Divorces reveal much about the inner-workings of a family, usually much more than outsiders should ever discover. While processing the Arlington County chancery causes, I came across a divorce case that filled two whole boxes. That’s .90 cubic feet of possible scandal and mayhem! The case Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055, was quite the interesting case featuring interracial relationships, mental institutions, and an overly dramatic, possibly unstable daughter.
In 1907, Nannie Shelley sued for divorce, alleging infidelity and physical and mental abuse. She claimed William Shelley treated her not as a wife but as if she were a “despised and hated slave.” He forbade her any social relations and made her religion a “matter of scorn and ridicule.” He choked her and dragged her across the floor and finally threatened to kill her saying he would “try the McCue act on her.” (At the time of this divorce case, former Charlottesville mayor J. Samuel McCue’s alleged murder of his wife and subsequent trial was much in the news.)
Nannie suffered a nervous condition, supposedly as a result of her husband’s cruel treatment, that William used as an excuse to incarcerate her for three months in a “private mad house.” Although not declared legally insane, three doctors examined her and determined she suffered from paranoia. Nannie believed she ought to have been “if insanity is the natural result of a woman being persistently ill-used and terrorized.” She described her stay at Sheppard-PrattHospital for the Insane in Baltimore as causing her to be more nervous from seeing “those insane patients walking up and down… and hearing those screams at night, and these insane people would pass before me like a panorama.”
But there was another influence on the breakdown of the Shelleys’ marriage and Nannie’s mental breakdown. Her daughter, Larla, figured heavily in many of the disagreements Nannie had with her husband. It was Larla who first planted the suspicion that William Shelley was having an affair with the African American woman living across the street. Larla claimed to have witnessed her father and the unnamed neighbor signaling to each other with handkerchiefs. She also accused her father of having an affair with the “Berry woman,” the African American employed as a maid in the household. William denied the affairs, but Nannie couldn’t let go of her suspicions, going so far as to drill holes in a closet and the ceiling in order to spy on her husband. One night, Nannie heard what William claimed to be the dog scratching on the porch, but Nannie was convinced that the sounds were made by a woman seeking out her husband. Nannie took her tales of infidelity to the neighbors, an action that convinced William of her insanity.
The Shelleys’ oldest son, Carlisle, claimed that the “price of peace with Larla was apparent enmity” between his parents and he had known them “to go so far as to pretend enmity in order to have peace with her.” William described his wife as giving in to their daughter’s “tyranny,” allowing her to sleep till midday, carrying up her breakfast, carrying “out her slops,” and in various ways “encouraging Larla in her laziness.” It is clear from documents in the case that William placed some of the blame for his failing marriage and his wife’s mental condition on the actions of his daughter.
In an effort to achieve peace in the home, Larla was shipped off to boarding school at the Columbia Institute in Tennessee. Larla’s opinion of the place? “You must not be so foolish as to make me stay here. It is Hell.” Several letters admitted as exhibits in the case certainly speak to Larla’s dramatics: “I am a frame of morbid anatomy.” On 10 December 1905, Larla asked her father to “excuse all unladylike expressions” and wanted to know how he expected her to enjoy herself and work at the same time: “but you are a fool & a big one if you think I can do either in my present state of mind or condition.” She describes herself as “disappointed in love as well as in family.” The letter continues as Larla refers to one teacher as a “devil” and then delves into suicidal language: “I am not made for this dark, dreary, and lonely world…. Dear, father I wish I were dead…. If I have not written so plainly as I could have done, just read between the lines.”
Larla kept up her complaining to her father on 24 January 1906: “You are surely a queer old man…. Let me know what you think your daughter is, a wallflower and an ugly one, or a d—- fool.” In a letter to her mother dated 25 January 1906, Larla blames her failed romance on her parents’ interference. After placing that blame, Larla commences complaining about not being allowed to attend a dance with another boy: “I am going away, if Pa will not let me go to nice dances & receptions & especially when the finest morrally [sic] and financially of men asks me to go; I have not all my time to waist [sic], as I did before, and I am going to have a good time….” Larla ends this particular letter with another wish for her imminent death. Nannie admitted to opening her daughter’s letters “with a little foreboding of what is coming” as her daughter only wrote when she was “full of fuss.” The content of Larla’s letters makes it clear that her mother was correct and that Larla only wrote home “when she ha[d] her fighting gloves on.”
In letters starting in April 1906, William Shelley expressed his intentions to move to Oklahoma and to leave his properties in Virginia under the control of a power of attorney. Upon finding himself linked to a woman who now “finds the chains of matrimony galling,” William planned to “go away to a place where the laws are more liberal” in order to obtain the divorce that Nannie failed to secure from the Arlington County courts.
The story of the Shelleys’ marriage could have easily ended there, but Larla Shelley found herself in the Arlington County courts seeking her own divorce in 1911. In Larla Shelley Moehring vs. John McManus Moehring, 1911-013, Larla sought a divorce on grounds of adultery and physical abuse. In his answer, John Moehring references his wife’s mother coming to live with them for a time before returning to her husband. A custody agreement leaves the Moehrings’ infant daughter, Nannie, in the care of W. C. Shelley and his wife. From these documents it appears that the marriage of William and Nannie Shelley was being repaired just as their daughter’s was falling apart.
The Arlington County Chancery Causes are currently closed for processing.
-Bari Helms, Local Records Archivist