Modern courts grant divorces every day with little fanfare. In colonial days, divorces were granted by local governors and councils, whose decisions were sent to England for approval before a couple's marriage officially ended.
After the Revolutionary War, some states put divorce jurisdictions into the hands of local courts. But during the 19th century, many states granted divorces through their legislatures.
This was true in the Florida territory in 1832, when the legislative council passed "an act for the relief of Mary Canady." The act granted her a divorce.
But the story doesn't begin or end there.
On Jan. 2, 1848,
Archibald Graham died, leaving a widow, Mary. He also left a will dated Nov. 16, 1847, that appointed John R. Cannon and William G. Ponder as his executors.
During that time, when a man died without a will, his wife was entitled to dower, which was a third of his land and half of his personal property. The law provided that if a man made a will leaving his wife less than that, she could refuse it and demand her dower. Such was the case with Archibald's will.
So Mary declined and demanded her dower. But Ponder, being a conscientious executor, refused, alleging that Mary had never been Archibald's legal wife. Mary sued Ponder for what she believed was her rightful share.
Here's what Ponder revealed to the court:
In 1820, Mary Buccles married Solomon Canady in South Carolina. Shortly afterward, the couple moved to Georgia, and not long after that they separated.
Mary went to reside with bachelor Archibald Graham in what Ponder termed an "adulterous cohabitation."
Twelve years later, in 1832 - still "living in sin" - the couple moved to Florida Territory, where Mary applied to the legislative council for "relief" of her previous marriage. In other words, she wanted a divorce. The Legislature granted her request and freed her from Solomon Canady. In 1834, Archibald and Mary officially married.
After hearing both sides,
the Florida Supreme Court ruled against Mary. It said the Florida Legislature didn't have authority to grant her divorce from Canady and added that neither Georgia nor South Carolina courts would have recognized the Florida divorce.
The court pointed out that the Florida Legislature didn't inform Canady of the pending action. He had no representation at the session and "no say that his wife was being taken from him."
The court also noted that Mary's petition was presented to the legislature one day and approved the next - giving little time for anyone to object to the proceeding.
Archibald and Mary went through an official marriage ceremony in 1834. For years, they presented themselves to the community as married, and he referred to her in his will as his wife.
But none of that mattered. Because the court said she was still married to Canady, nothing could make the marriage to Archibald legal.
Because the court said she was not his wife, she had no right to dower. Mary had made her choice between the devise in the will and the dower under law. She got just one shot at making a choice - and she lost. The law didn't allow her to change her mind and accept what the will offered.
The interesting part, of course, is that whether she was legally married to Archibald would not have mattered if Mary had taken what he left her in the will.