In 'The Great Divorce': A Mover Against The Shakers Eunice Chapman won the first legal divorce in New York State in 1818. Her scandalous case pitted Mrs. Chapman against her abusive husband, who took their three children and joined the radical Shaker sect. NPR's Guy Raz talks to Ilyon Woo, author of a new book about the case, called The Great Divorce.

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

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

On an unseasonably cold night in May, a mob carrying torches surrounded the small village of Enfield, New Hampshire - this happened in 1818 - and the mob came to Enfield to rescue three children who were being held by the religious sect known as the Shakers.

Ms. ILYON WOO (Author, "The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband"): (Reading) Leading the mob was the mother of the missing children, Eunice Chapman, a woman so small that she might have been mistaken for a child herself, her eyes scanning the darkened village. Somewhere here in one of the closed workshops or bonds or perhaps an illuming four-story dwelling where the Shakers spent their nights was her former husband, James, and with him the children he had stolen from her; Julia, Susan and George.

RAZ: Now, at a time when women in America had no property rights or civil rights, Eunice Chapman was a revolutionary. She took on the Shakers, her ex-husband and the institutions of the day to regain custody of her kids. That story's told in the new book by Ilyon Woo - that was her voice you just heard. It's called "The Great Divorce."

And Ilyon Woo joins me now from New York. Welcome.

Ms. WOO: Thank you. It's great to be here.

RAZ: Eunice Chapman married James Chapman around the beginning of the 19th century. This is at a time when America was still sort of deciding what kind of country it was going to become. And before we go to the story of the Shakers and all the drama, describe what marriage meant for a woman in early 19th century America. What happened to you?

Ms. WOO: For women like Eunice Chapman, marriage was utterly transformative. As soon as she married, she became civilly dead.

RAZ: Civilly dead?

Ms. WOO: Yes.

RAZ: And this is a term that you're not just throwing out there. This is actually a term that was used?

Ms. WOO: Yes. Her legal identity became completely submerged beneath that of her husband's.

RAZ: So they get married, they have three kids very quickly, but it's not a happy marriage.

Ms. WOO: No. Why it was unhappy might depend on whose point of view. James Chapman believed that his wife was an interminable shrew and that she completely brought him down. Eunice, on the other hand, faced a very abusive, alcoholic man. And so, you know, even before the Shakers were involved, this was a bad marriage to say the least.

RAZ: Now, you talk about how he eventually, James eventually finds - sort of finds redemption when he encounters a community of Shakers in Upstate New York.

Ms. WOO: Yes.

RAZ: And then he decides that he is going to live there with his kids and he asks Eunice to join him there. She doesn't. She refuses. Why?

Ms. WOO: Well, Eunice Chapman was a fiercely independent woman who valued her children more than anything else. In order for her to join the Shaker community, she would have had to renounce all of her familial bonds and really sort of subverted herself to the society. Those were things that she was not willing to do.

RAZ: So some time around, sort of 1814, 1815, she basically decides to file for divorce. She made her case, you write, to the New York State legislature. Was that the route you took at the time rather than go through the courts?

Ms. WOO: If she went, let's say, to the Court of Chancery and they decided that she did not deserve a divorce, there's nothing more she could do at that time. If she went through the legislature, she could go back, and again and again, as she did. I mean, every time there was resistance to her case, she could find somebody new. She could go to legislature again.

RAZ: Why do you think the New York State legislature granted her wishes, gave her a divorce?

Ms. WOO: You know, that's a great question, because even then people were saying, I mean, the lawmakers themselves are saying, why are we even considering giving this woman such an exceptional divorce? Does she deserve a divorce any more than anyone else?

And the fact is maybe she did, maybe she didn't, but she was an incredibly resourceful person. You might even call her a media maven ahead of her time. This meant that she wrote sensational narratives at a time when it wasn't popular to write this way. Even going before the legislature was pretty radical because women were not supposed to be out in public airing their dirty laundry.

And then when all that failed, even, she roused a mob.

RAZ: In parallel to what Eunice Chapman was writing about the Shakers and about her husband and all these things that were happening to her, she was writing letters directly to the Shaker community. She gets her divorce but she doesn't get the custody of the kids.

And you include some of these letters that she's writing to the Shakers, and I was hoping you could read part of one of those letters, because it's quite dramatic.

Ms. WOO: Yes. I mean, you see a view of Eunice Chapman that is entirely different from what she presents publicly. I mean, she speaks about meekness and wanting to be sort of...

RAZ: Kind of like, damsel in distress.

Ms. WOO: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, she says in her narrative, she writes, if the reader should observe anything in the following statement, not becoming the meekness, which ought to characterize my sex, I wish the reader to consider it was written by a persecuted woman who has been hurled from the state of wealth and happiness and now enduring indigenes and grief.

You know, then you get her letters to the Shakers and they show a very, very different side of her personality.

(Reading) Think not that the battle is over after such a victory is gained. I am consulting my friends, collecting my forces for a new invasion. You see what I as an instrument in the hands of God has brought to pass? You see that all your money and lawyers nor your gods could not save you. You have fallen before a poor, weak woman.

RAZ: Ilyon Woo, I'm not sure if I'm more frightened of your dramatic reading or what she was writing in, what, around 1817. Eventually, Eunice Chapman does get her children back. What happened to her later in life?

Ms. WOO: You know, she told the Shakers in that very threatening letter that she did not want to spend the best of her days dealing with the Shakers. She just wanted this chapter in her life to be over, and she was good to her promise. But I think she was always haunted by what she had gone through and her loss of identity as a married woman. That's kind of the irony.

Her granddaughter actually reports that she was quite miserable and a recluse on account of her having been a divorced woman, which carried shame at the time.

RAZ: That's Ilyon Woo. She's the author of "The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers and Her Times."

Ilyon Woo, thank you so much.

Ms. WOO: Thank you so much for having me.

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