The Met Digital Collection

A printed subpoena form

The physical appearance of the subpoena (shown below) was quite a surprise!

When I learned of my Blakeslee ancestors’ divorce, I assumed the legal dissolution of marriages was a rarity in the nineteenth century — certainly less common than today.

Yet Hannah ‘s subpoena was completed on a printed form — and not just any printed form, either. The form was specifically for divorce cases — implying that by 1865 divorce was common enough in Susquehanna County to justify printing fill-in-the-blank subpoenas!

Hannah’s presence demanded

Dated 14  Dec. 1865, the subpoena directed Hannah to appear before the judges of the Susquehanna County Court of Common Pleas in Montrose, Penna., on the third Monday of January 1866 to answer Zebulon’s charges in his Libel for Divorce case.

Dec. 1865: Divorce subpoena addressed to my third great-grandmother Hannah (Hance) Blakeslee. Apparently divorces were common enough in Susquuehanna County, Penna., in the 1800s to justify printing fill-in-the-blank subpoena forms. Photo: Molly Charboneau

However, my third great-grandmother was presumably then living in New York State — beyond the bounds of the court’s jurisdiction. So she did not respond to the subpoena, if indeed she even received it.

A second subpoena, dated 16 Jan. 1866 and completed on the same pre-printed form, again requested Hannah’s presence in court — this time on the first Monday of April 1866.

She appears not to have received or responded to that subpoena either, as there is no testimony or deposition from her among the Blakeslee divorce case papers.

Her escape complete

However, a handwritten note on the cover page of the two subpoenas tells the tale:

Non Est Inventus So answers. David Summers, Sheriff.1

Merriam-Webster defines the legal term non est inventus as:

the return of a sheriff on a writ or process when the defendant or person to be served or arrested is not found in the jurisdiction.

So Hannah’s escape was complete. She had left her marriage and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania more than seven years before — and neither Zebulon nor the courts could compel her to return.

Looking back more than 150 years, it’s easy to wish that Hannah had testified — or at least sent a written deposition giving her side of the story. But even without her direct account, it’s clear that she wanted out of her marriage in 1858 — and she took action to make that happen.

Up next: The intriguing deposition of Zebulon Blakeslee’s first witness. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2019 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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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.

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:

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, 1865.2

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.

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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Growing family trees one leaf at a time