In the late 17th century, the English colony of Pennsylvania was created on the basis of religious freedom (for all). A subset of that, according to the Quakers, was more or less gender equality. For a while it was all good. But in the 1720's, Pennslyvania was forced to change its common law to match those of England's. This made divorce illegal. But because marriage was seen as more of an economic contract than anything else, it was possible to get a pseudo-divorce on the basis that the economic contract was willfully broken by both parties. This led to a few bizarre practices...

Wife Sale

Due to the relatively liberal nature of the Philadelphian markets in the 18th century, a common practice, when a married couple chose to divorce, was that a man would sell his wife in the market. The non-black kind. This was usually brought about because the wife would build up debts (women were apparently bad with money back then too) that the husband would not be able to repay for various reasons. So, instead of being indebted to creditors, a man would sell his wife to another man, ending his marriage with her. She would have a new husband, the new proprietor of the wife would have a new mouth to feed, every one was happy. Well, would be happy, if it weren’t for the rather embarrassing way in which the wife was sold.

To be sold, a wife would have a noose tied around her neck and she would be bound at the wrists like a common criminal. Like this, she would be dragged, by the noose, like a leash, through the city streets and markets as the husband called out to any prospective customers.

Run Away Wife Ads

Because of the loose ties of credit, and small communities where wealthy people were well known, it was easily possible for a person to purchase goods on credit that was word of mouth. For example, a servant would go to a store and purchase some goods. Instead of paying for it, the servant would say something to the effect of "I am the servant of John Redforde, please send the bill to his house in New York." And it would be done. No questions asked. Because of this easily abused system, it was possible for a run-off-wife to purchase goods and to send the bill to her ex-husband's home.

To counter this, the husbands frequently placed Run Away Wife Ads in the Pennsylvania Gazette. The ads, some listed below, first began appearing in 1720, and ran infrequently until well after the revolution; they total about 800. Commonly these ads slandered the wives and warned that she might do evil deeds. Like spend money. This type of ad served to sever the economic union in marriage and therefore made a divorce possible. Here are a few run-away wife ads.

Whereas Mary Tynan, alias Kelly, alias Mangles, alias Moore,
the Wife of Thomas Tynan, now of the City of Philadelphia,
Tobacco Spinner, hath at sundry Times misused and defiled the
Bed of her said Husband: And on Saturday, the 14th of this
Instant, she the said Mary did elope from me her said Husband,
and wickedly, feloniously and clandestinely carried off sundry
of my Goods, to the Amount of Sixteen Pounds, or thereabouts.
She has also threatened to contract all the Debts she possibly
can, in my Name, in order the more effectually to ruin me. Now
I do hereby give public Notice to all Persons whatsoever, not
to credit her the said Mary on my Account, for I will not pay
any Debt of her contracting, after the Date hereof. given
under my Hand, at Philadelphia, the 17th Day of August, 1762.


N.B. Whoever harbours the said Mary, or conceals any of my
Goods, may expect to prosecuted as the Law directs.

August 26, 1762 The Pennsylvania Gazette

Whereas Margaret Simkins, wife of Daniel Simkins, of Stow creek, in the county of Cumberland, and province of West Jersey, hath, and doth elope from time to time from her said husband, to his great damage; these are to forwarn, all persons from trusting said Margaret on his account, for he will pay no debts of her contracting from the date hereof. DANIEL SIMKINS.

February 6, 1750 The Pennsylvania Gazette

To counter false accusations and protect their name, beginning in around the 1750's, women took out ads to counter-attack their husbands, accusing them of beating, adultery, and other miscellaneous sins. And after the Revolutionary War, Run Away Husband Ads were taken out by wives who were being called upon to pay the debts of the deadbeat husbands. Of course, there are exceptions. If a wife came back, a man who had once put out an ad would put out another ad to say his wife came back, and he would accept her debts.

The Pennsylvania Gazette, February 6, 1750
The Pennsylvania Gazette, August 26, 1762
Hist 352, American History in The Colonial Period, 1500 - 1763, Lecture Notes.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.