In 19th-Century England, Men Sold Their Unhappy Spouses In Wife Auctions
In the 19th century, England was no fun: There was an honest-to-goodness Mad King, Daniel Radcliffe hadn't been invented yet, and if your parents bought or sold you to some dumb jerk, you were just stuck with that asshole. Before the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act allowed divorce on the grounds of assholery, a couple had to spend the equivalent of $15,000 to get the government and church to let them break up. Working-class couples who couldn't afford it, but also could not listen to their spouse prattle on about Dickens or whatever for another second longer took their business to the local market or tavern. But it wasn't to drink away their pain or indulge in retail therapy; at these locations, an unwanted wife could be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
It wasn't exactly legal, but law enforcement didn't care, and back then, a wife was just property, just like a goat or a plot of land. At least 108 documented occurrences occurred between 1837 and 1901, usually with the woman's full cooperation. Even though she was often led around by an actual rope around her neck and her sale was overseen by a real auctioneer and everything, these were nothing like the slave auctions they might have looked like ...
The "item" was probably just as eager to get away from her "owner" as he was to be rid of her, and she could usually turn down an offer if it came from someone particularly toothless. Often, a woman's family, who had been on the receiving end of all too many old-timey versions of dramatic Facebook posts, bought her, while a woman who already had a new model in mind was often purchased by her lover. Some were sold for a jar of gin, a case of beer, or a puppy. One woman, whose lover failed to show up, resorted to buying herself for three pounds. We've all been there.
That's not to say these auctions were boring. One man was reported to describe his wife to the crowd as "a born serpent" who he "took for [his] comfort" but "became [his] tormentor; a domestic curse, a night invasion, and daily devil." He then announced, "Gentlemen, I speak truth from my heart when I say -- May God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome women." He did concede that she could, "Read novels and milk cows ... laugh and weep with the same ease that you could take a glass of ale when thirsty ... make butter and scold the maid ... [and] make rum, gin, or whiskey," although probably just because he realized he might have been underselling her. Honestly, that was probably as amicable as it got in the 19th-century divorce court.
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Top image: Hermitage Museum/Wikimedia Commons