Tag Archives: divorce

- Love Letters in the Archives

Postcard image, undated.

While working on a project involving the Middlesex County Chancery Causes, I noticed a case that was filled with scandal and intrigue.  Middlesex Chancery Cause, 1907-033, Andrew Courtney vs. Mary Courtney is a divorce suit in which both parties accuse the other of adultery. Andrew claimed his wife ran off to Connecticut with a married man named Beverly Smith, and Mary responded by claiming that Andrew was guilty of adultery himself.

As evidence, Mary produced several letters written to her husband by various women, one of which included a lock of hair.  That letter, dated 30 August 1906 from a Miss Ginny Davis, proclaimed “Here is a peice [sic] of my hair look at it and think of me.”

While it is sad to think that some of the love letters that end up in the archives are the result of divorce suits and romance gone wrong in one way or another, it also proves the quest for love is something that is surely timeless.

The Middlesex Chancery Causes, 1754-1912, are available online through the Chancery Records Index on the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Memory site.  The lock of hair reference above has also been scanned.


–Mary Dean Carter, Local Records Archival Assistant… read more »

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- Spotsylvania County Chancery Causes Online

Spotsylvania County seal

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Spotsylvania County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1812-1913, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on LVA’s Virginia Memory website. Chancery cases are useful when researching local history, genealogical information, and land or estate divisions. They are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history and serve as a primary source for understanding a locality’s history.

Following are a few suits of interest found in the Spotsylvania County chancery collection. Fortune Coleman etc., vs Gdn. of Henry Coleman etc., 1900-016 is a dispute over land and mineral rights of a “colored” family.  In the Petition of Thomas M. Henry, 1906-047, this is a request to access land for development of a multi-county transit system.  Mary Ella Gray vs. James Oliver B. Gray, 1913-006, is a divorce case with an illustrative biblical certificate used as a legal as proof of marriage.

The processing and scanning of the Spotsylvania County chancery causes were made possible through the innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP), a cooperative program between the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Court Clerks Association (VCCA), which seeks to preserve the historic records found in Virginia’s circuit courts.

–Joanne Porter, Local Records Archivist… read more »

- King William Co. Chancery Now Online!

Letterhead for the Terminal Hotel, West Point, Virginia. King William County (Va.) Chancery Cause Anderson Bourgeoise, etc. vs. Daniel L. Risley, 1904-026, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for the King William County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1868-1913, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site. Because they rely so heavily on the testimony of witnesses, chancery causes contain a wealth of historical and genealogical information and are especially useful when researching local, state, social, or legal history. Chancery causes often contain correspondence, property lists (including slaves), lists of heirs, and vital statistics that are especially helpful in documenting the African American experience, family history, women’s history, and Southern business and labor history. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.

The King William chancery causes contain several suits which illustrate the experiences of Native Americans in the Tidewater region. The Mattaponi Tribe is represented in Chancery Cause 1895-002, George F. Custalow vs. James S. Robinson, Trustee. In the case, two members of the Mattaponi Tribe, Custalow and Austin Key, dispute ownership over a piece of land.  In Chancery Cause Walter Miles vs. Alice Miles, 1907-006, two members of the Pamunkey Tribe, living in Indian Town, head to the King William County court to seek a divorce. Walter Miles claimed that on 15 November 1904 he was called before the chiefs of the tribe to face a charge … read more »

- From Russia Without Love

PRINZESS IRENE ashore, 1911. (Image used courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

It has been said that there is a thin line between love and hate, and apparently love and obsession.  Or so appears to be the case in the life of Abram D. Toporosky.  In a Winchester chancery cause we find that Abram was a young man of 21 when he left his native country of Russia to begin a new life in the United States.  He married Rosie Ziman in Lomsk, Russia, before making his way to the harbors of New York.  He planned on finding employment and establishing residency so that he could send for his wife and they could begin their new lives in America.

Abram found work as a tailor in New York and after two years he had saved enough money to send for Rosie. Abram’s work load was steady; however, a few months after Rosie arrived his work began to slow down at the tailor shop. An affable fellow, Abram made friends easily, and the Toporoskys did not want for male company. A friend from Russia, Benjamin Stein, even lived with the couple. Abram had a couple of other male friends from the tailor shop—Harris and Wiegder who came around and were considered “good sports.” In particular, Harris, first name unknown, was willing to help Abram out financially. Stein described Harris as a “kind of a sport, a well dressed, … read more »

- Georgia on my Mind


Marriage certificate published by N. Currier, circa 1848. (Image used courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

One day in 1898, A.M. Scales definitely did not have Georgia on his mind.

While processing the Patrick County chancery records, I discovered a divorce case, Georgia L. Scales, by etc. vs. A. M. Scales, in which Georgia, a white woman, caught her husband, A. M. Scales, committing adultery with their African American cook.  The chancery case describes Georgia as a loving wife who faithfully served her family—a stark contrast to Mr. Scales.

Throughout their ten years of marriage, according to the suit, A. M. Scales lived a carefree life filled with riotous living and degrading insults for Georgia.  He even asked merchants to not provide Georgia with credit for food and supplies leaving Georgia to despairingly provide for herself and her four children.  After doling out years of abuse, Mr. Scales was determined that Georgia wouldn’t amount to anything, so he decided to separate from her and their children on 24 September 1897.

Georgia was fine with the separation because, despite a lack of proof, she always suspected that her husband had an affair.  One day, Georgia’s suspicions proved true when she returned home from a prayer meeting and found her husband in the kitchen committing adultery with her cook.  After being caught in the act, Mr. Scales decided to contain his adulterous affairs to the privacy of a hotel.

