A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times
On a peak fall day in 1814, when America was a nation at war, a young mother named Eunice Chapman returned to her home in New York State to discover that her three young children had been carried off by her estranged, alcoholic husband. He had taken them, she learned, to live among a celibate, religious people known as the Shakers.
This should have been the end of the story. Married women were considered “civilly dead” before the law, and were unable to own property or even testify against their husbandsmuch less lay claim to their children, who were the exclusive property of their fathers. But Eunice was determined to win back her children, no matter the cost.
Thus began an epic five-year quest in which Eunice single-handedly challenged her husband, the Shakers, and the law in her fight to reclaim her children.
A famously petite and lovely woman, Eunice courted politicians in the New York State Legislature, penned thrilling captivity narratives, and pitted herself against not only the dominant culture of her times, but also another charismatic woman: Mother Lucy Wright, the supreme head of the Shakers and one of the most powerful women in the country.
In its confrontation of some of the country’s most fundamental debatesreligious freedom, feminine virtue, the sanctity of marriageEunice’s case struck a nerve with Americans plagued by uncertainty in the early days of the republic (luminaries Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren among them). All of Albany
was rapt during the uproarious hearings on this case, in which sex, among other topics, was so hotly discussed that lawmakers walked out of the House. The case’s culmination in a stunning legislative decision and a terrifying mob attack sent shockwaves through the Shaker community and the nation beyond.
Pulling together the pieces of this saga from crumbled newspapers, Shaker diaries, and long-forgotten letters, Ilyon Woo delivers the first full account of Eunice Chapman’s remarkable struggle with a novelist’s eye and a historian’s perspective. A moving story about the power of a mother’s love, The Great Divorce
is also a memorable portrait of a rousing challenge to the values of a young nation.