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Ilyon Woo’s The Great Divorce is a dramatic, richly textured narrative history of early America’s most infamous divorce case. A young mother singlehandedly challenged her country’s notions of women’s rights, family, and marriage itself—all in a bid to win back her kidnapped children from the celibate, religious sect known as the Shakers. Pulling together the pieces of this saga from crumbled newspapers, Shaker diaries, and long-forgotten letters, Woo delivers the first full account of Eunice Chapman’s epic five-year struggle. A moving story about the power of a mother’s love, The Great Divorce is also a memorable portrait of a rousing challenge to the values of a young nation.
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The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times plays havoc with our image of the Shakers as good, plain, industrious folks who made great furniture. We have integrated their vows of celibacy and their jerky dancing into a vision of quaint, sentimental Americana, and selectively forgotten less simple Shaker precepts, such as the double doors in every building that segregated men from women, and their insistence that converts relinquish all familiar relations. If a father chose to have his children raised as Shakers, the mother had no way to claim custody. Even if the children had been unwillingly abducted from her.
That is what happened to Eunice Chapman, the complicated heroine of Woo's myth-smashing tale. Chapman was a woman born in post-Revolutionary America: therefore, she was dead. Civilly dead, that is, in the harrowing terms of the law, which regarded her as nonexistent. A woman in the early 1800s had fewer legal rights than a freed male slave. The law considered a married couple a single legal entity, and that entity was de facto male. Women could not own property, vote, earn wages or sign contracts. "So wholly did the law consider man and wife united that spouses were not allowed to testify against each other, on the grounds that to do so would be an act of self-incrimination."
Born Eunice Hawley, this small and supposedly striking woman married an abusive alcoholic, James Chapman, in 1804, when she was 26 -- an age verging upon spinsterhood. The couple had three children before James abandoned the family. He eventually joined the Shakers, moving in to their colony in Watervliet, New York. James wanted Eunice to join him (though were she to, they would never be able to touch each other again). Eunice, who opposed Shaker beliefs, refused. Her decision left her, however, in an untenable, humiliating position: she had to support her children but she was unable to make money. At one point she had to "throw her children on the town." For support. She tried to live near the Shakers, and then with them, but refused to submit to their "bondage.". James, incensed, snuck back to their old house, which had been emptied of all belongings to pay off his old debts, and took the children. The Shakers claimed the children, asked them to denounce their mother, and Eunice had no legal way to retrieve them.
Unless she got a divorce. Eunice spent five years battling to regain custody of her children, a process that involved attempting to make it the Shakers, not women, who were civilly dead due to "religious delusion" and writing, self-publishing and hand-distributing copies of her story to each New York State assemblyman. She organized mobs to confront the Shakers and try to take the children back. She became a crusader in all senses of the term, fighting righteousness with righteousness: to the Believers, she wrote, she was "COLLECTING MY FORCES FOR A NEW INVASION." In her own eyes, she was "an instrument in the hands of God."
No one who has lived through a lawsuit will be suprised to learn that Eunice's case dragged on for years. Opponents feared empowering women: "By passing this bill...we shall give boldness to the female character," said one assemblyman, women would "become emboldened, and would be haunting the members?for divorce!" The final decision was precedent-making. But Eunice's victory was incomplete: her first reunion with her children, who had been taught to renounce family ties, required her to fight again, this time for their love.
It would have been easy to tell this story as a polemic or a melodrama, but Woo never lets us settle into mere indignation or pity. When we are set to root unconditionally for proto-feminist Eunice, Woo hints that her zeal verged on deranged hysteria. Nor are the Shakers simple villains: Woo points out that for some women who were abandoned by their husbands, they provided a refuge. With The Great Divorce, as with most divorces, there are too many variables to easily apportion blame or victimhood. As for the Shakers? After school on Shaker Day, I see the children walking back home, funny hats in hand. Usually, a mother or father accompanies them. That they go home at the end of the day is important to remember, and celebrate.
