Monday, November 6, 2017

History of Domestic Violence

18th Century Domestic Violence
By Wendy Moore

Wife-beating was both widely tolerated and sanctioned by law in 18th-century England. Yet the ordeal suffered by Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, at the hands of her husband so shocked Georgian sensibilities that she not only won landmark legal battles but her husband was banished to prison.

Marital violence is as old as marriage itself. In Georgian England, husbands were legally entitled to strike their wives in order to ‘correct’ their conduct so long as moderation was the watchword. One judge, Francis Buller, even went so far as to specify that a husband could beat his wife with a stick so long as it was no thicker than his thumb, earning himself the nickname ‘Judge Thumb’ in satirical prints for his wisdom.

But even when domestic abuse far exceeded such nice distinctions, wives enjoyed little recourse to the law. The torment endured by Mary Eleanor Bowes was among the most extreme.
A wealthy young widow, Mary was tricked in 1777 into marrying an Irish fortune-hunter, Andrew Robinson Stoney, who faked a duel to win her hand. Squandering her wealth, Stoney – who changed his name to Bowes – beat Mary with sticks, whips and candlesticks, tore out her hair, burned her face and threatened her with knives.

Terrified for her life, after eight years of torture Mary fled the marital home and embarked on audacious legal suits to win a divorce, reclaim her fortune and obtain custody of her children. Her divorce case in the church courts on grounds of adultery and cruelty, backed by courageous eye-witness accounts from servants, was one of only a handful of successful cases initiated by women when first resolved in 1786.

But her ordeal was far from over. Horrified that he might lose his fortune, her husband kidnapped Mary from a London street in a desperate bid to force her to rescind her case. Dragging her across snow-covered moors, Bowes threatened Mary with a pistol and with rape. Eventually rescued after eight days, Mary went on to win her divorce through two appeal stages as well as reclaiming her property and her children, while Bowes spent the rest of his life in jail for what The Times described as ‘a detail of barbarity that shocks humanity and outrages civilization’.

When Mary died, in 1800, she asked for the blindfolded figure of Justice to stand guard at her tomb. But it would be nearly another century before women earned even minimal protection against abusive husbands.

History of the Battered Women’s Movement
753 BC
During the reign of Romulus in Rome, wife beating is accepted and condoned under The Laws of Chastisement. Under these laws, the husband has absolute rights to physically discipline his wife. Since by law, a husband is held liable for crimes committed by his wife, this law was designed to protect the husband from harm caused by the wife’s actions. These laws permit the husband to beat his wife with a rod or switch as long as its circumference is no greater than the girth of the base of the man’s right thumb, hence “The Rule of Thumb.”
1200 AD
Wife beating is common in Europe and is endorsed by the church as the loving husband’s means of correcting his wife’s faults.
14th Century, Roman Catholic Church, Rules of Marriage, exhorted Christian husbands to “beat your wives soundly, not out of malice or rage, but out of concern. For this will be to your benefit and to her spiritual good.”
Battered women shelters, as we know them today, may not have existed until the nineteenth century, but abused women in Europe knew where to hide to escape their batterers – convents may very well have been the first shelters for women trying to escape from the violence of their homes.
British Common Law allows for a man to chastise his wife with a stick no greater than the length from the last joint to the end of the thumb (the rule of thumb).
Alabama and Massachusetts declare wife beating illegal.
Wife beating receives public attention in the United States as it relates to the temperance movement, the social purity movement and the women’s suffrage movement.
U.S. Supreme Court denied a wife the right to prosecute her husband for assault because to do so “would open the doors of the courts to accusations of all sorts of one spouse against another.”

Prior to the mid-1800s most legal systems implicitly accepted wife beating as a valid exercise of a husband's authority over his wife.  In 1850, Tennessee became the first state in the United States to explicitly outlaw wife beating.  Other states soon followed suit.  By the end of the 1870s, most courts in the United States were uniformly opposed to the right of husbands to physically discipline their wives. By the early 20th century, it was common for the police to intervene in cases of domestic violence in the United States, but arrests remained rare. Wife beating was made illegal in all states of the United States by 1920.  

WOW, 1920 – Unbelievable!

Hi, everybody.  My latest story with the Sweet Americana Sweethearts group is The Sheriff and the Miner’s Daughter, which is part of the Sweethearts of Jubilee Springs Series.

Jim Hawkins, sheriff of Jubilee Springs, watches as six ladies get off the train, ready to meet and hopefully marry men from the Prosperity Mine.

He watches as one of the women leave the group and heads his way. She is there to find somebody. Sheriff Hawkins is more than happy to help her until he finds out the person is Amos Lehman. He is a crusty old miner who has worked his mine before the town was even a town. His cabin is old and hardly enough room for one, let alone a female.

When Jim suggests she get back on the train and go back where she came from, he gets a small taste of the stubbornness in the beautiful young woman standing in front of him. Charlene Lehman had come way to far to do that and doesn’t appreciate the sheriff’s interference. Blue eyes scan him from boots to hat before dismissing him and walking away.

The Sheriff’s interest is piqued. Who is this girl? Why is she looking for some old miner?
There is more to this story and Jim Hawkins intends to find the answers.

PSSSSST – Word on the street is a short Christmas story with Jim Hawkins and Charlene Lehman is coming in December…..The Christmas Outlaw!   More to come………


  1. Tragic, isn't it, how wives and children were considered property, to do with as a man pleases. Some women lucked out and found themselves subject to decent and honorable men... but far, far too many lived with brutality. I'm grateful to live in a time when the law (and society's expectations) forbids domestic violence (including women toward men). Women's rights have come a long way!
    Thanks for sharing this agonizing slice of history.

    1. It is unbelievable! I heard a man could get in more trouble for being brutal to an animal than to his children. Thanks for stopping Kristin!

  2. Isn't it so weird and unjust that women have had to fight since the beginning of humanity for what should have inherently been theirs all along--the freedom and privileges under law to do whatever they please just as men have always enjoyed. Whatever made men think they smarter, more skilled, or moral than any woman? And the fight never seems to end. Although domestic violence continues in the secrecy of some homes, other rights and privileges such as fair and equal pay continue to go unaddressed.
    What a horrible thing for Mary to have endured from a man so beneath her.
    An eye-opening article about the horrors some women experienced in earlier times. I want to wish you every success with THE SHERIFF AND THE MINER'S DAUGHTER.

    1. It's crazy Sarah! Thanks so much for taking a look!

  3. Thank you for such an informative post, Penny!