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A case in chancery

In February 1878, Mary Jane Holt of Amelia County, Virginia, decided that she’d had enough.

Holt.complaintAs a young teenager, she had married Thomas G. Holt in Amelia County on 10 July 1871.1 She later said she’d been 16 at the time of the marriage,2 but the records tell a different story.

She was recorded as a four-year-old in 1860, living in her parents’ New York household.3 On the 1870 census, she was shown as age 13 in her parents’ Amelia County home.4 In 1880, she was shown as age 22.5 Her marriage record itself puts her birth in 1856.6 And her tombstone gives her date of birth as 18 July 1856.7

So she was most likely a few days short of her 15th birthday when she married Thomas in July 1871; he was some eight or nine years her senior.8

Despite her youth and inexperience, she said, she “did all in her power to please her Husband, she was kind affectionate & obedient to him.”9

But “it was to no purpose,” she said. Shortly after the marriage, her husband became “cruel, harsh, severe, and unkind. He even threatened her in such a manner, that she was in fear of bodily injury and of her life.” He “threatened to kill her, and drove her from his home.”10

And, she said, she’d been informed that Thomas “has been since the said marriage living in a state of adultery with other women whose names are unknown.”11

So she applied to the Circuit Court of Amelia County, asking “that a decree granting your oratrix a divorce … from the Bond of Matrimony may be rendered.”12

Oratrix?

What in the world is an oratrix?

Okay, so we know from the –ix ending that this is going to turn out to be the female version of the word orator applied to men.

That doesn’t help a whole lot, does it?

It turns out that oratrix, or the male version orator, is a word in a legal document that provides a very big clue to the type of case it is — and to the type of court that’s deciding it.

Because the word oratrix in older legal documents tends to refer to “a female plaintiff in a bill in chancery”13 and the word orator to a male who was “the plaintiff in a cause or matter in chancery.”14

Chancery, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, meant “equity; equitable jurisdiction; a court of equity; the system of jurisprudence administered in courts of equity.”15 And a court of chancery was “a court administering equity and proceeding according to the forms and principles of equity … a court possessing general equity powers, distinct from the courts of common law.”16

So there was a difference between equity courts and law courts: “the former being such as possess the jurisdiction of a chancellor, apply the rules and principles of chancery law, and follow the procedure in equity; the latter, such as have no equitable powers, but administer justice according to the rules and practice of the common law.”17

In plain English, the law courts had to follow very strict rules of pleading, and they had limited remedies. Usually, if you sued at law, you wanted money damages. Equity courts had the power to look at fairness and to provide “a specific and preventive remedy … where courts of common law only give subsequent damages.”18 So if, for example, you wanted out of a marriage, you went to the equity court — the chancery court.

So when, in an old legal document, you see the complaining party referred to as an oratrix (or an orator), think chancery court, not law court. And think some kind of specific relief rather than just money damages.

That may point the way to where the records are, and understanding what’s going on in the case.

And, oh yes, by the way, Mary Jane got her divorce.19 She was back with her parents living under the maiden name by that 1880 census.20 She remarried, in 1893, to Joseph Sofield,21 and lived in Amelia County until her death in 1928.22


SOURCES

  1. Amelia County, Virginia, marriage index entry for Thos. G. Holt and Mary Jane Brewer, 10 July 1871; database, “Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 11 Aug 2013).
  2. Complaint, Amelia County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1738-1939, Holt v. Holt, 1878-002; Local Government Records Collection, Amelia County Court Records, The Library of Virginia; digital images, “Chancery Records Index,” Virginia Memory (http://www.virginiamemory.com/collections/chancery/ : accessed 11 Aug 2013).
  3. 1860 U.S. census, Monroe County, New York, population schedule, p. 59 (penned), dwelling 509, family 504, Mary Brewer; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Aug 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 786; imaged from FHL microfilm 803786.
  4. 1870 U.S. census, Amelia County, Virginia, population schedule, p. 313 (stamped), dwelling 778, family 717, Mary Brewer; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Aug 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 1633; imaged from FHL microfilm 553132.
  5. 1880 U.S. census, Amelia County, Virginia, Giles, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 2, p. 32(D) (stamped), dwelling 257, family 279, Mary J. Brewer; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Aug 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 1353; imaged from FHL microfilm 1255353.
  6. Amelia County, Virginia, marriage index entry for Thos. G. Holt and Mary Jane Brewer.
  7. Arbor Baptist Church Cemetery, Amelia County, Virginia, Mary Jane Brewer Sofield marker; digital image, Find A Grave (http://findagrave.com : accessed 11 Aug 2013).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Complaint, Holt v. Holt, 1878.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 854, “oratrix.”
  14. Ibid., “orator.”
  15. Ibid., 193, “chancery.”
  16. Ibid., 289, “court of chancery.”
  17. Ibid., 287, “court.”
  18. Ibid., 428, “equity.”
  19. Final decree, Holt v. Holt, 1878.
  20. 1880 U.S. census, Amelia County, Va., Giles, pop. sched., ED 2, p. 32(D) (stamped), dwell. 257, fam. 279, Mary J. Brewer.
  21. Amelia County, Virginia, marriage index entry for J.R. Sofield and Mary J. “Brown,” 10 July 1871; database, “Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 11 Aug 2013).
  22. Arbor Baptist Church Cemetery, Amelia County, Virginia, Mary Jane Brewer Sofield marker; digital image, Find A Grave (http://findagrave.com : accessed 11 Aug 2013).
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