Divorces were rare during the 19th century. Court records show the most common reason for divorce was desertion, meaning that one partner in the marriage simply abandoned the other, often moving to another part of the country to escape an unhappy marriage. Cruelty or adultery were sometimes noted as the reason for divorce, though the religious restrictions and stigma attached to a divorce frequently caused the partners to remain in an unhappy marriage rather than file for divorce and have one’s family situation become public.
The divorce case of Thomas Blackstone vs. Mary Blackstone filed in Pettis County Court was interesting because of the charges each made about the other and more interesting because of the judge’s response. The courtroom was, according to the Sedalia Democrat, packed with witnesses to hear what the press called “one of the most disgusting cases” to be heard in Pettis County, but the testimony was so exaggerated that it provided “a heap of fun” for the observers. The Democrat’s ironic tone adds an air of comedy to an account of what appears to have been a horrific situation.
The parties involved in the case were Thomas Blackstone, represented by attorneys Snoddy and Bridges, and Mary Blackstone, represented by attorneys Houston and Bothwell. Blackstone was an “exhorter,” a minister whose task was to encourage or “exhort” others to come to Christ or to deepen their faith. The Democrat described him as “tall [and] slick-looking” wearing a “consistently slick-looking smile.” Mary had a distinctive Roman nose which gave “her profile an odd appearance.” She was a homemaker, though her performance of her duties apparently left much to be desired.
Thomas had filed the petition for divorce a year before the case came to trial in early 1878, claiming that her conduct over the previous few years had made his situation “intolerable.” In October 1874, she had, he claimed, “neglected her domestic to the degree that she approached him from behind, aimed a revolver at the back of his head, and tried to shoot him.” He saved himself, he claimed, by grabbing the muzzle of the gun.
The next month, she waylaid him in a patch of timber one night and again threatened to shoot him with the revolver. When he gained possession of the gun and attempted to sell it, she threatened to slit his throat. He chose not to sell the revolver, being afraid she would make good on her threat.
The terms of endearment she used, her “pet names,” for him, were so vile they were “not fit for publication.”
To make matters worse, she refused to cook his meals, forcing him to cook them himself or eat his food raw. When he did prepare meals, she fed the prepared food to the dogs and threw the cooking utensils at his head. On May 30, 1875, after he had cooked a meal, she took a “filthy undergarment, and dipping it into filthier soapsuds, wrung the garment out over his food.” Such an action, according to the Democrat, “entirely destroyed its flavor.”
Mary had a chance to respond to Thomas’ allegations. She had, she claimed, always treated her husband with “kindness and affection” to which he responded with a variety of cruel measures.
Next week’s column details Mary Blackstone’s account of her marriage, as well as the Democrat’s somewhat cynical response.