New York Divorce Laws, and a Black Sheep

Yesterday I attended the Legacy Webinar “Putting Flesh on the Bones” by Ron Arons, which could also have been called A Black Sheep in the Family.  In fact, Ron has a line of ‘Black Sheep of the Family’ products on his website.  His black sheep was convicted of bigamy in the late 1800s and went to Sing Sing Prison.  There was a question about divorces in New York during the Q&A session, and Ron said they were quite difficult to get until the 1960s.  I had found this out myself last week.

I was researching my French line in New York, including my 2nd great grand aunt Charlotte French.  She married Sylvester Wiley in 1861 and had three sons:  Harvey, Austin and William.  I was having difficulty finding Harvey in the 1910 federal and 1915 New York Census, but I was able to find his wife Mary living with their three sons, as well as a daughter from her previous marriage.  A search of New York newspapers on fultonhistory.com told me why:

I was not familiar with New York divorce laws and thought that it was interesting that the divorce would go into effect in three months.  I also noted the $5 per week that Mary would receive in alimony and child support.  The last sentence in the newspaper article, however, shocked me:  “…the defendant is forbidden to marry…”  In trying to find out how this could possibly be, I learned that in the state of New York an individual found guilty of adultery could not remarry as long as his/her spouse was alive unless permission of the court was obtained 3 years following the date of the final judgment.  This did not change until 1967!

That person could marry outside of the state of New York and the marriage would be recognized.  Perhaps Harvey never did.  I am still trying to find him in Census records after 1920 but notice of his death in March 1943 lists only his sons and stepdaughters.

From his death notice you would never guess that Harvey had been a black sheep in my family — and by today’s standards, I guess he wasn’t.  I’m glad I learned the interesting facts about New York divorce laws, and  through them I also learned a little more about Harvey.

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