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Harsh punishments for “greedy, deceitful and nasty” bigamists, new research shows

Bigamists were treated harshly by judges who transported them abroad because of their “greedy, deceitful and nasty” treatment of women, a new study shows.

It had been thought bigamy had been punished lightly, but the first in-depth analysis of the sentencing of bigamists during the nineteenth century shows the crime was taken seriously by the courts.

The research shows judges were particularly unsympathetic towards those who had treated their multiple partners in a cruel way. It also shows that bigamy wasn’t only committed by those unable to get a divorce.

Professor Rebecca Probert, from the University of Exeter Law School, examined criminal registers, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, and local and national newspaper reports.

Professor Probert said: “The sheer greed, deceit and nastiness demonstrated by many of these bigamists provides a significant counter-narrative to the depiction of bigamy as a substitute for divorce. Those who were transported for bigamy had generally aggravated their offence by deception, financial exploitation, abandoning the second spouse, or an additional marriage.”

Bigamy was first made a crime in 1604 and transportation was introduced in 1795 following concerns punishments were becoming too lenient, with the standard sentence a year in prison and a one-shilling fine. While the original legislation had made it a felony punishable by death, this didn’t happen after the late seventeenth century. Branding, which had replaced the death penalty, had also fallen out of favour by the late eighteenth century.

The study shows between 1805 and 1853, at least 1,749 men and women were convicted of bigamy, of whom at least 254 were sentenced to transportation. Men and women tended to receive very different sentences - while women accounted for 18 per cent of those who were convicted of bigamy in this period, only 2.8 per cent of them were transported.

Most of those transported had entered into multiple bigamous marriages. John Wheeler, the second bigamist to be sentenced to transportation, in October 1798, had reportedly abandoned his first wife (a ‘beautiful young girl of sixteen’) in 1776, and then married another women who had an income. He then married a third who he had ‘seduced from a boarding school at Lambeth’ and the last was the sixteen-year-old ‘daughter of a respectable tradesman’. He had finished by running off with the mother of his latest wife.

John Crooks was initially charged with stabbing Mary Anne Nelson. It then transpired that she was just one of his three wives still living—there had apparently been four more. George Whyley, meanwhile, was apparently on the point of marrying an eighth wife when he was apprehended: his was described as ‘one of the most impudent cases of bigamy that ever disgraced this country’.

Bigamists were also more likely to be sentenced to transportation if they had concocted evidence to conceal their first marriage or if the second marriage had been entered into for money rather than love.

‘The Transportation of Bigamists in Early-Nineteenth-Century England and Wales’, by Rebecca Probert and Liam D’Arcy-Brown, is published in (2019) 40(3) Journal of Legal History 223