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The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times

The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times

2.8 5
by Ilyon Woo

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Ilyon Woo’s The Great Divorce is the dramatic, richly textured story of one of nineteenth-century America’s most infamous divorce cases, in which a young mother single-handedly challenged her country’s notions of women’s rights, family, and marriage itself.
In 1814, Eunice Chapman came home to discover that her three children had been


Ilyon Woo’s The Great Divorce is the dramatic, richly textured story of one of nineteenth-century America’s most infamous divorce cases, in which a young mother single-handedly challenged her country’s notions of women’s rights, family, and marriage itself.
In 1814, Eunice Chapman came home to discover that her three children had been carried off by her estranged husband. He had taken them, she learned, to live among a celibate, religious people known as the Shakers. Defying all expectations, this famously petite and lovely woman mounted an an epic campaign against her husband, the Shakers, and the law. In its confrontation of some of the nation’s most fundamental debates—religious freedom, feminine virtue, the sanctity of marriage—her case struck a nerve with an uncertain new republic. And its culmination—in a stunning legislative decision and a terrifying mob attack— sent shockwaves through the Shaker community and the nation beyond.
With a novelist’s eye and a historian’s perspective, Woo delivers the first full account of Eunice Chapman’s remarkable 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.

Editorial Reviews

Mary Beth Norton
…lively, well-written and engrossing…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Known today for their elegant hand-hewn furniture, in the early 19th century the Shakers were a radical religious sect whose members renounced sexuality, property, and family to join a Christian utopian community. And if a father joined the Shakers with his children, as James Chapman did in 1814 in upstate New York, his estranged wife had neither parental rights nor legal recourse. In his smoothly narrative and revealing debut, Woo objectively deciphers this segregated society that, despite its stance in the Chapman case, believed in gender equality and was led by its own "Mother Lucy." Eunice Chapman successfully took her case against the Shakers and her husband to the New York legislature, where she obtained a divorce and regained legal custody of her three children, forcibly taking them back in 1818. Full of information about women’s lives and status at the time, the book makes the case that Eunice’s charisma and obsessive determination helped her overcome the usual rejection of women in the public sphere. Both Eunice’s struggle and the Shakers’ story fascinate equally while dispelling romanticized myths of utopian societies in the tumultuous postrevolutionary period. (Aug.)
From the Publisher

“Ilyon Woo’s The Great Divorce is much more than a fascinating account of a woman’s trailblazing battle for her children. By delving so deeply into the sources, Woo brings the past to life in all its wonderful strangeness, complexity, and verve. This is what history is all about.”—Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea

The Great Divorce is a superb book—masterfully written, deeply suspenseful, and filled with fascinating facts and insights. American history would be everyone’s favorite subject if more historians wrote like this. Woo is a writer to watch.”—Debby Applegate, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

“Provocative…Woo vividly tells the story of the Chapmans’ broken family, beginning with a dramatic sentence worthy of Stephen King…Woo tells [this story] in nuanced and absorbing detail.”—Elaine Showalter, The Washington Post

“Modern Americans, bombarded with stories of celebrity divorces, probably assume that the tabloid breakup is a recent phenomenon. This lively, well-written and engrossing tale proves them wrong.”—The New York Times Book Review

“A smoothly narrative and revealing debut…Full of information about women’s lives and status at the time, the book makes the case that Eunice’s charisma and obsessive determination helped her overcome the usual rejection of women in the public sphere. Both Eunice’s struggle and the Shakers’ story fascinate equally while dispelling romanticized myths of utopian societies in the tumultuous postrevolutionary period.”—Publishers Weekly

“Neglected history comes alive in this meticulously researched and compelling story of one tenacious woman. Strongly recommended to all interested readers.”—Library Journal (starred review), Nancy Richey, Western Kentucky Univ. Lib., Bowling Green

“Woo captures the drama and many ironies of Eunice’s story, admiring her courage without adopting her view of the Shakers as unmitigated villains.”—The New Yorker

"A writer of extraordinary empathy and great resourcefulness, Ilyon Woo has transformed a neglected historical record into a vivid evocation of an era and an amazing tribute to a remarkably tenacious woman, Eunice Chapman. Meticulously researched and compellingly narrated, The Great Divorce will stand in the pantheon of American women’s history writing.."—John Matteson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts

“Ilyon Woo has taken the stuff of obscure history and transformed it into a gripping drama that resonates with our own world. Though she lived in the 19th century, Eunice Chapman reminded me of Erin Brockovich—a woman on a mission who fights like a tigress for what she believes in. Woo has an eye for the telling detail, and a prose style as elegantly spare as a Shaker chair. The result is a heart-warming, finely written story of one woman's battle against fanaticism, a story that has particular resonance today.”—Simon Worrall, author of The Poet and the Murderer

“This is a true story of losses, but also a momentous emancipation, and what it took to get there. . . [Woo] is a wonderful resource to us today. . .Near the end, in the climax of the story, I felt as if I was gaining the kind of truth and wisdom that comes more often from a novel.”—David Ritchie, Brattleboro Reformer

