Divorces Mentioned in Early Washington, DC Papers

Transcriber’s Note: In early U.S. history, divorces were granted not by the courts, but by the local legislatures of the territories. However, residents of the District of Columbia and Alexandria wishing to divorce were required to petition the U.S. Congress to pass a special bill granting a divorce to the parties. Over time, the power to grant a divorce was gradually stripped from the legislatures and vested in the local courts. And by 1886, a statute had been passed expressly forbidding the legislatures to get involved in any divorce action. Because these news articles document early divorces, many make mention of petitions to the legislatures.

GIBBONS, Mary & William: The subscriber, Mary Gibbons of Washington City, intends to petition Congress at their next session for an act to divorce her from her husband, William Gibbons. [Notice in the National Intelligencer, Wash, DC, Nov 14, 1806.]

BURNHILL, John & Elizabeth: Whereas Elizabeth Burnhill, my wife, hath eloped from my bed and board, and living an adulteress with another man, this is to forewarn all persons whatever from trusting her on my account, as I will pay none of her debts, and I mean to apply to the next General Assembly of Maryland for an act of divorce. (Signed and dated) John Burnhill, Prince Georges County, MD, March 17, 1809 [Notice in the National Intelligencer, Wash, DC, April 12, 1809.]

HOWARD, Jesse and Amelia. All persons are hereby forbidden to trust Amelia Low (late my wife Amelia Howard) on my account, we having been divorced by mutual consent, as the law directs, and I will pay no debts of her contracting. (Signed and dated) Jesse Howard, May 4, 1819. [Notice in the National Intelligencer, Wash, DC, May 6, 1819.]

WHEELWRIGHT, John and Caroline Eliza. Mr. Mercer, House of Representatives, presented a petition of John Wheelwright, of Alexandria in the District of Columbia, praying to be divorced from his wife, Caroline Eliza [Payson] Wheelwright, on the ground of her insanity at the present, as well as at the time of her marriage. On motion, it was ordered that the said petition be referred to the Committee for the District of Columbia. [Notice in the National Intelligencer, Wash, DC, Dec 17, 1822.]

WHEELWRIGHT, John and Caroline Eliza. The Senate took up the bill to divorce John Wheelwright of Alexandria and Carolina Eliza Wheelwright, his wife. [Mr. Wheelwright petitions for a divorce on the ground of insanity of his wife at the time of his marriage (though then to him unknown); of the increase of the malady until it became entirely settled and confirmed of its having now continued for several years, and the belief (in which he has the opinion of the physicians in whose care she has been long placed), that the insanity is incurable.] A long and feeling debate took place on this bill – chiefly on these points: Whether the insanity actually existed at the time of marriage so as to render the contract void; whether an affliction of this character ought to dissolve the marriage contract; whether, if it was entitled to relief, the tribunal appointed for the purpose of granting such relief in the State of Massachusetts (where the marriage was contracted) was not the proper place for the petitioner to seek it; whether it was right for Congress to grant divorces at all (it has never yet granted one), &c &c. It was agreed on all hands the facts being generally admitted that it was a case of great hardship. Messrs. Barbour and Southard advocated the bill with much earnestness. It was opposed by Messrs. King of New York, Benton Mills, Holmes of Maine, and Chandler. Mr. Lloyd of Massachusetts without taking sides on the bill spoke in corroboration of the facts set forth by the petitioner and as to the great respectability of the connections of the lady residing in Boston. The question being taken on ordering the bill to be engrossed and read a third time, it was decided in the negative by yeas and nays so the bill was rejected. [National Intelligencer, Wash, DC, Feb 24, 1823.]

ROSENTHAL, Charles & Augusta Sophia. Charles Rosenthal vs. Augusta Sophia Rosenthal. The object of the petition filed in Prince George’s County Court, sitting as a Court of Equity for the July term 1842, filed by Charles Rosenthal, is to procure a decree for a divorce a vinculo matrimonii from his wife, Augusta Sophia Rosenthal. The petitioner states that the said Augusta Sophia, the lawful wife of he said Charles Rosenthal, now of Prince George’s County and State of Maryland, but formerly of Washington City, in the District of Columbia, having contracted an adulterous intimacy with a certain Charles Krebs, a resident of Washington City, did on the 3d of August 1842, by his artful persuasions adulterously elope from Washington City in his company to parts unknowns to the said Charles Rosenthal, and that were frequently seen in the act of adultery prior to said elopement, which fact was concealed from him until after said elopement occurred. The petition further states that the said Charles Rosenthal, since his intermarriage with the said Augusta Sophia, has always treated her in the most kind and affectionate manner; that he was in no manner accessory to said elopement, and that the said Augusta Sophia resides out of the State of Maryland in foreign parts unknown to him. It is thereupon, this 26th day of August, 1844, by the subscriber, chief judge of Prince George’s County court, sitting as a court of equity, adjudged and ordered that the petitioner, Charles Rosenthal, by causing a copy of this order to be inserted in some newspaper published at Washington City once in each of four successive weeks, before the first day of October next, give notice to the said Augusta Sophia Rosenthal of the object and substance of this petition, and warn her to appear in this court in person or by solicitor on or before the second Monday of January next to answer the premises and show cause, if any she has, why a decree ought not to pass as prayed. Signed: John Stephen; John B. Brooke, Clerk. [Legal notice in the National Intelligence, Wash, DC, Sept 5, 1842.]

THOMPSON, Andrew J. and Jane Eliza. In the Superior Court of Baltimore City, Petition for Divorce a vinculo matrimonii, Andrew J. Thompson vs. Jane Eliza Thompson. The object of the petition in this cause is to have a decree for a divorce a vinculo matrimonii of the petitioner from the said Jane, his wife. The petition states that the petitioner and said Jane intermarried in the city of Baltimore, where the petitioner has for more than two years resided; and that said Jane has since her said intermarriage been guilty of adultery in said city and in Washington, in the District of Columbia. The petitioner alleges that said Jane resides out of the State of Maryland, and is absent therefrom. It is thereupon, this 14th January, 1853, adjudged and ordered by said Court, that by publication in some daily newspaper of the city of Baltimore, and also of the District of Columbia, once a week for four successive weeks, before the 10th day of March next, to answer said petition, and show cause why a decree shall not be passed as prayed. [Signed] William Frick. Test: Edward Dowling, Clerk. [Legal Notice, Daily National Intelligencer, Wash, DC, Jan 19, 1853.]