Divorce in New York IV, Circa 1829
Bill Long 1/10/06
The down side of the New York statute, which statute I have discussed in the previous two essays, is that in order to prove a party's infidelity, you had to have witnesses who were willing to testify to that infidelity. Sometimes that testimony was given to a jury and sometimes to a special master, but one could imagine that it consisted of various racy words of Peeping Toms and chambermaids peering through keyholes or servants happening upon curtainless windows or second-hand accounts of dalliances. The "problem" with law in America, of course, is that much of it is written down, so that occasionally you have records of highly embarrassing testimony that a party no doubt wished could have been suppressed but came out in the proceeding in equity. In the 21st century, one can often make money hand over fist with one's racy stories, but this probably wasn't the case in the 19th century. Shame attended infidelity in most instances.
Thus, I couldn't resist putting here the testimony against Aaron Burr, who was divorced at age 80 when the following testimony against him was given in a deposition. I warn you that this is reading only intended for mature adults--but not too many 10 year-olds read this site, I imagine.
A Word on Aaron Burr (1756-1836)
Aaron Burr, Jr. was one of the most fascinating and vilified men in late 18th-early 19th century America. A son and grandson of Princeton Presidents, he was considered to have the best intellect in the colonies but, as Woodrow Wilson later said, he had "genius enough to have made him immortal, and unschooled passion enough to have made him infamous.'' This is not the place to tell the story of his entry into Princeton at age 13, his distinguished service in the Revolutionary War, his serving as Senator from NY, his loss of the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson by the narrowest of margins in 1800, his later duel with Alexander Hamilton (1804) and trial for treason. Suffice it to say for this essay that he became an orphan by age two and was brought up by an uncle he thoroughly detested, married a woman ten years his senior with five children, lost his beloved wife in 1794 and then, for the remainder of his life, seemed to live with a certain aimlessness with respect to intimate relationships. He was a favorite of the women, however, and finally married the wealthy Elizabeth Brown Jumel in NY in 1827. He managed to saw through most of her money in short order. She brought a bill in equity for divorce from Burr in 1833 on grounds of adultery, and they were officially divorced by order of the court in 1836, the year Burr died. The following excerpt is from the testimony given against Burr in the divorce trial. I copy it from a footnote in Hartog's, "Marital Exits," 80 Geo LR 95, 118 n 96, which is derived from a microfilm copy of the Legal Papers of Aaron Burr, noted in fn. 51. Note that the punctuation isn't precisely the way we would do things today, and that at times it seems as if a third person's words are inserted into the deposition testimony.
The Testimony of Servant Girl Maria Johnson
Burr at first contested his wife's claim that he had committed adultery with Jane McManus. Then, he decided to confess to the charge. Under the NY statute, discussed in the previous essay, a master would then be appointed to take evidence from witnesses. Here are excerpts from Maria Johnson's testimony.
Q. Where was you when you saw them the first time?
A. I came up stairs to fetch a pitcher of hot water to Col Burr through the front room and she saw Jane McManus on the settee and Col Burr had his hand under her clothes and she saw her nakedness
Q. Were they sitting or lying?
A. They were sitting at the present time and Col Burr had his trousers all down
Q. Did they see you?
A. They couldn't help seeing me when I came into the room with the pitcher of water......
Q. When was it that you next saw them together?
A. On Saturday afternoon.
Q. Where was you then?
A. I got up on the shed & turned the window blind & looked through it.
Q. Did you lay down in the shed Maria-
A. I set down on my hunkies (a phrase that is neither attested in the OED or anywhere on Google) and turned the blind & looked in
Q. Where did you see them when you looked into that window-
A. On the settee-
Q. Were they sitting or lying then-
A. They were sitting-
Q. Were there any bed clothes on that settee
A. There was
a cushion on it--but no bed clothes through the day.
Q. Was there a fire in the room
A. No sir it was warm weather in August.
Q. How close were they together
A. About as close as they could set together
Q. How long did you look at them
A. I looked at them till they got through with their mean act and looked at them when they set upon the settee....
Q. Do you swear that Col Burr at that time had sexual connection with Miss McManus
A. Yes sir--I saw them several times before
Q. How old was he then
A. She does not know exactly--he was a very old man [Burr would have been 78 in 1834]....
Q. Did you ever witness any thing between them at that house in Reed Street
A. Yes she sometimes had her frock unpinned & open all behind
Q. Did you ever catch them together there
A. Yes sir I did one Sunday and Col Burr gave her a new pair of shoes not to tell--but I did tell and will tell & always meant to tell because I was ready to go to church and he gave me orders to go to Bear Market and get oysters for Jane McManus' dinner
Q. When was
it that she caught them together
A. Before she went to get the oysters...
Q. What did you see
A. She saw Jane McManus with her clothes all up & Col Burr with his hands under them and his pantaloons down
Q. What did Jane McManus say
A. She said Oh la! Mary saw us
The divorce was granted, and Burr apparently asked for a rehearing on the ground that he was too old to have committed adultery. The vice chancellor in charge of the case denied the rehearing. Burr's death followed in quick order, though I cannot confirm Internet sources that say he died on that very day. Doesn't this testimony from the Burr trial bring a nice level of ambiguity into the enforcemenet of the New York statute, famed for its "purity?" It would be well into the 20th century, however, before the law would change.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long