In 1802 Eunice Hawley should have been married. She was twenty-four years old and single at a time when women tended to wed much earlier. Her two elder sisters—one of whom was only a year older than Eunice—had been married off years ago to good men near their age. Both now had several children, and Eunice had often cradled their babies in her arms. Eunice, however, showed no signs of starting a family of her own.
It was not that she lacked physical charm. Unfortunately, no images exist to show precisely what Eunice looked like, but eyewitnesses recounted that she was strikingly fair and unusually small—and in possession of a powerful allure that would now be called sex appeal. While her tiny frame enhanced her appearance of innocence and defenselessness (both considered feminine virtues), there was something about Eunice that led men to impure thoughts—or so it would later be alleged.
If Eunice had looks, however, she also had a powerful temper, which might have affected her marriage prospects had she developed a reputation for being outspoken or mean. Practical factors might also have accounted for her single status. Eunice was the middle of eight children born to Elijah and Mercy Hawley. With their two older girls married off, the Hawleys may have wanted to hold on to their next-born daughter a little longer, to help keep house and care for their younger ones. Financial troubles might have been another consideration. Eunice's father was an entrepreneurial character, a dry-goods merchant and skilled carpenter in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who ran a boardinghouse for sailors on the side. His business failures, though common in this era, would blight Eunice's prospects in the years to come: It is possible that he had already failed in Bridgeport, further diminishing Eunice's chances of marrying well.
Then again, Eunice herself may have been holding out for something better or simply different. She may also have made and lost a match. In any case, when her parents, like so many of their Yankee neighbors, decided to move to the frontiers of New York State in search of better land and fortunes, Eunice, too, seized upon the adventure—she was single and ready to begin her life again.
The Hawleys left behind a well-settled world in Bridgeport. Their family had lived in the area for generations, arriving as Puritan dissenters and later serving as sergeants and constables, surveyors and bell-ringers, reverends, and justices of the peace. Elijah himself was a deacon of the Presbyterian Church. The family lived off of Main Street, not far from Bridgeport Harbor, where a fine breeze came off Long Island Sound and tall ships arrived from Boston, New York, and as far away as the West Indies.
As they journeyed west (slowly, with all of their belongings in tow), the Hawleys encountered a terrain that was far more primitive. The deeper they moved inland, the less likely they were to see church spires and the more likely they were to encounter taverns instead—mean-looking hovels, as one fellow New Englander described them, where "rude" and "clownish" people would congregate, drinking during all hours of the day. For Elijah and Mercy Hawley, who attended worship meetings during the week, as well as on Sundays, the sight of these churchless settlements was surely discomforting.
Then they reached Durham. Located in the heart of Catskill country, forty miles southwest of the New York State capitol in Albany and settled by Connecticut natives like themselves, this community of more than two thousand people stood as an orderly sanctuary in a landscape of disarray. The homely barrenness of the land all around gave way to an undulating terrain of gentle slopes and open valleys, with loamy, clay-rich fields yielding golden crops of grass and wheat, as one eyewitness observed. The town itself was high on a hill, with a Congregational meetinghouse taking a prominent place at its center. There were several schools, and shops carrying such niceties as chocolate and indigo. Here, in short, was every semblance of home.
Equally promising, Durham fell along the route of the brand-new Susquehanna Turnpike, which was crowded, day and night, with all manner of men—homesteaders and farmers, peddlers and grave diggers, itinerant preachers and traveling portrait painters, as well as herds of cattle, turkeys, and other beasts being driven farther west. It was said of this road that dust never settled, and in the evenings, the fields glowed with the makeshift hearths of campers stopping to rest.
This vibrant town was the perfect place for an enterprising merchant to start a business, and it should also have been an ideal location for his daughter to find a husband. But two years after her arrival, Eunice Hawley was still without a partner—a serious situation for a woman of twenty-six, in an era when a woman's future lay largely with the fortunes of the man she married. Were she to remain single, Eunice might support herself as a teacher, passing on the same basic lessons she had learned at home, or perhaps by taking in sewing. But her income would be meager, and she risked becoming a burden to her family. If her parents had not been worried before, they were certainly anxious now. Years later, when Eunice's youngest sister remained unmarried at the younger age of twenty-three, her nephew would regretfully report back to her kin: "Aunt Sally has been here three months, and is still in a state of celibacy."
