The sailor and his two wives (or is it the wife and her three husbands?)

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The Ratcliffe Highway in the 1800s

On Sunday the 4th February 1855 Mary Ann Falconer was preparing dinner in her home just off the Ratcliffe Highway. There was a loud rap at the door and the sounds of people in the street outside. Mary described the crowd as a ‘mob’ and noticed one woman stood out from the crowd.  Her name was also Falconer (Jemima Falconer) and she demanded that Mary hand over her husband, whom she believed was inside, or let her in. When Mary refused Jemima smashed five of her windows.

The police were called and soon Jemima was in custody, arrested by PC Joseph Duble (95H) and taken to the nearest police station. On the Monday Jemima Falconer was up before Mr Yardley, the Thames Police Court magistrate on a charge of criminal damage.

Given that Mary and Jemima shared a common surname the magistrate wanted to know if they were related, they were not he was informed. So was Mary living with Jemima’s husband as the prisoner suggested?

‘She claims him’ said Mary ‘but she has no right to him, for she has another husband living’.

At this point an ‘elderly weather-beaten sailor’ stepped forward and announced that he was Mr Falconer and was ‘lawfully married’ to Mary. Jemima now piped up to complain that he was also married to her. ‘You married me first’, she insisted.

‘What business had you to have two wives?’ Mr Yardley asked the old seaman. Falconer now tried to explain that he’d known Mary was some years and she’d told him she was a widow. While he was at sea she’d posted the banns for their marriage and on his return he’d felt pressured (by her and some of the community) to go through with it.

He soon regretted his decision however:

‘She helped me spend all my wages, and then another man claimed her as his wife, and I found out she had another husband, to whom she’d been married 8 or 10 years before’.

It was now a scandalous case of bigamy, and Mr Yardley warned Mary she could face a sentence of seven years’ transportation if she was convicted. Mary tried to protest that the sailor had taken her from her husband against her will and ruined her but the old seaman denied this vehemently, pointing out that it was her who had put up the banns for their forthcoming marriage, not him.

‘Plenty of people can prove what I say’ claimed Mary but the magistrate’s patience was running out. He was trying a case of criminal damage, not a complex affair of bigamy and he wanted to no more lies in his court. Why had she smashed the Falconer’s windows ?

‘I wanted bread sir, and where could I go but to my husband?’

‘He not your husband, woman’, said the justice, ‘You have no claim on him whatever’.

The gaoler said he knew the woman to have been in court before and the policeman confirmed it. ‘I believe she has three husbands living’ PC Duble added, ‘I known her to be a most desperate and disorderly prostitute’.

‘I thought so’ commented the magistrate, ‘A very pretty character we have of you, woman. I sentence you to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for 14 days, as a disorderly prostitute’.

At least she avoided the more serious accusation of bigamy.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, February 06, 1855]

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