The case of Elias El­lis

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The case brought to court in 1709 by Elias El­lis of Polterra in Corn­wall, an en­gi­neer in a tin mine, sheds light on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a hus­band and his wife.

Elias had mar­ried Su­san­nah Peck, the daugh­ter of Elisha Pecke, an apothe­cary in Taun­ton, and his wife Jo­hanna. Af­ter the death of Elisha in about 1680, Su­san­nah’s mother Jo­hanna said that she could not pos­si­bly run the apothe­cary shop with­out the as­sis­tance of Su­san­nah, so Su­san­nah re­mained in Taun­ton for 15 years and Elias re­turned to Corn­wall.

In 1695, Jo­hanna died, and in her will ap­pointed var­i­ous Taun­ton mer­chants as her ex­ecu­tors who took pos­ses­sion of all her goods, the de­fen­dants in this case. Su­san­nah died in 1705 and Elias re­turned from Corn­wall with hopes of in­her­it­ing her es­tate. Elias also claimed that he de­served £20 for each year of Su­san­nah’s ser­vice with her mother in the apothe­cary shop.

So far so good, but when we read the other side of the story we learn that Su­san­nah ac­tu­ally was “a weak in­firm sickly and de­crepit woman” not ca­pa­ble of per­form­ing any servile busi­ness, that her hus­band Elias was very un­kind to her and was in such “poor and mean cir­cum­stances” that he could not main­tain her. Hence, Su­san­nah re­mained in Taun­ton with her mother while Elias re­turned to Corn­wall.

Al­though it could be ar­gued that Elias de­served to in­herit his wife’s es­tate, it is per­haps eas­ier to sym­pa­thise with poor Su­san­nah, whether or not she was ca­pa­ble of run­ning her fam­ily’s apothe­cary shop.

The Bill of Com­plaint from Elias’s case

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