One of the surprises of genealogy is learning that divorce was fairly common in the “old days.” It’s also a surprise that newspapers then were every bit as explicit then as now – and actually, much more gossipy. Here’s what happened to Levi & Nancy Sperry, residents of Lawrence, Kansas. Levi’s first wife was Paulina J. Dobbins, sister of James Sellers Dobbins, but she died in childbirth and Levi then married Nancy Sperry, a neighbor.
In 1885 everything fell apart for the Sperrys. A divorce action was filed by Nancy Jane against Levi, alleging that in their 28 years of marriage he had scolded her, beaten her and threatened to kill her many times. The youngest daughter, Lilly Sperry, testified for her mother, stating that she heard him threaten to kill her mother and had been present once when he tried to choke her. Other family members, including son Watson, and Mrs. Sperry’s sister, Dicy Carter, also testified. In his portion of the trial, Levi stated that after their first year, their marriage had been a stormy one. It had become worse when she later wanted the boys to run the farm. Levi was upset that in any differences between him and the children, she always sided with the children. In cross-examination, he admitted having at one time threatened to split her head open with an axe. The divorce was granted. During the course of the trial, two of the four Sperry children, both adults, died. All the lurid details appear in the local Lawrence newspaper.
Levi was fit to be tied. On November 24, 1886 he wrote out a new will. A couple of items bear noticing:
1) Item #2 states, “I give, devise, and bequeath to my two children, James Sperry and Nellie T. Jones, each the sum of one dollar, and direct the same to be paid them out of my estate, as soon as possible after my decease, upon their each executing and delivering to my executrix, a full receipt therefore, in full for their share and interest in my estate. Because of the well-known domestic difficulties which I have had with my former wife, Mrs. Nancy J. Sperry, from whom I have obtained a legal divorce, and because my said children, James Sperry and Nellie T. Jones, bore a conspicuous part in my said domestic difficulties, thereby greatly aggravating my afflictions and embarrassments, both socially and financially, it is my will and purpose that my said children shall have no further share or interest of and in my property and estate, beyond the sum of one dollar each as above provided.
He certainly made clear his intentions in this matter.
2) Item #3 states, “I give devise and bequeath all the rest, residue and remainder of my estate....unto Mrs. Eliza J. McFarland to be the sole and absolute property of the said Eliza J. McFarland, and her heirs and assigns forever, and in case I shall survive and outlive her, then I hereby give, devise and bequeath all the property of every kind herein devised and bequeathed to her unto her children and their heirs forever. This provision and bequest is made by me, as, and by way of an inducement and past consideration for the agreement of the said Eliza J. McFarland this day made, that she will become my wife”
His will also appoints Eliza as executrix, which of course would necessitate his children going to her to get their $1 each when their father dies.
There is a Marriage License issued in Lawrence on November 23, 1885 and a return recorded on November 24 confirming the marriage of Levi J. Sperry, age 57 and Eliza J. McFarland, 38. Eliza was no dummy.
Eliza and Levi had 15 years of married life. His will was admitted to probate on January 25, 1901.
Although the records do not show if ex-wife Nancy Sperry received a settlement, she had a unique way of rebuilding her life. On February 17, 1887, Nancy Sperry, age 48, married young Edward A. Carlson, age 26, in her home in Lawrence -- and lived happily ever after!