In the spring of 1837, James Ragdale and Nathaniel Hall spoke briefly in front of Nathaniel’s house. Ragdale visited the Hall estate and witnessed Mary Hall and Nathaniel engaged in one of their epic quarrels. He’d only known the couple for a few months at this point but all who knew the Halls knew that the family relied on violence to communicate. They cussed each other out as Ragdale announced that he thought he should leave. Nathaniel escorted his guest outside and stood with his visitor. He looked the man in the eyes.
Without a word Nathaniel Hall began “unbuttoning his pantaloons.” Surely at this point James Ragdale felt unsure of himself. ‘How do I explain to the man that I’m not down with that?’ he probably thought. Yet Nathaniel Hall unbuttoned his pants not for gratification but to highlight his circumstance. James Ragdale saw a pistol tucked into his host’s undergarments, Hall moved those aside and gestured at an old wound.
Apparently Mary stabbed him in the crotch a few years ago. She narrowly missed the vital arteries of the leg but left a gaping reminder of her wrath. Hall desperately tried to explain. He carried a loaded pistol because he feared his sons might try to kill him. He and Mary lived in constant fear of each other. Their children felt only misery at their parent’s incessant feuding.
He planned to leave. Nathaniel Hall knew the law. Although he suspected that Mary Hall planned to sue him for a divorce, he also knew that they needed to live in separate houses for several years in order to go through with it. He planned to evacuate his youngest children to a new home he hoped to purchase with that year’s proceeds from his farm. He didn’t trust Mary Hall as she’d already left him once for a man named Martin Guest and probably performed further “illicit interviews” in the woods after she returned from her dalliance. Nathaniel’s brother lived about a mile away and he could stay there once the time to leave her came.
How did it come this far? The Halls married in either 1812 or 1816. Each spouse filed different divorce suits against the other and listed various dates. Both failed to list the place of their marriage. Context clues point to either an Alabama wedding or a migration here shortly after their marriage; Nathaniel Hall accrued several hundred acres in Madison county, lived near relatives, and the Halls had about ten children. So it seems likely that by the time they filed against each other in both 1838 and 1842 that they’d been living in or near Huntsville for about two decades.
Like many families their quips became quarrels and their quarrels became quotidian. People bound by blood and semen are bound to fight. Except this is Alabama and it is the 1830’s, so those fights quickly became violent.
On April 1, 1837, Nathaniel Hall pulled his pantaloons pistol on his wife. Their nineteen year old son Andrew Hall wrestled the gun from his father but Nathaniel screamed a dire warning before he retreated to his brother’s home.
He said “at some future day [he] would carry out his purpose when there was none to prevent.” Nathaniel Hall returned to their estate several times. He came once while his sons worked in the fields and confiscated all the guns he could find in their house. He reminded Mary that he “was well aimed with pistols & that he intended her time in this world should be very short.” It seems strange that he failed to murder her then but perhaps he feared the retribution of his nearby sons.
Mostly, it seems that Nathaniel Hall feared Andrew. Described several times as having “a week intellect,” Andrew Hall performed much of the most strenuous labor around the farm, especially since Nathaniel Hall sold three slaves upon leaving his household, and the boy possessed a massive strength and unwavering devotion to his mother. In fact, when Nathaniel returned a second time “to superintend some of his plantation affairs,” he learned of his failure to confiscate all of his family’s pistols.
Nathaniel Hall brought back up on his superintending visit. He wished to inspect ledgers and farmland after hearing rumors that Mary Hall “sold a large quantity of bacon which he had provided for his family and that she is permitting his stock of hogs and cattle to be wasted.” Instead he found Mary Hall and Andrew standing in the road. Mary Hall stood behind her son. Andrew Hall stood behind a pistol.
After a long silent moment Mary Hall spoke up. She threatened that Andrew Hall, “armed with a loaded pistol which presented in a shooting position,” would shoot his father and his friends if they attempted to enter the yard. Nathaniel Hall left without inspecting his herds.
He received the subpoena to appear in court. Soon after that any and all payments made to him by indebted men ceased because the court ordered a temporary halt to his business ventures. Mary Hall accused him of abandonment. He could easily cash in on his debts and leave for a different state. The court quickly dismissed the case with no word on alimony or the splitting of property. Although Nathaniel Hall resumed his business, Mary Hall and their terrifying sons remained at the main home and he worked from his brother’s house.
In 1842, Nathaniel Hall counter-sued for a divorce. He’d waited the correct number of years, hired a lawyer, and presented adequate evidence. Yet Mary Hall died soon after the beginning of the case. They were finally rid of each other.
Mary Hall v. Nathaniel Hall, Book K, 211-248 (1838).
Nathaniel Hall v. Polly Hall, Book L, 171-172 (1842).*
*a pseudonym, he explicitly mentions the previous case and that her given name is Mary