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  • Selling Wives May 7, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    One British author writes in 1910 ‘Within the last twenty years there have been at least a dozen cases reported in the press of men in a low station in life who have sold their wives, under the impression they could legally do so if all parties were willing. One husband parted with his spouse for eighteen pence and a glass of beer. He was evidently in need of a new system of values, as well as some elementary instruction on the marriage law. But Brand, writing in 1808, remarks: ‘A remarkable superstition still prevails among the lowest of our vulgar, that a man may lawfully sell his wife to another, provided he deliver her over with a halter about her neck. It is painful to observe that instances of this occur frequently in our newspapers.’ In modern transfers, the scene being the bar of a public-house, the halter is missing, and a few coins take its place. But the origin of the custom can only have originated in methods of marriage without the sanction of priest or civil ceremony; the result being that, as the man does the marrying himself, he concludes he is the sole contracting party, able at will to dispose of his wife as he thinks fit.’

    The locus classicus for this is, of course, Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge, where Henchard sells his wife Susan while drunk and gives away a child too. Hardy was much criticised at the time for ‘making up’ this institution and he had to protest in later editions that it was based on fact. Just in case, there can be any doubt, here is the news report that likely inspired Hardy’s novel.

    Sale of Wife. Man at Brighton led a tidy looking woman up to one of the stalls in the market, with a halter round her neck, and offered her for sale. A purchaser was soon found, who bought her for 30/- which he paid, and went off with his bargain amid the sneers and laughter of the mob, but not before the transaction was regularly entered by the clerk of the market book and the toll of one shilling paid. He also paid 1/- for the halter, and another 1/- to the man who performed the office of auctioneer. We understand they were country people, and that the woman has had two children by her husband, one of whom he consents to keep, and the other he throws in as a makeweight to the bargain. 25 May 1826 from Brighton Gazette.

    In Wives for Sale (1981) Samuel Pyeatt Menefee euhemerised this custom into a form of ‘popular divorce’ where the wife was complaisant and the marriage often pre-arranged. This is perhaps though to sentimentalise what was a potentially brutal custom: the sellers often had two characteristics, they were older than their young wives and they were drunk. SPM did dig up though an incredible four hundred cases from 1500 onwards: the vast majority taking place 1785-1845, after which a steep decline set in. In fact, looking again at the early records it strikes Beach that many might be misunderstandings or chance acts rather than ‘custom’. This solution to marital difficulties seems to have been born in the eighteenth century. Why? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Was there anything similar in other Western countries?


    8 May 2012 For wife selling Wade writes: Wikipedia has a good survey on wife-selling:  Interestingly enough, while the French criticized the English for this custom, they too have “scattered records” of this happening in western France. Then Wade also gives a reference from modern India. Invisible, meanwhile, (as is her wont) has the States covered.    Charley McCartney, “The Goat Man” is said to have sold his wife in 1939 to a farmer for $1000. Other accounts say she just up and left him.    A spate of detailed accounts of wife selling.   SOLD HIS WIFE TOO CHEAPLY Man Who Sold His Wife for $80 Tried to Get More Money for Her After the Deal. Richard D. McMillan UP Staff Correspondent. Paris, Mar. 9 (UP) Business being slack for Mikkel Leppik, an Esthonian fur-dealer who has worked in Paris since he left the colder climes of his native land some seven years ago, he decided to branch out in a new line of business. So he sold his wife. Mikkel appeared before the twelfth correctional chamber at the Palais de Justice to answer to his crime which, however, was not that he had put his wife on the auction block. In the eyes of French justice he had every right to sell his wife if he wished, but he had not the right, afterwards, to threaten the man who succeeded him as husband with all kinds of tortures if more money were not forthcoming. The enterprising Esthonian sold his wife, Irma Ivanoff, to a Ukranian, Alexandre Minckh. The price was 2,101 francs or approximately $80, and the Ukranian thought the transaction a bargain. Minckh told mutual friends how well he had done and how pleased he was with his own good fortune. The mutual friends went and told the ex-husband. What happened afterward might have been described by Dostoievsky. The Esthonian who had once been the husband of Irma Ivanoff was consumed with regrets—not that he had sold the wife, but that he had sold her so cheaply. He decided that more money should be paid by the Ukranian. Mikkel began to write letters to the husband who had succeeded him. Letters couched in charming yet coercive phrases and as they did not attain their object, the  angry Esthonian resorted to threats. He said if he did not receive an additional 500 francs he would become “a savage beast” for his ex-wife and her new spouse. The court heard the whole story and then sentenced Mikkel to a month in jail in spite of his protests that he had only loaned his wife to the Ukranian. The wife said that her ex-husband had wished to find enough money to enable him to go to America, but when he got the proceeds of the transaction in to his hands he went off and had a hectic week-end at Brussels. While Mikkel Leppik marched off to the cells his ex-wife walked away arm-in-arm with her purchaser.    Oelwein [IA] Daily Register, 3-8-1930   RECANTS HIS BARGAIN. Manchester Man Finds He Had Sold His Wife Too Cheaply. Manchester, Ia., March 16—Several months ago a young man and another man’s wife arranged with the woman’s husband to give him $50 and in consideration therefore he was to release, relinquish and forever quit claim all his right, title and interest in and to his aforesaid wife. The money was paid and the young fellow and the woman packed up their baggage and came to this city, where they have since been living as husband and wife. A few days ago the husband put in an appearance here, and it is said he claims he sold out too cheap and now demands $800 more and proposes to make trouble unless his demands are satisfied. Cedar Rapids [IA] Evening Gazette 3-16-1898 p. 7. Thanks Wade and Invisible!!!