Julia at her first Lawton Valley home.

Portsmouth women were at the forefront of the Woman’s Rights Movement.  We focus our attention on the effort to gain the right to vote, but there were many more rights that needed to be gained for women along the way.  As I worked on research for a play and read a biography of Julia Ward Howe for a book club the sad situation for married women kept emerging.

We recently presented a play (Murder at the Coal Mines) that was based on a true case of domestic crime. I wrote the court room drama from the detailed newspaper accounts of the testimony given in the murder trial of miner Robert Casey in October of 1875. Casey had acted in jealousy.  He had spent eight months away from his family and returned to accuse his wife of infidelity.  He tried to poison both her and himself and then provided an antidote so they would live.  At gunpoint, Casey made his wife “confess” her adultery to his children and then he took away the two older children to New Jersey to live with his family.  His fury was not spent.  Using his pistol again, Casey made his wife and the man he accused of adultery travel to Fall River and get married by a justice of the peace.  One newspaper account said he even “gave away the bride”.  Fearing for his life, the “other man” ran away, but Lizzie was left in the home with Casey.  When the sheriff came to arrest Casey for assaulting another miner, Casey shot himself and his wife.  Lizzie, his wife, died.  Casey recovered from his wound and stood trial for the murder.

As we read through the play, there was something missing – the point of view of Lizzie Casey, the victim. We decided to add a prologue to the play where Lizzie would present her side of the situation that led to her husband killing her and attempting to kill himself.  I began to research the status of married women in Rhode Island during that time period.   Going through the facts of the case, I had many questions.  Why would Lizzie stay in a marriage after her husband had tried to poison her?  How could Robert Casey just take her older children away to New Jersey?  Why couldn’t Lizzie run away from the abuse and maybe support her children with a job somewhere else?

I’m not sure just when the laws began to change, but throughout most of the 19th century laws concerning married women in Rhode Island were rooted in British Common Law.  According to the bible, when a man and woman marry they are considered as one person.  At marriage the woman lost her identity.  As far as the law was concerned, the rights of that “one person” were centered on the husband.  When a woman married, she lost the right to own her own property, enter into contracts or even decide about the care of her own children.  Robert Casey, as the husband, had all the rights.  Any property she owned went to her husband, even the clothes on her back.   Even if Lizzie had left and tried to find a job, any income she earned would be given to her husband.

As I read Elaine Showalter’s biography “The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,” I realized that even the famous Julia Ward Howe had much in common with Lizzie.  Julia wrote: “Even women of fortune possessed nothing individually after their marriage. The ring which promised to endow them with all the bridegroom’s earthly goods, really endowed him all that belonged to them, even to the clothes that they wore. Their children were not their own. The father could dispose of them as he might think fit.”

Julia Ward Howe did not come into her own until after her husband’s death.  Samuel Gridley Howe (Julia called him Chev) believed that a wife and mother should find all fulfillment in family.  Although Julia had a passion for writing, her husband refused to let her publish.  She learned stealth and published her poetry book anonymously.  Even the poem for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was only published because Julia’s minister had asked her to write it.  Julia became famous for her poem, but Chev insisted that she not make any public appearances.

Howe used his right to the children to threaten Julia into  re-establishing  a sexual relationship.  He took full advantage of his rights to her money when he bought the Lawton Valley property with her money but only put his name of the deed. Later he sold their first Lawton Valley home without consulting her.   He frequently uprooted his family and moved at will even though Julia would beg to stay in her home.

The day after Chev died in January of 1876, Julia wrote:  “Began my new life today.”  To add insult to injury, Chev left nothing to Julia in his will.  She had to move on and she moved to Oak Glen in Portsmouth with her daughter Maud.  Her lectures and writing became the way she supported herself.

Information on Julia from Elaine Showalter’s “The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe.”  Simon and Schuster, New York, 2016.