The Chicago Family Law Blog


The 19th Century Case That Formed Basis Of Custody Law

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Many of our laws and statutes are based on centuries-old English customs and are known as common law, such as those forbidding murder and theft, as outlined by LawBrain. But others take time to develop, often through the court system, and often can be traced back to specific stories.

The divorce and custody dispute of a New York couple married in 1804, for example, set the groundwork for U.S. child custody law, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article. Quite a bit has changed in the 200 years since, but the story provides a glimpse into the origins of current custody law.

The recently published book "The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times," by Ilyon Woo, paints a picture of custody laws almost unrecognizable to today's Chicago family law attorneys. 

Eunice Chapman, who would win New York State's first legal divorce in 1818 and also was able to gain custody of her kids from ex-husband James Chapman, is hailed as a feminist revolutionary. The couple had problems from the start, according to court documents and other primary sources.

They lost their home to foreclosure and then James Chapman joined an obscure religious cult known as the Shakers, taking their three kids with him. He hid the children from his wife, with the help of the Shaker church, but Eunice Chapman fought a three-year legal battle to regain custody.

Mothers (and women in general) had very few rights at the time, as discussed in the book, excerpted in the article:

"Even after her husband died, a woman had no guarantees; a man could appoint his lover, parents, or anyone else to be his children's guardians after his death."

National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," which interviewed the author, provides a longer excerpt from the book at its Web site. It's worth a read and helps one appreciate how far we've come as a society, especially with respect to mothers' rights.

Related Resources:

  • History of Divorce Law (FindLaw's LawBrain) 
  • Find a Divorce Attorney in Chicago (FindLaw)    
  • Geldof Slams "Barbaric" And "Abusive" UK Child Custody Laws (FindLaw's Solicitor Blog)

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