Who Says Statute Books Are Boring?

There’s no question finding the laws that governed the creation and recording of your ancestor’s documents is an integral part of wringing all of those clues out of records that might have gone otherwise unnoticed. I could, and probably have, posted about this topic in the past. I probably will post about it again in the future. In fact, I hope to eventually publish an article on the subject.

It’s true, though. All of your complaints are true. Books of old laws are hard to read. They use funny words, they use funny typesets, and sometimes you are more confused after having read the law than before you even knew it existed. However, these statute books are an incredibly rich resource filled with all kinds of great stuff you’ll want to know as a genealogist.

But I’m not here to talk about that today. I’m here to gossip. I want to share some dirt on the common townfolk of 1700 and 1800s Pennsylvania.

In the modern world of digitization and text-searchable documents, we rarely just browse through resources. That’s too bad, because while some of these things may not be useful to your specific genealogical search, there IS some juicy stuff buried in statute books. I present you with some cases from Pennsylvania’s Statutes At Large, 18 volumes of which (1689-1809) which can be found free of charge at the Pennsylvania Session Laws website:

1808, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania:

“AN ACT TO DISSOLVE THE MARRIAGE OF JACOB MAYER
AND CATHARINE, HIS WIFE.
Whereas it appears to the legislature that immediately
after the intermarriage of Jacob Mayer, of Leacock township,
Lancaster county, and Catharine his wife, and before consummation,
an unaccountable antipathy and dislike on her
part took place to her said husband, which led her to separate
from him, and that although all reasonable pains have been
taken by him and her father, to overcome her aversion and
to reconcile her to her said husband, there remains no prospect
of reconciliation, which extraordinary and unhappy situation,
can be redressed by the legislature only:”1

1799, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania

“AN ACT DECLARING THE MARRIAGE OF ALEXANDER DE TILLY AND
MARIA MATILDA DE TILLY (LATE MARIA MATILDA BINGHAM) TO
BE FRAUDULENT, NULL AND VOID.
Whereas the marriage contract, whether it is considered as a
religious or as a civil institution, ought, above all contracts, to
be free from fraud, artifice and collusion, and it hath accordingly
been the policy of virtuous and enlightened legislators of
every age and country to annul the same, whenever it appears
(among other flagrant causes) that either party, being of tender
years, hath been seduced and ensnared by menaces, intimidation,
imposition, falsehood and deceit, to enter clandestinely into
so important an engagement, without the consent or privity of
parents, guardians or friends
And whereas it hath been represented, and satisfactorily
proved, to the general assembly of this commonwealth that a certain
French emigrant named Alexander de Tihly (commonly
called Count dc Tihly) did, by bribing and corrupting the servants
of William Bingham of the city of Philadelphia, commence
and prosecute a secret correspondence with Maria M. de Tihly
(then Maria M. Bingham) the daughter of the said William Bingham,
of the tender age of fifteen years or thereabouts, and in
the course of such correspondence, by acts the most seducing,
fraudulent and iniquitous, as well as by menace and intimidation,
ensnared the said Maria M. de Tilly (then Maria M. Bingham) into a midnight
elopement from the h6use of her parents,and conveyed her to the house of a
minister of the gospel, who was induced to pronounce the marriage ceremony
between the said parties by false, fraudulent and corrupt representations made to
him by the said Alexander de Tilly, touching the parentage, residence
and age of the said Mariam de Tilly.”2

1806, Adams County, Pennsylvania

“AN ACT DISSOLVING THE MARRIAGE OF JACOB SELL
AND EVE HIS WIFE.
Whereas it appears by the memorial and petition of Jacob
Sell of Adams county, fully supported by authentic documents
and vouchers, that Jacob Sell when a young man, in time year
one thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven, married a
woman of the name of Eve Helman, who five months after her
marriage was delivered of a female child, and both being conscious
that the child was not the said Sell’s; and firmly impressed with a
belief that under these circumstances happiness was not to be expected,
mutually agreed to separate: she, the said Eve having acknowledged the
fact, agreed in consideration of the sum of ten pounds paid by the said
Sell, the receipt of which the said Eve has also acknowledged, and
further by a written instrument duly executed in which she has disclaimed
any pretentions to further demands, which shemight be supposed to lay
claim to in virtue of said marriage contract.”3

1780, (No County stated), Pennsylvania

“AN ACT TO DISSOLVE THE MARRIAGE OF GILES HICKS WITH HIS WIFE
HESTER HICKS LATE HESTER McDANIEL.
(Section I, P. L.) Whereas, Giles Hicks, of the state of Penn-
sylvania, Esquire, and captain in the tenth regiment of the
said state hath presented a petition to this house setting forth
that in the month of November, one thousand seven hundred
and seventy-six, when he was a minor of the age of fifteen
years, he was seduced by the artifices of a certain Hester
McDaniel and her relations to contract marriage with her contrary
to the consent of his guardians and other friends:
That the said Hester was at the time of the said marriage a common
prostitute and hath since lived separate from the said Giles in
open adultery with divers other men, by means whereof she
became so diseased of the lues venerea as to be declared incurable
after seven months continuance in the Pennsylvania
Hospital, and praying leave to bring in a bill for the dissolution
of the said marriage after due notice given:
And whereas, it appears to this house that the facts alleged
in the said petition are true:
And whereas, this house did, by their resolve of the twenty first
day of November, one thousand seven hundred and eighty,
give permission to the said Giles Hicks to bring in a bill to
divorce him from his said wife Hester, agreeable to the prayer
of his said petition, he, the said Giles Hicks,giving previous
notice of his design and this permission at least three weeks
in the public newspaper printed in the city of Philadelphia, entitled
“The Pennsylvania Gazette and Weekly Advertiser:”
And whereas, it hath been sufficiently proved to the house
that the said notice hath been given:”4

See? And here you thought all this law stuff was boring!

  1. Pennsylvania, Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania, Volume XVIII from 1806 to 1809 (Harrisburg: Wm. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1915), 896; digital images, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau, Pennsylvania Session Laws, http://www.palrb.us: accessed 2 Mar 2012). []
  2. Pennsylvania, Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania from 1682 to 1801: Volume XVI from 1798 to 1801 (Harrisburg: Wm. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1915), 390; digital images, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau, Pennsylvania Session Laws, (http://www.palrb.us: accessed 2 Mar 2012). []
  3. Pennsylvania, Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania, Volume XVIII from 1806 to 1809, 56. []
  4. Pennsylvania, Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania from 1682 to 1801: Volume X from 1779 to 1781 (Harrisburg: Wm. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1915), 267; digital images, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau, Pennsylvania Session Laws, (http://www.palrb.us: accessed 2 Mar 2012). []
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3 Responses to Who Says Statute Books Are Boring?

  1. LOVE these!!!! What great examples of the goodies in statute books!

    • avatar Chris Staats says:

      Thanks, Judy! I wonder if anyone related to these folks would ever manage to find them? I don’t think they would come up in a Google search (although I am now going to have to test that theory!)They certainly help fill in the “dash between the dates,” as they say. There were several other examples that were much darker than these.

      • avatar Chris Staats says:

        I stand corrected: They are indexed by Google and do show up in a regular web search.