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Remember This, Newmarket: When a runaway wife was a man's stolen property

In this week's continuing series, History Hound Richard MacLeod turns to an 1877 case to meet a reader's challenge that he show a local example of the inequality experienced by women

An article in the November 1877 edition of the Newmarket Era tells a story that may seem a little strange to us today, though it would have been taken very seriously back then, which I think gives us a pretty clear glimpse into the social norms of the time and what passed for news back in the 1870s locally.

Why did I choose to highlight this strange story? My article last weekend dealt with the history of the struggle for equality under the law for Canada’s women and I must say it produced several interesting comments, particularly from our younger readers.  

I was challenged to provide a specific example of a local incident that  epitomizes the inequality experienced by women in our past from our local area.  In response to these requests, I bring you the story of the ‘Runaway Bride from King Township’.  This story clearly demonstrates the prevailing climate at the time and the customs embedded within their legal system.  

One of the reasons that I enjoy reading old papers and all the stories related within is the fact one can get a feel for what was happening at the time of its publication. 

Even the headline is quite interesting: Elopement Case in King - One of the Guilty Parties Arrested and Committed for Trial - Run-A-Way Wife Still Not Found.

 It seems that a gentleman named Eli Farar eloped from the 7th Con. of King with the wife of Walter Traviss but was caught before he could reach his destination of Toronto. He was promptly brought before the police magistrate. A series of articles provides us with enough detail to form an idea of the history of this strange affair.  

This story is unique to the period,  as you will remember at the time women were classified as the property of their husbands much like a favourite horse or plough or, in this case, socks and shirts.

The prosecutor was Mr. Fenton and Mr. Hagel was the defence lawyer.  The first witness called was the plaintiff, Traviss, who was promptly sworn in and deposed.

Traviss began his story by stating that he lived on the 7th Concession of King, on his father’s farm, in a separate house, with his wife. Farar had been in the habit of staying at the plaintiff’s house since he was out of work, recently staying about nine or 10 days. Farar had left the Traviss home the previous Wednesday morning after having asked Traviss to take him and his trunks to the Aurora train station on the Northern Railway. 

Traviss states that they left about 5 a.m. with several trunks on their way to the station. “I turned around and started back for my home while Mr. Farar went to a hotel in Aurora. I returned home about 10 a.m. only to find that my wife was gone, her clothes had vanished, and $200 in cash was missing.  When I discovered this, I wheeled my horse round and drove to the King station, south of Aurora where I met the accused between the station and Springhill; he was going to Aurora. 

“I immediately asked him where my wife was and he just grinned. I then drove to King Station, and not finding her there, I went further south to Maple. I then returned to Aurora, where I waited until that evening.  I found him this time back on the train. I asked him where my wife was, and he said he did not know where she was.  

“I told the conductor about the money and the clothes in the presence of the prisoner and the conductor said to the prisoner that he had better open his trunks.”

Farar  initially stated that he had none of the things, but when he opened his trunk, Traviss found socks and shirts of his and some clothes of his wife. Farar  said that he had not put the things in there. 

Mr. Harvey, the traffic superintendent, charged the prisoner with having some of Traviss’  money, and the man then, after a little hesitation, pulled out his pocket a book and drew out three $5 bills saying, ‘There is your money.’

When questioned further, Farar threw down the pocketbook, saying, ‘There it is.’ The $200 taken from Traviss was in $5, $4, and $10 bills, he said, while the money found on Farar amounted to $53.69. When they got to Toronto, he was arrested and placed in jail.  

Traviss said  he had been saving up this money for three years.  He stated that he had not had the $200 very long and “only my own folks knew of it, including my wife, of course.  I always had kept it in the secretaire drawer in my bedroom.  I found between $50 and $60 there but I have not found my wife yet, nor have I any word of her. “

Traviss said he suspected they had gone together when he found her not at home.

“We have been married over 11 years and we have no children. I later learned that she had gone across the fields on foot between 7 and 8 o’clock according to the neighbors,” he said.

“I found the blinds of my house were down and the house locked up tight.  When I got into the house there were three locks broken off and the drawers were overturned on the floor.  The place where I kept the money was broken into in my bedroom.  When I had gotten up at 4 o’clock that morning, my wife was already up at breakfast.  I had then said goodbye to my wife at the door.”  

Farar, who slept in the next room from the couple, had got up at about the same time as Traviss did and they had breakfast in the kitchen. “The doors were left open while we ate our breakfast, and you could see the secretaire from the kitchen, still intact,” Traviss said.  

“Last Tuesday I had put more money into the drawer, so I know there was exactly $200 that day.  The money was in fours and fives.  I didn’t notice whether the secretaire drawer was open or not when I left.  I am sure it was not on the floor.  The money was in a big leather pocketbook which was not found with the prisoner,” Traviss said. 

“The prisoner never had had $60 at any time.  That very day he had come to me saying that he had only $20 left out of his summer’s wages after having sent his mother some money.”  

He then went on to say that he had been running all round town looking for his wife.  The first thing that had struck him was that his wife had gone, that she likely had his money, and that she had run away with the prisoner.  

He provided a list of lost clothing consisting of two or three pairs of socks and three shirts.  He also listed a quilt that belonged to him that  his wife had made for him.

Of interest is the fact that he maintained that everything was his, that his wife had nothing of her own, stating that she never had a rag to her name until they had married.

When Traviss was asked what he asked Farar when he confronted him on the road, he stated that he accused him of stealing his property, including his wife.  

His Worship, the article goes on to state, thought that there was indeed sufficient evidence to proceed with the prosecution and Farar was committed for trial. The charge, as it read, was theft of Traviss’ property, which  included his wife in the stolen property list submitted.  A value of $600 was assigned to Mrs. Traviss.  

So, what can we glean from this story? Mrs. Traviss was deemed mere chattel and a value was placed upon her.  The charge of stealing one’s wife was seen as quite proper back then.

There appears to be very little concern for what had become of Mrs. Traviss in the notes of the trial.  There is no mention of Mrs. Traviss ever having shown up.  One would have expected a missing person’s report, but alas that appears to have been secondary to the loss of money, missing used socks and a few used shirts.

The notes of the trial show Traviss acknowledged that his wife held no property and was entirely dependent on his good graces.  He refers to everything as his.

Farar was indeed convicted and was asked to repay the value of the “stolen goods.”.  

This story illustrates, I would submit, the low status that women, in fact wives were held in the 1870s.  The law that stated that a wife was  a possession of her husband would remain on the books until women were finally recognized as persons in the early 1900s.

So, for all those men who were tempted to run away with another man’s wife, you had to be cognizant of the fact that under the law you were stealing and could be asked to reimburse the husband if you were not jailed.  Unbelievable.

The next instalment in this series will chronicle the push for the vote here in Canada with an emphasis on Ontario. 


Sources: The Globe and Mail; the Newmarket Era


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.