The strange practice of the smock wedding -- marrying a naked woman or one wearing only a smock -- survived the voyage from England. It even took hold in some New England towns.
Early New Englanders believed that marrying a woman who was naked or in her underwear absolved them of liability for the woman’s debts. If she was a widow, a smock wedding absolved her of her late husband’s debts.
The bride must have had money.
A Maine Smock Wedding
John Gatchell and Sarah Cloutman married in a smock wedding in Lincoln County, Maine, in 1767.
Some Mainers also believed if the bride was married "in her shift on the king's highway," a creditor could follow her no farther in pursuit of his debt, according to Alice Morse Earle in Customs and Fashions in Old New England.
Such ‘smock marriages’ took place in York, Maine, on the public highway. They often happened at night to preserve the bride’s modesty.
A smock, or shift, was a thin undergarment worn in the days before bras and panties.
In February 1774, widow Mary Bradley wore only in a shift when she met her bridegroom and the minister in York halfway between her house and the groom’s. Because the minister took pity on the shivering bride, he threw his coat over her.
The Vermont Version
In 1789, Maj. Moses Joy fell in love with Mrs. Hannah Ward, widow of William Ward. She was executor of her late husband's insolvent estate; he was the constable of Putney, Vt.
Catherine Cornelia Joy Dyer recounted the story of their smock wedding in her 1876 volume, Brief History of the Joy Family: They wanted, she wrote, to avoid the unpleasant penalties of the law.
On the morning of her marriage with Major Joy Mrs. Ward placed herself in a closet with a tire-woman (lady’s maid) who stripped her of all her clothing, and when in a perfectly nude state she thrust her fair, round arm through a diamond hole in the door of the closet, and the gallant major clasped the hand of the buxom widow and was married in due form by the jolliest parson in Vermont.
At the close of the ceremony the maid dressed the bride in a complete wardrobe that the major had provided. He had it stored in the coset at the beginning of the ceremony. The bride emerged elegantly dressed in silk, satin and lace, and there was kissing all around.
In another Vermont smock wedding, the widow Lovejoy married Asa Averill while naked. She hid in a chimney recess behind a curtain.
There is also the story of the naked bride who climbed out a second-story window at night and stood on top of a ladder. There she put on her wedding clothes.
The custom survived in old England as well. In 1775, the widow Judith Redding married Richard Elcock in a Winchester church wearing her shift, after she took off the rest of her clothes in a pew.