In 'The Great Divorce': A Mover Against The Shakers

The Great Divorce i i

The revolutionary Eunice Chapman, who won the first legal divorce in New York State in 1818 -- then became embroiled in an epic custody battle with her ex-husband. hide caption

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The Great Divorce

The revolutionary Eunice Chapman, who won the first legal divorce in New York State in 1818 -- then became embroiled in an epic custody battle with her ex-husband.

On an unseasonably cold night in May of 1818, a mob carrying torches surrounded the small village of Enfield, N.H. They had gathered to rescue three children — Julia, Susan and George Chapman — who were being held by the religious sect known as the Shakers.

At the head of the mob was Eunice Chapman, the children's mother. She was determined to regain custody of her kids, who had been taken from her by her ex-husband James. At a time when American women had neither property rights nor civil rights, Eunice was a revolutionary.

Her incredible story is the focus of a new book by Ilyon Woo called The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times. She speaks with NPR's Guy Raz about life in a 19th-century Shaker village and how Eunice eventually managed to get her children back.

Excerpt: 'The Great Divorce'

The Great Divorce
The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times
By Ilyon Woo
Hardcover, 416 pages
Grove Atlantic, Inc.
List price: $25

In 1802 Eunice Hawley should have been married. She was twenty-four years old and single at a time when women tended to wed much earlier. Her two elder sisters — one of whom was only a year older than Eunice — had been married off years ago to good men near their age. Both now had several children, and Eunice had often cradled their babies in her arms. Eunice, however, showed no signs of starting a family of her own.

It was not that she lacked physical charm. Unfortunately, no images exist to show precisely what Eunice looked like, but eyewitnesses recounted that she was strikingly fair and unusually small — and in possession of a powerful allure that would now be called sex appeal. While her tiny frame enhanced her appearance of innocence and defenselessness (both considered feminine virtues), there was something about Eunice that led men to impure thoughts — or so it would later be alleged.

If Eunice had looks, however, she also had a powerful temper, which might have affected her marriage prospects had she developed a reputation for being outspoken or mean. Practical factors might also have accounted for her single status. Eunice was the middle of eight children born to Elijah and Mercy Hawley. With their two older girls married off, the Hawleys may have wanted to hold on to their next-born daughter a little longer, to help keep house and care for their younger ones. Financial troubles might have been another consideration. Eunice's father was an entrepreneurial character, a dry-goods merchant and skilled carpenter in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who ran a boardinghouse for sailors on the side. His business failures, though common in this era, would blight Eunice's prospects in the years to come: It is possible that he had already failed in Bridgeport, further diminishing Eunice's chances of marrying well.

Then again, Eunice herself may have been holding out for something better or simply different. She may also have made and lost a match. In any case, when her parents, like so many of their Yankee neighbors, decided to move to the frontiers of New York State in search of better land and fortunes, Eunice, too, seized upon the adventure — she was single and ready to begin her life again.

The Hawleys left behind a well-settled world in Bridgeport. Their family had lived in the area for generations, arriving as Puritan dissenters and later serving as sergeants and constables, surveyors and bell-ringers, reverends, and justices of the peace. Elijah himself was a deacon of the Presbyterian Church. The family lived off of Main Street, not far from Bridgeport Harbor, where a fine breeze came off Long Island Sound and tall ships arrived from Boston, New York, and as far away as the West Indies.

As they journeyed west (slowly, with all of their belongings in tow), the Hawleys encountered a terrain that was far more primitive. The deeper they moved inland, the less likely they were to see church spires and the more likely they were to encounter taverns instead — mean-looking hovels, as one fellow New Englander described them, where "rude" and "clownish" people would congregate, drinking during all hours of the day. For Elijah and Mercy Hawley, who attended worship meetings during the week, as well as on Sundays, the sight of these churchless settlements was surely discomforting.

Then they reached Durham. Located in the heart of Catskill country, forty miles southwest of the New York State capitol in Albany and settled by Connecticut natives like themselves, this community of more than two thousand people stood as an orderly sanctuary in a landscape of disarray. The homely barrenness of the land all around gave way to an undulating terrain of gentle slopes and open valleys, with loamy, clay-rich fields yielding golden crops of grass and wheat, as one eyewitness observed. The town itself was high on a hill, with a Congregational meetinghouse taking a prominent place at its center. There were several schools, and shops carrying such niceties as chocolate and indigo. Here, in short, was every semblance of home.

Equally promising, Durham fell along the route of the brand-new Susquehanna Turnpike, which was crowded, day and night, with all manner of men — homesteaders and farmers, peddlers and grave diggers, itinerant preachers and traveling portrait painters, as well as herds of cattle, turkeys, and other beasts being driven farther west. It was said of this road that dust never settled, and in the evenings, the fields glowed with the makeshift hearths of campers stopping to rest.

This vibrant town was the perfect place for an enterprising merchant to start a business, and it should also have been an ideal location for his daughter to find a husband. But two years after her arrival, Eunice Hawley was still without a partner — a serious situation for a woman of twenty-six, in an era when a woman's future lay largely with the fortunes of the man she married. Were she to remain single, Eunice might support herself as a teacher, passing on the same basic lessons she had learned at home, or perhaps by taking in sewing. But her income would be meager, and she risked becoming a burden to her family. If her parents had not been worried before, they were certainly anxious now. Years later, when Eunice's youngest sister remained unmarried at the younger age of twenty-three, her nephew would regretfully report back to her kin: "Aunt Sally has been here three months, and is still in a state of celibacy."

By this time, Elijah Hawley's financial troubles had become a determining factor in his daughter's lack of prospects. His business with his oldest son, Jesse, was failing, and though the Hawleys were innocent of wrongdoing, they would soon face prosecution from their creditors. With pressure mounting, Eunice now had to reexamine her options with a more practical eye and consider candidates whom she may have overlooked — withered bachelors, widowers, fathers with children, and men she simply did not like. Eventually, for security's sake, she chose to do what many others in her position had done before: she settled.

Excerpted from The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times by Ilyon Woo. Copyright 2010 by Ilyon Woo. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Inc.

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A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times

by Ilyon Woo

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