John Stoddard – Revolutionary War veteran, Congregational minister and descendent of a long-established Connecticut family – pushed his life onto the rocks at the age of 30 when he decided to sell his wife.
Born in Woodbury. Conn. in 1767, John Stoddard was the great grandson of Anthony Stoddard who was, for 61 years, pastor at First Church of Woodbury, Conn. Several sources list John as a private in the “Connecticut Line,” the troops that Connecticut was assigned to provide to fight the American Revolution.
In September 1786, John married Phebe Northrup from Washington, Conn. The couple had two children and John studied the ministry. After traveling some, Stoddard arrived in Jamaica, Vermont. And in 1794, John Stoddard became pastor of the Congregational Church there.
The Congregational Church was the second church in Jamaica. The Baptists had previously established a church. In a town vote, Stoddard was not officially called to serve as minister, but the town did give him land. It had previously given 100 acres to the Baptist Church for use of its minister. It split that grant in half and gave half to the Congregational Church for use of Stoddard.
Stoddard was part of a small increase in immigration that was going on in Vermont as families from southern New England – finding their prospects stifled at the end of the Revolution – travelled to rural Vermont to establish their fortunes. But Stoddard’s tenure as pastor was short-lived.
Wife-selling was not unheard of in the early days of America. The custom was an odd import from Great Britain where marriage was a difficult bond to break for the wealthy upper classes. Divorce was both rare and expensive. And generally a cause, such as desertion or adultery, was required.
For the lower classes a cause was also required for divorce. But there was another, quicker way out of a bad marriage – sort of a precursor to no-fault divorces. A wife could be sold. For a few shillings or other compensation a man could buy a wife from her husband.
Often the sale was directed by the wife, who had already caught the eye of her future husband/buyer. But at the very least, the wife should be supportive of the idea of the sale. Because if matters came to court, selling a wife could get sticky.
In 1645, Bagett (Bygod) Egleston of Windor, Ct. was fined 20 shillings for selling his wife Sarah to another man. Details of the case are scarce, though apparently the sale was not to her liking, resulting in the court’s involvement. A later interpretation of the story held that Sarah was much younger than Bagett and so hounded her husband that he wished to be rid of her.
And Alice Morse Earle in her Colonial Dames and Good Wives reported on another wife sale gone awry – this one perhaps due to buyer’s remorse. The details appeared in the Boston Evening Post of March 15, 1736:
Boston. The beginning of last Week a pretty odd and uncommon Adventure happened in this Town, between 2 Men about a certain woman, each one claiming her as his Wife, but so it was, that one of them had actually disposed of his Right in her to the other for Fifteen Shillings this Currency, who had only paid ten of it in part, and refus’d to pay the other Five, inclining rather to quit the Woman and lose his Earnest; but two Gentlemen happening to be present, who were Friends to Peace, charitably gave him half a Crown a piece, to enable him to fulfil his Agreement, which the Creditor readily took, and gave the Woman a modest Salute, wishing her well, and his Brother Sterling much Joy of his Bargain.
Earle, who wrote about many New England customs, explained: The meagre sale-money, fifteen shillings, was the usual sum which changed hands in England at similar transactions, though one dame of high degree was sold for a hundred guineas.
For all involved in the sale it was best if all parties were consenting. By all accounts, Stoddard’s wife was happy with the sale. His congregation, not so much.
In 1797, Rev. Stoddard sought an honorable dismission from his post with the church. A dismission without the word honorable attached simply would mean he had left the church — probably in bad graces. An honorable dismission would signal to any other churches that Stoddard had been a good minister and, should he be looking for work, he should be considered. The church denied his request, and instead appointed a council to hear complaints against Rev. Stoddard, of which there were many. The church records report:
Ezra Livermore charged him with deceit in relation of the manner of his coming to Jamaica, but the council thought that while there was a show of it, there was no intention of deceiving.
We recommend to pastor and people, solemnly and faithfully to examine themselves at this day when the frowns of Providence are so evidently upon them. Be entreated, beloved, to inquire impartially what you have done amiss, and humble yourselves before God under his rebukes.
Imitate the meek and benevolent temper of Christ, one toward another, forgive one another, and pray one for another, if any man have a quarrel against any as you hope to obtain forgiveness of your Father in Heaven. Let all wrath and malice and bitterness be put away from you with all strife. Be guarded, brethren, against a spirit of division, seek the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace. Be careful and tender of each other’s character, with charity, disposed to cover rather than to magnify each other’s faults.
With that, Stoddard was dismissed.
And what of Phebe Stoddard? Her trail is lost, though some inspired genealogist could probably close the loop on this story.
Both Federal Writers’ Project Guide to the Green Mountain State and Gazetteer and Business Directory of Windham County, Vt. reported that she was happy with the transfer and went on to raise a family with her new husband. Wife-selling, as a custom, was more common in England – where it was sometimes conducted in a public forum or market. It died out in the late 1800s.