A Sign of Family Disorder?
Changing Representations of
In the summer of 1873, “a gentleman of high social position” in Williamstown, New York, hired a “fast livery team” and carried off both his children. He presumably fled with them to Europe, since as “a man of means,” he would “spare no money to cover up the trail.” Although the courts had given this man, a Mr. Neil, custody of one his daughters in the “decree of separation on the ground of incompatibility of temperament,” the other daughter, whom he also took with him, had been awarded to his wife, who now suffered “fearfully over the theft.”1 Recorded in the New York Times 128 years ago, Mr. Neil's abduction of his daughter was an example of what is known today as parental kidnapping. That episode and others like it, while unusual and newsworthy, were hardly unknown more than a century ago because then, as today, husbands and wives fought over the custody of their children. And children were even then pawns in an uncertain legal struggle among the mother, the father, and the state.2
An especially vivid glimpse of the parental tug-of-war over a child took place in New York in 1879 when Henry Coolidge and his former wife Belthiede were found quarreling on West Sixteenth Street in Manhattan over possession of their daughter. “The woman had the child by one arm and the man by the other arm and they were pulling the little girl hither and thither.” Pending the outcome of the divorce instituted by Henry, the judge had ordered one of their daughters to be placed in the custody of the maternal grandmother and the other with a friend of the family. Henry had taken the older girl from the grandmother's house, “ostensibly for a walk,” but he had not returned her. The mother, with the assistance of her own father had retaken the girl and had just met Coolidge on the street where he attempted once again to take the child. This was the background for the little drama that was enacted on the street in New York.