Our ex­perts un­ravel your rid­dles

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QMy an­ces­tor Julie Ann Green was mar­ried in 1845, but she was also mar­ried to some­one else in 1844.

I as­sumed her ‘first hus­band’ had died. When she mar­ried in 1845, she was seven months preg­nant. On the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate she is de­scribed as a spin­ster. There was a gulf of dif­fer­ence be­tween a seven-month preg­nant widow and a seven-month preg­nant spin­ster so I pre­sume she would have de­scribed her­self as a widow if she could have done. Could the ‘first mar­riage’ have been big­a­mous on the part of the man? I am try­ing to trace his orig­i­nal mar­riage, and won­der if he was dis­cov­ered and pros­e­cuted. I’d love to know what might have hap­pened.

Christine Lawrance, by email

AThe first, and most straight­for­ward, ex­pla­na­tion is that Thomas Ed­ward Sut­cliffe and Thomas Joseph Packer were the same per­son. The signatures are close enough for this to be plau­si­ble. There are a num­ber of ex­am­ples in the re­ported case-law of men who as­sumed a false name when mar­ry­ing for the first time and who then went through a sec­ond cer­e­mony with the same woman when the false­hood was dis­cov­ered. Nor was mar­ry­ing in the wrong name al­ways de­lib­er­ate: per­haps Thomas dis­cov­ered that he had been bap­tised in a dif­fer­ent name, or that his fa­ther was not whom he had thought?

The sec­ond pos­si­bil­ity is that the mar­riage of Thomas Ed­ward Sut­cliffe and Julie Green was in­valid for some rea­son. But the range of fac­tors that would in­val­i­date a mar­riage was some­what nar­rower than was pop­u­larly be­lieved. By the 1840s, any tech­ni­cal de­fects – such as mar­ry­ing un­der the age of 21 with­out parental con­sent or fail­ing to have the banns called in the cor­rect name – would only in­val­i­date a mar­riage if both par­ties knew of the de­fect and wil­fully went ahead.

A third pos­si­bil­ity, of course, is that Ju­lia’s first mar­riage was valid but broke down within a short pe­riod and that she was the one guilty of bigamy. She would not be the first fe­male bigamist to claim to be a spin­ster.

If ei­ther had com­mit­ted bigamy, they were po­ten­tially risk­ing trans­porta­tion to Australia. By the 1840s, how­ever, this was re­served for the most se­ri­ous cases of bigamy – those in­volv­ing fi­nan­cial ex­ploita­tion or mul­ti­ple mar­riages, for ex­am­ple – and women were al­most never trans­ported.

If the first mar­riage had bro­ken down on ac­count of the adul­tery or de­ser­tion of the other spouse then a short pe­riod of im­pris­on­ment was the most likely out­come – as­sum­ing, of course, that it was dis­cov­ered and pros­e­cuted.

Re­becca Probert

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