Late 19th Century Divorces in Seward County Claim Adultery, Cruelty, and Name-Calling

main street Seward, NE

Main Street, Seward, Nebraska. NSHS RG2536-5-154


On April 19, 1890 Maggie Devore filed a petition for divorce from her husband James Devore, initiating what proved to be among the most complex divorce procedures in Seward County. Maggie charged James with extreme cruelty, accusing him of striking and knocking her down. She asserted that he held a violent, ungovernable temper, aggravated by intoxication, and used vile and abusive language toward her, such as “damned old whore.” James answered that Maggie engaged in adulterous conduct, claiming that she was “willing to lie down in the street with any man.” He accused her of giving him a disease  in January of 1890. She  denied the charges, arguing that he wanted to humiliate her. Maggie, the plaintiff, moved to dismiss the case on October 13, 1890 for unknown reasons.

The following year, James filed a divorce petition. James charged his wife for committed adultery with an unknown man at the Commercial Hotel in David City, Butler County. Maggie responded denying each allegation and repeating her previous charges against him. Furthermore, she claimed that he refused to provide her with support and maintenance. James Devore replied to his wife’s answer, denying each charge. Referring to Maggie’s 1890 divorce petition, he noted that he and his wife had requested a dismissal in that divorce suit. She had continued to cohabit with him until March 2. By doing so, he contended, she forgave the charges she had made against him earlier. He admitted that he had contracted a “loathsome venereal disease,” again claiming that he could have contracted it only by cohabiting with his wife.

This complicated story is but one of the 294 divorce cases that were filed in the Seward County District Court from 1869 to 1906. A study recently published in Nebraska History examines all of those cases, describing the major causes of divorce and the outcomes of the complaints. It examines several facets of the divorce process—sex of petitioners and awardees of decrees, length of marriage prior to divorce, alimony, awards of child care and custody, and restoration of maiden names. Finally, it moves beyond statistics, as useful as they are, to examine the “human” experience of fractured marriages as revealed in petitions, answers, and court proceedings. The surprising outcome of this story can be found in “Divorce in Seward County, Nebraska 1869-1906″ by Jerrald K. Pfabe. It appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Nebraska History.

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