Shortly thereafter, an … read more »

- Anatomy of a Marriage

Residence of Nannie and William Shelley, circa 1900s, Arlington County Chancery Cause Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055.

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 … read more »

- The Correct Answer Is, “I Do”

The Ebony Bridal -- Wedding Ceremony in the Cabin, engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 19 August 1871. (Image used courtesy of Library of Virginia Special Collections.)

“It was a hot summer day on August 5, 1865, when George Kiner and Diana Bumgardner arrived at the courthouse in Augusta County, Virginia, to apply for a marriage license. They brought with them an order from Capt. John Collins, Provost Marshall, directing the court to issue the license as ‘they being in all respects entitled to such license.’ While there were other couples that day applying for marriage licenses, George and Diana were the only couple with such an order. This was indeed a historical event as they were the first African American couple to be issued a marriage license in Augusta County.”

-African American Marriage Index 1865-1899, Augusta County, Virginia

At first glance the story of George Kiner and Diana Bumgardner is one of love triumphing over the tragedies of slavery and war. But documents found in the Augusta County Chancery Causes reveal not a lovely wedding born of true love, but a shotgun affair with a groom forced to the altar at gunpoint. In his bill for divorce filed in the Augusta County courts in February 1866, George Coiner (the predominant spelling in court documents was Coiner, but Kiner and Koiner were also used) painted a less than idealistic picture of his wedding day. George Coiner, a former slave, was working in a field when two armed soldiers, one white and the … read more »

- Lee Co. Chancery Goes Digital!

First issue of Emory and Henry College's the Emory and Henry Casket, John Slack vs. John W. Carnes, etc., Lee County Chancery Cause 1882-052.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Lee County Chancery Causes, 1857-1912, are now available on the Chancery Records Index. Because they rely so heavily on the testimony of witnesses, chancery causes contain a wealth of historical and genealogical information and are especially useful when researching local, state, social, and legal history. The Lee County chancery collection offers a glimpse of life in Lee County during the 19th and early-20th centuries by documenting the African American experience, women’s history, Southern business and labor history, and the impact the railroad’s arrival had on a region. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.

Lee County chancery causes contain several suits illustrating the experiences of women in the westernmost part of the commonwealth. In Mary V. Pennington by etc. vs. M. C. Parsons, etc., 1887-019, Mary Pennington sought to gain control over land gifted to her by her father. The land was being sold by her husband, William Pennington, who had become “indebted and greatly embarrassed.” In 1907, Elizabeth Smith faced a similar dilemma. Elizabeth R. Smith vs. J. K. P. Legg, etc., 1907-045, protested the sale of Smith’s land sold for a set of blacksmith tools. Elizabeth Smith did not agree to the sale, but her husband, Samuel L. Smith, “commenced … read more »

- You Are Not The Father

Photograph of Josephine Kelly's son submitted as evidence to prove that the baby's father must be an African American, Prince George County Chancery Cause 1893-001, Thomas P. Kelly vs. Josephine Kelly.

The Prince George County chancery causes are filled with numerous divorce cases involving cheating spouses and adulterous affairs, but in the case of Thomas P. Kelly vs. Josephine Kelly, 1893-001, there is also a bit of baby daddy drama. The divorce suit involves Norfolk native Thomas Kelly, who had been for many years enlisted as a machinist in the United States Navy. During the year 1888, Thomas Kelly was stationed on board the monitor fleet lying at anchor at City Point in Prince George County.  There he met Josephine Hodges, who was sixteen years of age.  As Kelly would later testify in the chancery cause, their relationship began as a friendship and culminated in intimacy. Kelly confessed  that he had sexual intercourse with her on or about the 17th day of June 1888 and also with more or less frequency from that date until he was transferred with the fleet to Richmond in October of the same year. 

About the first of January 1889, Thomas was informed that Josephine was pregnant and that her condition was attributed to him.  Her friends and her mother’s friends, including the pastor of her church, made repeated and urgent endeavors to have Thomas agree to marry her, but as there had been no promise of marriage and no undue advantage taken by him, he refused to comply … read more »

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- Petersburg Chancery Digital Project Now Complete

Plat showing the Virginia Passenger and Power Company's leased, operated, and independent lines in the cities of Richmond and Manchester, Petersburg Chancery Cause George E. Fisher for etc. vs. Virginia Passenger & Power Co. etc., 1907-055.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce the completion of the Petersburg chancery causes digital project. The scanning project was funded by the Circuit Court Records Preservation Program along with a $155,071 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The collection has been digitized from 1787 through 1912 and the images added to the Chancery Records Index. The most recently added suits cover the years 1889-1912.

The following are a few suits of interest found in the newly added Petersburg chancery digital images. 

In chancery cause 1907-055, George E. Fisher, for, etc. vs. Virginia Passenger & Power Company, etc., the plaintiffs ask the court to take over the floundering Virginia Passenger & Power Company in order to protect their financial stake in the business. The suit contains numerous exhibits including plats (images 616, 2030, 2032), minutes from board of directors’ and stockholders’ meetings (images 1878 and 1673). In 1908-034, John F. Crowder, etc. vs. Eli Tartt, etc., the suit stems from the unhappiness of the First Baptist (Colored) Church members with their pastor Eli Tartt. The plaintiffs wanted the court to remove Tartt as pastor of the church and their bill of complaint gives an account of a church meeting that became so uncontrollable that local police had to be called in to restore order (image 7). Crowder, … read more »