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Hansley v. Hansley: 1849

North American Colonies And Divorce Laws, Mr. Hansley's Sudden Change, Jury Agrees With Mrs. Hansley

Plaintiff: Ruthey Ann Hansley
Defendant: Samuel G. Hansley
Plaintiff's Claim: Seeking divorce
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Robert Strange
Chief Defense Lawyer: William Henry Haywood, Jr.
Judges: Thomas Ruffin, Frederic Nash, Richmond M. Pearson
Place: Raleigh, North Carolina
Date of Decision: December 1849
Verdict: Divorce Denied

SIGNIFICANCE: This case showed just how difficult it was for a woman to get a divorce, especially in an antebellum southern state.

America's earliest divorce statutes had their origins in English law. Due to the influence of Christianity, marriage in England was transformed during the Middle Ages from a private institution over which there was little regulation to a religious one that was governed by the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, marriages could legally be dissolved only by death or by an annulment granted by the Church. Then, in 1533, King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife. Denied an annulment by the Pope, Henry declared the Catholic Church in England independent of Rome, renamed the local Church, and proclaimed himself the head of the "Church of England." (The Episcopal Church in the United States is descended from that Church.)

After King Henry's actions, there were two types of divorce in England. An absolute divorce, or divorce a vinculo matrimonil (which would be regarded today as a regular divorce), was very difficult to get because every time a couple wanted their marriage dissolved a special law dissolving their marital bonds had to be passed by the English Parliament. A divorce from bed and board, or divorce a mensa et thoro (which today is called a legal separation), was also available, but it did not permit the parties to remarry. Furthermore, such divorces were regulated by special courts run by the Church of England and were granted only when one of the parties was guilty of adultery, cruelty, or unnatural practices. This system continued in Great Britain until 1857.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882