Hansley v. Hansley: 1849

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Hansley v. Hansley: 1849

Plaintiff: Ruthey Ann Hansley
Defendant: Samuel G. Hansley
Plaintiff's Claim: Seeking divorce
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Robert Strange
Chief Defense Lawyer: William Henry Haywood, Jr.
Judges: Thomas Ruffin, Frederic Nash, Richmond M. Pearson
Place: Raleigh, North Carolina
Date of Decision: December 1849
Verdict: Divorce Denied

SIGNIFICANCE: This case showed just how difficult it was for a woman to get a divorce, especially in an antebellum southern state.

America's earliest divorce statutes had their origins in English law. Due to the influence of Christianity, marriage in England was transformed during the Middle Ages from a private institution over which there was little regulation to a religious one that was governed by the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, marriages could legally be dissolved only by death or by an annulment granted by the Church. Then, in 1533, King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife. Denied an annulment by the Pope, Henry declared the Catholic Church in England independent of Rome, renamed the local Church, and proclaimed himself the head of the "Church of England." (The Episcopal Church in the United States is descended from that Church.)

After King Henry's actions, there were two types of divorce in England. An absolute divorce, or divorce a vinculo matrimonil (which would be regarded today as a regular divorce), was very difficult to get because every time a couple wanted their marriage dissolved a special law dissolving their marital bonds had to be passed by the English Parliament. A divorce from bed and board, or divorce a mensa et thoro (which today is called a legal separation), was also available, but it did not permit the parties to remarry. Furthermore, such divorces were regulated by special courts run by the Church of England and were granted only when one of the parties was guilty of adultery, cruelty, or unnatural practices. This system continued in Great Britain until 1857.

North American Colonies and Divorce Laws

As North America was settled, every English colony established its own laws regarding divorce. In New England (which was primarily inhabited by Puritans who rejected the teachings of the Church of England), absolute divorces could be granted by regular courts for such reasons as adultery, bigamy, and desertion. In other colonies, couples had to go to the colonial legislatures or to a special court that had exclusive jurisdiction over family law matters. But in the South, where most people were members of the Church of England, no absolute divorces were allowed at all.

After the American Revolution, the divorce laws in the southern states changed very slowly. Eventually, under limited circumstances, a couple could obtain an absolute divorce from the state legislature. Later, because so many petitions for divorce were filed with the state legislatures, laws were passed allowing the courts to end marriages. Still, many southern judges clung to old ideas about the undesirability of divorce and had serious misgivings about exercising their new powers. As a result, divorce laws were often strictly interpreted by the courts in order to prevent a divorce from being granted.

This was the situation faced by Ruthey Ann Hansley of New Hanover County, North Carolina, in 1849. Mrs. Hansley and her husband, Samuel, were married in 1836 and lived together until August 1844, when Mrs. Hansley left to reside with her brother. The following March, she filed for an absolute divorce. The allegations in her petition describe a living hell.

Mr. Hansley's Sudden Change

According to Mrs. Hansley, the couple was happily married for many years. Then, for reasons unknown to her, Mr. Hansley took to drink and would sometimes be intoxicated for up to a month. He also began to beat her and "absent himself from the petitioner [Mrs. Hansley] during the whole night." Mrs. Hansley later learned that her husband was sleeping with one of his slaves named Lucy. Still, Mrs. Hansley "tried to endure, as long as it was reasonable for any wife to endure, the conduct of her husband" before Mr. Hansley entirely abandoned his wife's bed for Lucy's.

Mr. Hansley then moved Lucy into the home, "deprived the petitioner of the control of all those domestic duties and privilege connected with the house which belong to a wife," and gave to Lucy "the full possession and enjoyment of those privileges and duties." Mr. Hansley also repeatedly ordered his wife to give her place to Lucy and encouraged Lucy to treat Mrs. Hansley with disdain and disrespect. Afterward, "not satisfied with the treatment as above set forth," Mr. Hansley would starve his wife for two or three days at a time and lock her outside the house overnight without any protection from the elements. Worst of all, Mr. Hansley often forced his wife to sleep in the same bed with him and Lucy while he had sex with the other woman.

Jury Agrees with Mrs. Hansley

As required by North Carolina law at that time, a jury trial was held in 1848 before the Superior Court for New Hanover County during which Mr. Hansley denied all of his wife's allegations. At the trial, evidence was submitted about the "acts of familiarity" between Mr. Hansley and Lucy as well as about Lucy acting "as a sort of manager of his house." Testimony was also given that Lucy had a child, that Mr. Hansley twice admitted that the child was his, and that Mr. Hansley, when approached by his brother-in-law about a possible reconciliation between him and his wife, said that "he [Mr. Hansley] would part with all the property he had before he would [part] with the said Lucy and his child."

The jury found Mrs. Hansley's allegations to be true and an absolute divorce was granted. In addition, an inquiry was ordered to determine a financial settlement between the parties. Possibly trying to avoid any payments to his wife, Mr. Hansley appealed.

State Supreme Court Sides with Husband

The case went before the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Presiding as chief justice was Thomas Ruffin, the most influential judge in the pre-Civil War South. The lawyers for both Mr. and Mrs. Hansley were distinguished attorneys and former U.S. Senators.

After hearing the arguments of each side and considering the legal authorities cited by the lawyers, the Supreme Court unanimously decided to overturn the trial court's decision and deny the divorce sought by Mrs. Hansley.

The court first ruled that testimony about anything Mr. Hansley said concerning Lucy's child was inadmissible unless there was also evidence about how he treated the child; otherwise, the comments may have been part of a secret plan by the Hansleys to get around North Carolina's tough requirements for getting a divorce.

More importantly, North Carolina's divorce statute permitted the granting of absolute divorces only when "either party has separated him or herself from the other and is living in adultery." However, Mrs. Hansley's petition did not allege that her husband continued his adulterous ways after she had left him. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that no evidence about any adultery by Mr. Hansley after his wife moved out was admissible. As indicated by the court, the requirement that the offending party still live in adultery was to make sure no divorce was given until reconciliation was beyond all hope. As stated in Judge Ruffin's decision:

the law does not mean to dissolve the bonds of matrimony and exclude one of the parties from marriage until there is no just ground to hope for a reconciliation

even when there is a separation, if the offending party should reform forthwith and lead a pure life afterwards, the law does not look upon it as hopeless, that reconciliation may in time follow the reformation. It may not be a case, indeed, in which the law will permit the husband to insist on a restoration of the conjugal rights of society and cohabitation, by compelling the wife's return. But, on the other hand, it is not a case in which it is past hope, that the wife may not, upon the strength of ancient affections, and a sense of duty and interest, be willing of herself, at some time, to partake of the society and share in the fate of her reformed husband.

Therefore, the North Carolina Supreme Court concluded that even though there were sufficient grounds to give Mrs. Hansley a legal separation or a divorce a mensa et thoro, no absolute divorce could be granted. The superior court's ruling was overturned and the divorce was denied.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bardaglio, Peter W. Reconstructing the Household: Families, Sex, and the Law in the Nineteenth-Century South. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Eisler, Riane Tennenhaus. Dissolution: No-Fault Divorce, Marriage, and the Future of Women. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1977.

Griswold, Robert L. "Sexual Cruelty and the Case for Divorce in Victorian America." Signs 11(1986): 529-41.

Iredell, James. North Carolina Reports: Cases at Law Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Vol. 32. Raleigh, N.C.: Turner and Hughes, 1850. Reprint, Raleigh, N.C.: E. M. Uzzell and Company, State Printers and Binders, 1909.