On the 5th of February 1902, Sarah Ellen (Hall) Hoffman of Ashton, Osceola County, Iowa, who was then forty-four years old, signed her name to a petition that she sincerely hoped would grant her a divorce. John Hoffman was her second husband; her first husband had died of an accidental gunshot wound, and it was now eighteen years since she had remarried. As detailed in the statement of facts prepared for the court by her attorney, O. J. Clark, this marriage was now in shambles.1
It was established that the plaintiff and the defendant had lived together since the time of their marriage – except recently, as “the defendant has been away from home considerable.”2 It was added, “At times he will work and earn money, but will not use any of his earnings to or for the support of the family, but will stay at home most of the time helping to eat up what the plaintiff and children earn.”3 Then, the chilling details of their marriage spilled forth:
“That the plaintiff has always conducted herself toward the defendant as a loving and dutiful wife, but that the defendant, disregarding his duties towards your petitioner, has always been abusive and ugly towards her, and of late years has become brutally coarse, violent and vulgar towards your petitioner, often calling her the most vile names in the presence of her children and so does without any cause therefore, often striking, kicking and otherwise abusing your petitioner, without cause, often leaving black and blue marks on the person of your petitioner for weeks at a time as the result thereof. That at times the defendant, without cause, threatens to kill your petitioner, threatens to put a hole through your petitioner’s body, threatens to cut her heart out and to kill your petitioner with a knife. That on one occasion said defendant attempted to carry out his threat of killing your petitioner with a butcher knife, and attacked her therewith, when her daughter in attempting to prevent defendant’s harming your petitioner, received the blow with the knife herself on the hand, cutting the cord to one of her fingers off and otherwise injuring her hand, so that she has very little use of said finger, and thus, to that extent has made her a cripple for life. That the threats thus made, the kicking and striking are of very frequent occurrence when he is at home, that he sleeps with his clothes on, and at times in the night will begin his abuse of your petitioner without cause, and threaten to kill her with his knife, and will begin to open and shut his knife so that the plaintiff can hear it click and thus frighten her and worry her all night at a time.”4
In recent years, the defendant had become “addicted to the use of intoxicating liquors, and is an habitual drunkard, which habit he has acquired since their said marriage.”5 The statement continued, “That the plaintiff’s health has become undermined and broken, and if this treatment continues her health will give out entirely and she fears she will die there from – if the defendant does not in fact kill her outright.”6 It’s truly appalling to think what my third great-grandmother must have endured, and it’s to her credit that she had the strength to initiate a divorce at this time.
It would be interesting to learn what grounds for divorce were required in Iowa in 1902; apparently, in this case, habitual drunkenness, horrific abuse, and failure to provide support were sufficient. The divorce was granted in March of that year, at which time Sarah received custody of the couple’s teenage son, possession of the kitchen and household furniture, a return to her former name, and, most importantly, a chance for a better life.7
1 Osceola County, Iowa, Circuit Court File 3036, Sarah E. Hoffman v. John Hoffman, for “Petition in Equity,” 20 March 1902; Clerk of District Court, Sibley. The surname Hoffman appeared in this text as Huffman, but in some instances the “u” was overwritten with an “o.” Thus, I have transcribed the name as Hoffman.