Debt didn’t rank far behind death in terms of people’s greatest fears during the 18th century.
The realities of debt laws were bad enough — debtors faced public shaming and sometimes also years in prison until their creditors were repaid. But the consequences of debt struck such fear into the hearts of some people that they would believe almost anything they were told about the laws.
Historian Benjamin Hall took particular interest in these misunderstandings in his 1858 book “History of Eastern Vermont, From Its Earliest Settlement to the Close of the Eighteenth Century.” Hall detailed the extraordinary lengths to which some Vermonters are said to have gone to avoid violating the state’s debt laws as they interpreted them — or, as Hall argued, misinterpreted them.
That Hall found the incidents noteworthy suggests that people’s attitude toward debt had changed by the mid-19th century.
Hall described the rather odd wedding ceremony in the late 1770s in Westminster between Asa Averill and Mercy Phippen Lovejoy, a widow. What made the wedding peculiar was the bride’s attire, or rather the lack thereof. The bride attended the ceremony naked. The idea was part of a plan to avoid transferring the debts of Lovejoy’s late husband to her new one.
The circumstances surrounding these strange nuptials need some explaining. Hall wrote that at the time “certain people were led to believe” that if a widow were to remarry and her new husband were to come into possession of any items purchased by the previous husband, then he would be liable for the dead man’s debts.
Though the bride’s late husband had died in debt, he had left behind some property, including Lovejoy’s clothes. At the time, a married woman’s property legally belonged to her husband, so to avoid the major’s debt, Averill and Lovejoy concocted their unusual plan.
Before the ceremony at the widow’s house began, Lovejoy stood in a large nook beside the chimney, shielded by a woolen blanket. Her attendants, taking on a role seldom demanded of bridesmaids, undressed her and threw her clothes into the room. Then, standing naked, Lovejoy put her hand through a hole cut into the blanket. Averill, standing on the other side of the blanket, took her hand and they were married. The ceremony complete, Averill passed his bride a new set of clothes, which she donned before joining the party.
Hall’s telling of the story leaves questions. Couldn’t Averill have simply given Lovejoy clothes to wear during the service? Or would those clothes somehow have instantly taken on a taint of debt that would have passed on to her new husband? Perhaps they were just playing it safe, because clothes were an expensive commodity in the 18th century — not something you would risk having seized by a debt collector. Or perhaps whoever suggested this was the best way for the couple to steer clear of debt just had an odd sense of humor.
Take this body, please
A darker sense of humor might have been at play in the case of Judge Thomas Chandler of Chester. Hall chalked it up to ignorance. When people have “no very definite ideas either of law or of the principles of right,” he wrote, then “customs sometimes prevail.”
Judge Chandler was imprisoned in the Westminster jail for several months after falling into debt. Friends petitioned the Legislature for his release. On June 16, 1785, lawmakers granted Chandler his freedom, but he died four days later, before details of his release had been completed. Jailers wanted to be rid of the body, but no one would take it.
Seems that people misunderstood the debt law, believing that anyone who transported a debtor’s body off jail property would be considered an accomplice in an “escape,” Hall wrote. They worried they would be held legally liable for the dead man’s debts. That would be a high price to pay for wanting to see that a body was properly buried.
But people’s misapprehensions went further. Even if transporting the body wouldn’t make them liable for the deceased’s debts, they believed that if they buried the body, then the dead man’s debts, like some sort of virus, would pass to them.
What then to do? Chandler’s body remained in its cell for days, until it became “so offensive as to endanger the health of the other prisoners.” The thorny situation prompted the jailer, Nathan Fisk, to search for a solution. He realized that if no one would claim the body, it had to remain on the jail’s grounds. But the jail lacked any place to give Chandler a proper Christian burial.
Fisk found a clever solution. He examined the jail’s liberties, the area around the building in which trusted prisoners were allowed to walk during the day. By stretching out the chain used to measure the liberties, Fisk found that they nearly extended to a neighboring church’s graveyard. He had a grave dug on this spot, which was technically within the jail’s grounds. Fisk apparently didn’t believe the hogwash about incurring a dead man’s debts if you buried him — or perhaps he had an underling do the dirty work, just to be safe.
But this was no ordinary grave. Fisk supposedly had the hole dug at an angle, creating a sort of slanted tunnel. Thus, the top of the grave was within the jail, but Chandler’s final resting spot was within the “consecrated grounds” of the Westminster church.
Dead man arrested
Hall put less stock in a story making the rounds during the 1850s. It was claimed that long ago (no date was given), it was customary to hold the body of a recently deceased debtor until his or her debts were repaid. Hall heard that a dead man’s body had been arrested on the way to the cemetery in Dummerston and his friends forced to put up bail so the burial could continue. The friends thus became liable to surrender the bail when the dead man failed to appear in court on the appointed day.
“I must confess this sounds rather apocryphal,” Hall wrote. The debt laws were strict, he said, but “the arrest of a corpse seems too monstrous to be believed.”
Note: For the record, Benjamin Hall didn’t know the first name of the widow Lovejoy, and made tracking down her identity much harder by getting the name of her late husband wrong. But in his defense, he was relying on the memory of a prominent Westminster resident.
Fortunately for me, Vermont Historical Society librarian Marjorie Strong was able to untangle the Averill-Lovejoy genealogy and set the record straight.