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5 Widows, Fictive Widows, and the Management of Households We Rich Widows are the best Commodity this Country Affords, I'll tell you that. APHRA BERN, The Widow Ranter; or the History of Bacon in Virginia ( 1 690) WHEN KATHERINE THORPE died in 1695, she left a curious and con­ troversial legacy. Thorpe, a wealthy York County widow, made a deathbed bequest that put James Whaley in full possession of her es­ tate. According to the two women who attended her final days, Thorpe swore with great "ardency" that Whaley was her "husband before God" and, had a minister had been present, she would have a marriage solemnized between them. She wanted to marry Whaley, she declared, in order to "putt him in possession" of her estate so that he "may not suffer wrong. " When Whaley walked into the room, Thorpe repeated the same words with "earnestness and vehemency." 1 Not surpris­ ingly, given their losses at the expense of her romantic sentiment, her heirs immediately began litigation against Whaley. The widow's power over her estate was, however, as large as she believed it to be. Regardless of what her relatives thought, Thorpe's ardent, repeated speeches succeeded in dispersing her property as she saw fit.2 In seventeenth-century Virginia, elite widows such as Katherine Thorpe often commanded power over their households, even after death. Many widows, however, found it expedient to wear their au­ thority lightly. Threats to their dominion potentially came from sev­ eral quarters: unruly servants and slaves could be unwilling to obey their commands, neighbors were not always inclined to respect their property, and legatees might disagree about inheritances. When it came to managing their estates, widows, theoretically the most inde­ pendent of women householders in early America, might find them­ selves to be the most vulnerable to conflict. The best means of keeping I I 7 1 18 Brabbling Women order among their servants, slaves, children, and neighbors was to en­ list the aid of the local legal fraternity to assist them in managing and protecting their authority. In order to manage their households, widows often chose a course of words and actions that emphasized their dependency as women and diluted their independence as widows. In r 68 r, for instance, York County widow Elisheba Vaulx quarreled with her recently freed maid­ servant, Elizabeth Mullins, over the servant's indenture. Mullins had apparently conceived a pregnancy before completing her term of ser­ vice, although she was free when her child was born. Vaulx wanted the maid to serve the standard penalty required by Virginia statute: two years of extra service. Mullins apparently disagreed. Vaulx sought to resolve the matter but did not go to court herself. Perhaps she was tired of arguing with the recalcitrant maidservant. The latter had grown so "high and soe [peremptory], " Vaulx complained, that she could "scarce speake to her. " Instead, she sent specific directions to her attorney, requesting that he "speake" for her and say that Mullins should be sentenced "according to the act of Assembly. " In parting, Vaulx 'pleaded with the attorney to "pray Assist me in what lyes in your power."3 Because her own authority failed to awe Mullins, Vaulx may have reasoned, the lawyer and justices could inspire in her the proper respect and deference for her superiors. Her chosen strategy, then, was to turn the debate over Mullins's term of service to em­ powered men. While this exchange highlights the difficulties that free widows, even elite widows, might experience in their households, it also sug­ gests that they managed such conflicts with a nuanced choreography. Widows such as Vaulx who were literate, understood the law, and could afford to arm themselves with lawyers were able to negotiate their conflicts and maintain their authority without transgressing their gender roles. Elisheba Vaulx favored deference and compromise, preferring to adjudicate her disputes in the legal forum. Moreover, her approach to managing her household differed significantly from that of other masters. As we have seen, John and Bridgett Russell, William and Anne Clopton, and Charles and Betty Crompton felt unequivo­ cally entitled to employ threatened and real violence to control their dependents. For many masters, in fact, Elizabeth Mullins's affronts would have gained her physical correction. The maidservant had, af­ ter all, gainsayed her superior and violated a basic tenet of household authority. Rather than violence, however, Vaulx chose supplication. Widows and Fictive Widows 1 19 Her written appeal to the York justices cited her...


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