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From the Green Valley News, Sunday May 22 2011, page B3

Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG

Investigating a Surprising Divorce

Sometimes a divorce presents a different type of surprise. When I requested a divorce file in Chautauqua County, New York, the clerk returned snickering. "This is a juicy one," she exclaimed.

My great, great grandmother Sarah (Bly) Thayer, a native of Ashville, New York, married Daniel Brainard Thayer in 1853. He died in October 1863 of illness contracted as a Union soldier in the Civil War. I learned of Sarah's divorce from her application for his widow's pension.

The "juicy" divorce petition was filed by Reuben Button, whom Sarah married in November 1864. The marriage lasted only a few months. She and her children were back living with her parents in May 1865 when New York took the state census.

Button, who operated a general store in nearby Watts Flats, charged Sarah had ". . . at divers times and places and with divers persons to the said plaintiff unknown did commit adultery. . . ." He produced three witnesses, all local farmers who testified to her scandalous behavior.

John Terry said the Buttons separated in March 1865. He said he was sitting behind the stove in the store, he didn't remember when, but no one knew he was there. Another farmer, John Lamb came in and went into the back room with Sarah. She sat on his lap and they were whispering.

Washington Terry, John's brother, claimed he saw Sarah in the Jamestown train station whispering to Arnold Hornsby, the engineer of the gravel train. Another time he saw Hornsby give her a ride to Panama Station in the engine. It was in June or it might have been earlier when she was still living with her husband.

A third witness, Hiram Woodcock, a 29-year-old farmer swore that, ". . . on or about 15 July 1865 he had sexual intercourse with Sarah Button in the town of Harmony without the consent, connivance, privity or procurement of the plaintiff [her husband.]" Button had said he learned the defendant was in adultery and they separated July 1, but Woodcock said he had sex with Sarah on July 15. Perhaps Button was psychic?

The vague nature of these testimonies as to time and action involved bothered me, so I decided to investigate the witnesses. I found Lamb and the Terry brothers were all related to Button's first wife, Martha who died several years earlier. The divorce action was filed on September 19, a referee was assigned to the case on September 29, and all witnesses' testimony was sworn to that same day. Amazing speed when transit and communication were lacking. Sarah didn't respond to the summons nor appear at the hearing on October 2.

Further research revealed the only grounds for divorce in New York was adultery. As late as 1891, the issue of collusion between two parties wanting a divorce was being debated in the newspapers. It does appear that Sarah wanted out of the marriage badly enough to take the blame. Unfortunately, it backfired, however, as the visiting judge who granted the divorce ruled Button was at liberty to marry again, but Sarah as the guilty party could never remarry.

Was Sarah guilty? We know only that she married in haste and paid the price, sacrificing her reputation in her small community. The lesson here is not to judge your ancestor's behavior without knowing all the details. Their actions are subject to conditions of the times, and not every act is as it seems at first glance.

In 1870 Sarah and her three children boarded the train and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Her two sons obtained employment with a silversmith on Cleveland's Public Square. In 1872, she married their boss, the owner of the shop, and lived happily until his untimely death from a lung disease in 1885. My grandmother, who was her daughter in law, evidently did not know about the divorce, but said Sarah was a very refined woman who had had a difficult life.

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