Heiress Elizabeth Derby West caused a sensation in 1806 when she paraded a series of prostitutes through a Salem, Mass., courtroom to prove her ship captain husband was an adulterer.
It was a change in Massachusetts law that inspired her to divorce Nathaniel West. She had long been unhappy in the marriage, but didn’t act until the Legislature passed a bill that gave women more property rights in cases of adultery.
Divorce was rare back then. Even rarer was a wife airing the lurid details of her unfaithful husband’s affairs in court.
By the second day of the trial, wrote a Salem diarist, “The public mind begins to be disquiet.”
Elizabeth Derby West was the eldest of the seven children of Elias Hasket Derby, one of the wealthiest Salem merchants and owner of the first vessel to trade directly with China.
She was born in 1762 in Salem. Her mother, Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby, was a social lioness who oversaw the construction of a grand family home in Salem. Elizabeth inherited her mother’s good taste, and a parlor she later designed is now on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Nathaniel West was a master mariner who commanded one of her father’s ships.
Elizabeth Derby fell in love with Nathaniel West, though socially he was her inferior. They eloped in the spring of 1783 when she was 21. Her father disapproved of the match, but eventually softened He gave Nathaniel West more responsibility in the family business and made him one of his heirs.
The couple set up their own household and had six children.
Elizabeth Derby West soon discovered the cost of marrying down: a loss in social status. When her father died in 1799, she didn’t inherit the family mansion, as she had hoped. She and Nathaniel did inherit a farm in Danvers, which she set about renovating and expanding.
Their marital quarrels grew fiercer and more frequent. Her brothers also fought with him over family business issues. In 1800, Nathaniel West and Hasket Derby had a public fistfight on the docks of Salem.
In 1803, the couple separated.
Divorce was rare in the 17th and 18th centuries. Between 1692 and 1774 only 82 Massachusetts couples – one a year -- were granted annulment, divorce or separation.
When the commonwealth’s divorce law changed in March 1806, Elizabeth Derby West pounced.
On Nov. 11, 1806, the divorce trial of West v. West began in Supreme Judicial Court in Salem. The Rev. William Bentley, pastor of the East Church, attended the trial. He had already formed a low opinion of the couple. In his diary, he wrote:
Never could Johnson's words better [be] applied, when a man marries a fortune it is not all he marries. The woman became all that is execrable in women from vanity, caprice, folly, & malignity...
He was an enterprising seaman with no uncommon advantages of education or nature, but his ambition led him to address the eldest daughter of the late E.H. Derby…The mother of Elizabeth was a Crowninshield and well known for vanity which she exposed to constant & deserved ridicule. E. possessed the rigid temper of her father, with all the weakness of her mother.
The feud between the Derbys and Nathaniel West reached a nadir when Elizabeth brought prostitutes' into court, wrote Bentley:
…after every quarrel with all her relatives she waged open war against her husband & this day, aided by the unfeeling perseverance of her malignant Br[other] Gen. E.H. D[erby] who has a private quarrel to avenge, she displayed in open court, to prove the incontinence of Capt. W[est], all the sweepings of the Brothels of Boston, & all the vile wretches of Salem, Marblehead, Cape Ann.
She submitted a statement by a woman claiming Nathaniel West fathered her two children. She also produced a letter in which West made financial arrangements for a child, thought the child shouldn’t be called by the name of ‘West.’ Nathaniel West produced evidence his wife offered local women money to claim he fathered their children.
The court was unmoved. Since the judges dined with Elizabeth West’s brother after the evidence was presented, Bentley correctly assumed they would rule against the husband.
After the divorce was granted, Elizabeth Derby West moved with her children to Oak Hill, her Danvers estate. Nathaniel West remarried and remained close to his children and grandchildren. Elizabeth Derby West died in 1813, and left her property to her three daughters.
The house Elizabeth Derby West grew up in is now part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
With thanks to Commerce and Culture: Nineteenth-Century Business Elites by Robert Lee.