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 cheated on her.
A change in Massachusetts law 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
She was born in 1762 in Salem, Mass. Her mother, Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby, a social lioness, oversaw the construction of a grand family home in the town. Elizabeth inherited her mother’s good taste, and a parlor she later designed is now exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Nathaniel West, a master mariner, commanded one of her father’s ships.
Elizabeth Derby fell in love with Nathaniel West, though socially he was her inferior. They then 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.
But she and Nathaniel did inherit a farm in nearby 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.
Then after 20 years of marriage, the couple separated in 1803.
West v. West
Though divorce was rare in 17th and 18th Massachusetts, it wasn’t illegal. Puritans believed marriage was a civil matter and could therefore be reversed. Between 1692 and 1774 only 82 Massachusetts couples – one a year — were granted annulment, divorce or separation.
Until 1806, women could lose their own land and their own money in a divorce. A divorced woman only got a third of her husband’s estate, known as the ‘widow’s thirds.’
The change in the law gave a woman her widow’s share, plus the land her husband held in her name and much of her own inheritance — but only if she proved adultery.
Elizabeth Derby West pounced when the commonwealth’s divorce law changed in March 1806.
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. Nathaniel West wasn’t anything special, and Elizabeth Derby West was irascible and vain, Bentley wrote in his diary.
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.
Elizabeth Derby West 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, though the child shouldn’t have the name of ‘West.’
But then Nathaniel West produced evidence his wife offered local women money to claim he fathered their children.
Since the judges dined with Elizabeth West’s brother after she presented her evidence, Bentley correctly assumed they would rule against the husband.
The court gave her the Danvers estate, called Oak Hill, and alimony of $3,000 a year.
After the divorce was granted, Elizabeth Derby West moved with her children to Oak Hill. Nathaniel West remarried and remained close to his children and grandchildren.
A charitable group dropped her from its membership list. Parishioners walked out of church when she went to take communion at church, and she was ‘unwelcome to any private family or boardinghouse.’
Nathaniel West remarried, prospered and remained a leading member of society.
Elizabeth Derby West died only seven years after her divorce. She left her property to her three daughters, and forbade them from giving any of it to their father.
The house Elizabeth Derby West grew up in now belongs to the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
With thanks to Commerce and Culture: Nineteenth-Century Business Elites by Robert Lee. This story was updated in 2019.