“In addition to providing an enthralling account of Eunice’s early life, marriage, and legislative campaign, woo offers a detailed look at the Shakers’ communal way of life. . .Woo writes with verve.”—Pamela H. Sacks, Worcester Telegram & Gazette

“Woo gives an interesting, and at times gripping, step-by-step account of the drama, capturing the various personalities involved, the issues at the heart of the conflict, and the far-reaching political and social ramifications of the legislation. . . the challenge of the historical nonfiction genre is to give life to facts and to create an engaging story, in which nothing can be made up or embellish. Woo does an excellent job of meeting both those challenges.”—Carlene Phillips, The Harvard Press

“Ilyon Woo presents the earliest child custody laws of this country with vivid relevance…[Woo] creates a tactile portrait of life nearly 200 years ago…both legal and feminist details are fascinating…Eunice has all the splash and charisma of a modern celebrity.”—Holly Silva, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A myth-smashing tale…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.”—Anne Trubek, The Barnes & Noble Review

“This biography makes a movie-worthy story of [Chapman’s] struggle to reclaim her children and her destiny.”—Meredith Maran, More

“American history, law, religion, and politics all come alive in this poignant account of an abandoned woman’s rescue of her children in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Ilyon Woo gives us the unfolding drama of the first and only legislative divorce in the history of New York as part of a larger struggle for civil identity and women’s rights. It is not enough to say that this story of Eunice Chapman’s fight against injustice is well told. Ilyon Woo tells a story that every American should want to read.”—Robert A. Ferguson, George Edward Woodberry Professor of Law, Literature, and Criticism, Columbia University and author of The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820

The Great Divorce is a riveting tale of betrayal and redemption. Ilyon Woo’s story of Eunice Chapman’s desperate legal struggle to retrieve her children from the Shakers brings early nineteenth-century America alive. Woo blends a thorough knowledge of the era with a novelist’s eye for character and place to make us understand how one woman could wage such an epic battle and why we should know about her crusade.”—Michael Grossberg, Sally M. Reahard Professor of History & Professor of Law, Indiana University, and author of Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America

“A gripping read. Ilyon Woo is a scholar who draws on an impressive array of primary sources, but her lively prose is anything but scholarly. That Woo succeeds in making the reader sympathize with Eunice Chapman is not surprising; that she also makes the reader feel empathy for the Shakers and the troubled James Chapman is a measure of her masterful and sensitive storytelling.”— Glendyne Wergland, author of One Shaker Life: Isaac Newton Youngs, 1793-1865

Library Journal
Seductive and willful, Eunice Chapman, a woman small only in stature, is the focal point of Woo's engaging debut historical study of one 19th-century upstate New York woman's fight for her children. Eunice married "old, disagreeable, and repulsive" James Chapman for economic survival and, through the legal doctrine of coverture, becomes civilly, and legally, dead. James, an alcoholic abuser, left Eunice in the fall of 1811 and found refuge among the Shakers, taking the children with him. Today, Shakers are remembered for their simple lifestyle and handiwork, but they were a radical, religious sect "that often swooped in on disconsolate spiritual seekers offering themselves up to hungry souls eager to rebound from their broken faiths." The life of a Shaker was about falling in line, and Eunice—when she sought out her family in the Shaker community—would have no part of any of it. Woo takes readers through Eunice's custody battle, which shook New York State, and the utopian Shaker world and larger society. Eunice obtained a divorce and regained legal custody of her three children in 1818.Verdict Neglected history comes alive in this meticulously researched and compelling story of one tenacious woman. Strongly recommended to all interested readers.—Nancy Richey, Western Kentucky Univ. Lib., Bowling Green

(c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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The Great Divorce

A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times
By Ilyon Woo

Atlantic Monthly Press

Copyright © 2010 Ilyon Woo
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-4537-6

Chapter One

A Civil Death

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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ilyon Woo holds a B.A. in the Humanities from Yale College and a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University, where she wrote her dissertation on nineteenth century anti-Shaker and Shaker apostate narratives. She has had support for her writing and research from numerous public and private funding sources, including the Peterson Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society; the Larry Hackman Research Residency at the New York State Archives; the Faith Andrews Fellowship at the Winterthur Museum and Library; the Elder Henry Blinn Research Fellowship at the University of New Hampshire (Durham) and the Canterbury Shaker Village; and the Younger Scholars Grant at the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has spoken publicly on Eunice Chapman’s anti-Shaker literature at museums and conferences. She lives with her family in Manhattan.

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The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
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dyslexicdarla More than 1 year ago
This story, which is based on a true story,is painfully difficult to read. Women had arranged marriages, had children and their father was given custodial rights if there was a separation . I am not sure how the Shakers work today, but , not my cup of tea to read, though, I must sat we have come along way......baby. I hope the situation has changed for the plight of the women in the Shakers today. We read this for our book club and only 2 of the 25 members liked the book.It also read like a text book. Can't recommend.