By this time, Elijah Hawley's financial troubles had become a determining factor in his daughter's lack of prospects. His business with his oldest son, Jesse, was failing, and though the Hawleys were innocent of wrongdoing, they would soon face prosecution from their creditors. With pressure mounting, Eunice now had to reexamine her options with a more practical eye and consider candidates whom she may have overlooked—withered bachelors, widowers, fathers with children, and men she simply did not like. Eventually, for security's sake, she chose to do what many others in her position had done before: she settled.
Life had not begun well for James Chapman. In an era when the brand of bastard was borne for life, he was barely born into legitimacy on October 28, 1763, just one month after his parents, Phineas Chapman and Mary Hillier, were wed.
The mere fact that James's parents had had sexual contact prior to marriage was not such a shock for the times. (Indeed, they were hardly alone: The bridal pregnancy rate rose to nearly 30 percent by the last quarter of the eighteenth century.) In Connecticut, where the Chapmans lived, courting couples often "bundled" together for the night; that is, they slept in the same bed, fully clothed, with extra cloth "bundled" around one or both of them as further defense against temptation. Bundling was in many ways a practice of convenience, since beds were scarce, the weather was cold, and travelers were numerous, but it was also meant to give young people the chance to make sure they shared a "spark" before they became bound to one another for good. Sometimes the spark could be too strong, as a popular "Bundling Song" tells:
A bundling couple went to bed,
With all their clothes from foot to head,
That the defence [sic] might seem complete,
Each one was wrapped in a sheet.
But O! this bundlin's such a witch
The man of her did catch the itch,
And so provoked was the wretch,
That she of him a bastard catch'd.
Phineas Chapman and Mary Hillier, however, were hardly the kind of people who were sung about in bawdy ballads. Puritan descendants like the Hawleys, they were the children of leading members of their community in Saybrook, Connecticut. Phineas's father was the deacon of their town church. By their community's standards of propriety, James's birth was a very close call.
Phineas and Mary Chapman had four more children, three sons and a daughter. Within this brood, James had difficulty standing out. By custom, a firstborn son like himself should have received the greater share of his family's resources, while his younger brothers were expected to seek their own fortunes —in trade, for instance, or on the sea. But in the Chapman family, James's younger brother Asa was taken up by a popular pastor, was groomed for Yale College, and shone as an attorney and judge, while James, the eldest, became a merchant.
In at least one area of his life, however, James fulfilled his family's expectations. At twenty-six, he married a distant cousin named Temperance. A daughter, Fanny, was born, and on the same day that she was baptized, April 3, 1791, James and Temperance were both admitted with full communion to the Saybrook Congregational Church. This was a high honor: In order to take communion, congregants had to have experienced a conversion, a "born-again" moment by which they knew they had been touched by God. Perhaps the birth of their daughter had brought the young couple to this awakening. But a year later, James encountered a tragedy that was all too common in this era. His wife died at only twenty-three, probably while giving birth to another child, who was laid to rest beside her. James was left to raise his young daughter alone.
It was around this time that James decided to move to New York State, where by all reports he prospered. He built one of the first houses in Durham and ran a successful business, most likely a store. Apparently, he found little need to remarry. Indeed, if the later confidences of a troubled young ex-Shaker by the name of Josiah Terry are to be believed, James had sworn that his first wife would never find a replacement. That, however, was before he met Eunice Hawley. From the first, James felt the telltale spark, a feeling of intense sexual excitement, as he would later recall. On some level, James considered a connection with Eunice beneath him, given her family's financial situation, but he was deeply aroused by her presence.
A popular conduct manual, John Gregory's A Father's Legacy to His Daughters, provides insight into how a woman was expected to exert her appeal in this era. The manual stresses that a woman should not put herself out forcefully, that she should leave the greater part of herself to be imagined. On speaking with men, Gregory advises: "The great art of pleasing in conversation consists in making the company pleased with themselves." On dress, he counsels: "A fine woman shows her charms to most advantage, when she seems most to conceal them. The finest bosom in nature is not so fine as what imagination forms." On the whole, a woman should appear blushing and meek. Eunice may have adopted such strategies as Gregory suggests, although they were hardly intended to promote coquetry.
