‘She’s a bad woman and no wife of mine’: the man with five wives finally meets his match

trial_for_bigamy

‘Trial for Bigamy’ by Eyre Crowe A.R.A. (1897)

On Christmas day 1890 Ann Riley married Charles Valentine Smith, a 40 (or possibly 36) year-old saddle and harness maker in North London. It wasn’t a great success; the couple quarreled constantly until in the middle of April 1891 they agreed to separate.

Ann had her doubts about Charles from the start and suspected he’d been married before. She had asked him (it may well have been one of the things they argued about) and he denied it, but admitted living with a woman for a few years before he met Ann.

On the 28 April, while Ann was out, Charles visited his old familial home and retrieved a silver pocket watch which he said he’d been given as a wedding present. When Ann discovered the watch was missing however, she flew into a rage and determined to get even with him.

Acting on her hunch that the saddler was a bigamist she took herself to Somerset House to consult the marriage registers. After some searching she found him. Her suspicions confirmed, Ann now took her husband to court, for the theft of the watch and for deceiving her into believing he was free to marry her.

The detective that arrested Smith, DS Couchman, testified that the prisoner had admitted that he’d been married previously but said that his ex-wife was ‘a bad woman’ and ‘no wife’ to him.  It didn’t excuse the reality that they were still legally wed however, divorce being a much harder (and more expensive) process in 1891 than it is today.

The magistrate quizzed Ann on whether she knew her new husband was already attached to someone else. This was the line that Smith took, claiming he’d told her very early on so she knew what she was getting into. Ann said he had initially told her he was married but had later denied it. I guess she ended up choosing to believe her own marriage was legitimate, when it clearly was not. Charles was remanded in custody for week while investigations continued.

On 4 July he was back before the beak at the North London Police court and now it was revealed that Charles was a repeat offender. He had been successfully prosecuted for bigamy by the family of Ann Connolly who he’d married over 20 years earlier. At that time he’s already been married to another woman for five years. He got nine month’s in prison but didn’t learn his lesson from it.

After he got out of gaol he joined the army (that would have been in 1870 probably) and he married once more. This new wife quickly discovered his history, left him, and married someone else. His first wife died and in October 1882 he married his fourth, at St Mary’s, Islington.

The justice, Mr Haden Corser, having listened to this disreputable man’s story, sent him back to the Central Criminal Court to be tried for bigamy once more. At his trial, on 28 July 1891, the jury was told that not only had he married five women, he had fathered at least two children who he had left destitute when he abandoned their mother. The common sergeant sitting as judge sent him to prison for 15 months at hard labour.

By modern standards his record of relationships might not seem too bad. It is not uncommon for someone to have multiple monogamous relationships or even to marry several times. What Smith did wrong (very wrong in fact) was to neglect to divorce one wife before he married the next. For women in the Victorian period this was a particularly callous and uncaring crime because it robbed them of the respectability that legitimate marriage ensured. It meant they had no rights and their children were rendered illegitimate.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 22, 1891; The Morning Post, Monday, July 6, 1891]

For many working class women living in the roughest parts of late Victorian London marriage was an unaffordable luxury. Nevertheless women were keen to demonstrate that they were in a  serious relationship and so common law marriages – recognised but he community if not by church and state – normalised things. Women like Catherine Eddowes (who sometimes used the name Kelly) or Annie Chapman (who was occasionally Sivvy) would use their partner’s name just as a bonafide spouse would. For more on the reality of life in 1880s Whitechapel and the two sets of murders that dominated to news stands of the time why not try Drew’s new history of the Jack the Ripper case, published by Amberley Books this June.

This new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

 

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