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Should I Stay or Should I Go: Elopement in the 19th Century

December 6th, 2019

By Amy Pepe, Visitor Services and Public Programs Manager at Rose Hill Mansion and Johnston House

To our modern sensibilities, the term “elopement” might evoke images of a romantic escape for a couple who want a very small wedding. Less idealistically, we might think of a couple who wish to wed in secret and so choose to elope. However, the meaning of the term has evolved and at one time had a very different, and certainly much less romantic, connotation.

The most common dictionary definition of “elope” is to run away to secretly marry without parental consent. The most literal interpretation of the term is to run away and not return to the point of origin.

Starting in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th, elopements ads were a common feature of American newspapers, just like obituaries or marriage and birth announcements are today. However, these elopement announcements were not announcing the secretive wedding of a young couple. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Aggrieved husbands took out ads in newspapers announcing that their wives had “eloped,” meaning they had run away. The ads tended to be very similar in that they proclaimed that the husband no longer had any responsibility for their eloped wife and warned others not to give her shelter or money. In many cases, it was claimed that any debts she incurred would not be his responsibility.

1815 Geneva Gazette Ad

1815 advertisement in the “Geneva Gazette” announcing the elopement of Christien Stoner’s wife, Cynthia

There are dozens of examples of eloped wives advertisements in Geneva newspapers in the early 1800s. Most of them follow almost the exact same wording, just like this ad Christien Stoner took out in the Geneva Gazette in 1815: “Whereas Cynthia, my wife, has eloped from my bed and board without cause, and refuses to live with me: this is therefore to forbid all persons from trusting or harboring her on my account, as I shall pay no debts of her contracting after this date.”

 

1808 Geneva Expositor Ad

1808 advertisement in the “Geneva Expositor” announcing the elopement of Aaron Cudder’s wife, Sally

Essentially, these ads “documented a wife resisting the authority of her husband and the consequences for doing so.” Although it could be seen as an embarrassment for a woman to be named as a runaway wife (no matter the circumstances), it was just as much of a social embarrassment for a husband at this time to admit that he had lost patriarchal authority in his household. In some cases, the ads prompted empathy for the women rather than scorn and the women were sometimes more likely to receive assistance. These ads were popular at a time when divorce was exceedingly rare and women had few opportunities to separate themselves from a bad marriage.

There were rare instances where the woman named in the ad had the opportunity to defend herself, although we don’t see this in Geneva. On November 13, 1769 Margaret Kennedy, who had been named as a runaway wife, published a defense of herself in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. She declared the claim of her elopement to be false and said “My character of an honest and industrious woman can be asserted to all who may inquire it by a Number of friends in Boston and the community I belong to.”

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One response to “Should I Stay or Should I Go: Elopement in the 19th Century”

  1. Norma Press says:

    That’s really interesting.
    How our language changes!

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