Whatever techniques Eunice Hawley employed to capture James Chapman's attention, they were effective. According to the later testimony of Josiah Terry, Eunice seemed to know just what to say, just how to look to make him feel important, to make him believe that what she wanted was what he wanted, too. In 1804, James Chapman had been alone for well over a decade. With a little encouragement, he became determined to end his bachelorhood and make Eunice Hawley his wife.
For Eunice, however, the decision to accept James Chapman as her husband had not come easily. To his credit, he came from a good family and had a successful business, but he was also a forty-one-year-old widower, fifteen years her senior. On a personal level, Eunice found him old, disagreeable, and repulsive. Not long after she had first arrived in Durham, she had felt his eyes on her. Nevertheless, it took two years for her to decide to catch—and return—his gaze.
Marriage, moreover, was not a commitment to be considered lightly. To Protestants like the Chapmans and Hawleys, marriage was both a public compact and a covenant with God: a total, eternal commitment that would merge their identities in all ways, one that would determine not only their social standing in the present but their status in the hereafter—and one that could not be revoked.
For a woman, the consequences of entering this everlasting union were especially grave, because from the moment she wed, she became "civilly dead," and her legal identity vanished. As the English jurist William Blackstone stated in his Commentaries, which provided the foundation for American marital law, "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law," which is to say, the husband. The legal term for this process was called coverture. Once married, a woman could not own her own property, earn her own wages, sue or be sued, make a will, or sign any other contract by herself. So wholly did the law consider man and wife united that spouses were not allowed to testify against each other, on the grounds that to do so would be an act of self-incrimination. By the same logic, a man marrying his deceased wife's sister was said to commit incest. Even in spiritual matters a wife was expected to defer to her husband, to assume his religious views and practice his faith. Only when her husband died, or in the rare case of divorce, could a married woman recover her legal identity.
Naturally, there was a trade-off. In return for her submission, a woman received social security: food, clothing, shelter, and a lifestyle befitting her social position. And, while a man was considered the ruler of his home, there were some ground rules for his leadership. He could strike his wife, but he was not supposed to abuse her. The difference could be subtle, as demonstrated by the "rule of thumb." This expression originates in the legal argument that a man could beat his wife with a stick the width of a finger but not as wide as a thumb. Finally, a woman was supposed to have some access to marital assets upon her husband's death, retaining dower rights that entitled her to one-third of the land he owned. (These rights, however, were rarely enforced.)
To Eunice, who faced the prospect of spinsterhood, whose family was in a financial crisis, and who yearned for a family of her own, these assurances were enough, in the end, to induce her to accept James's hand. His ability to provide her with the status and security she craved outweighed her instinctive dislike for him. If she refused him, moreover, she might never have another opportunity to have children of her own.
And so, on a chilly February day in 1804, Eunice Hawley and James Chapman faced each other many miles south from where they originally met. Their marriage took place across the shores of bustling Manhattan, in a quiet suburb called Brooklyn, New York, where they perhaps hoped to settle. Here, as they took each other's hands to wed before God, Eunice Hawley died a "civil death," and James Chapman and his wife merged as one.
Excerpted from The Great Divorce by Ilyon Woo Copyright © 2010 by Ilyon Woo. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 24, 2011
The main character, Eunice Chapman, is not entirely sympathetic, but the story is fascinating and touches on the history of Shakers, New York, women, marriage and family, family law, and even literature and newspapers. This is so well researched that the notes and source notes are worth reading. The author does a lovely job of creating a readable narrative out of all these threads. She gives cogent synopses of large background subjects such as Shaker theology or American legal precedent. My comments make this sound dry, but it is not. The emotions of these early nineteenth century people come through. Every collection on the Shakers should own this, as it presents a very balanced view and one a bit different from the usual hagiography. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.