Still a Better Love Story than Twilight

Somebody whispered poison into Martha Valliant’s ears. After thirty eight years of marriage, she decided that her husband planned to leave her. This case stuck out because it is one of the few where a departed husband responded with anything other than accusations of adultery on the part of the wife that brought suit.

When Martha Valliant showed up in court on March 2, 1832 and claimed that Robert Valliant stole her dower, sold all their land, moved to Tennessee, and married a new woman; it seemed plausible enough. People did that sort of thing. They’d raised nine children together and worked their way up from the brink of poverty to something resembling a comfortable nineteenth century retirement, yet now she found herself without a dower nor widow’s third nor maintenance. So she sued because that proved the last option between herself and a slow starving death.

She knew that a man named George Horton prepared to pay her husband a reasonable amount of money for several tracts of land, some of it originally from her dower, and the court recognized this fact in securing her a maintenance. So, although she believed her husband forever gone, Martha Valliant managed to secure eighty dollars a year from George Horton, to be redacted from the original selling price for the land. Martha worked the hell out of the system.

Except she didn’t need to levy a fine against George Horton. Robert J. Valliant quickly responded to his wife’s claims. He affirmed that they’d been married for almost forty years, he did not pause to question that they’d raised nine children, that when he’d married Martha “he had nothing himself but a horse saddle & bundle.” He claimed that all of their children, except one, had grown up and left their house, and he found it difficult to cultivate the land and that “they were lonesome in that situation.”*

So, desperate to care for his ailing wife and their remaining child, Robert hatched a plan. He claimed to have gotten Martha’s consent to sell her dower to George Horton. After that they divided up all their property among their nearby children, “reserving to themselves one bed & furniture & one horse.” Accordingly, they went to the house of their son, James Valliant, in Lawrence county, Alabama. Robert left Martha there and traveled north to “the western district of Tennessee in search of a suitable place.” Something happened after he left that caused Martha Valliant to leave her own son’s home and instead travel to live with her daughter and son-in-law; a man named Richard J. Brooks.

Robert J. Valliant spent a long time in Tennessee. So long it seems that his own daughter and her husband began to whisper things to Martha Valliant about rumors of his new wife. Rumors he squashed with the simple line “[I am] now about sixty two years of age, & could derive but little enjoyment in such illicit intercourse.”**

No, instead of trying to establish a second family in Tennessee, he’d been buying up land in Memphis to build a house and apparently took the horrifying step of purchasing a forty year old enslaved woman and a nine year old girl to help care for them in their old age.

Robert J. Valliant then summoned one of his many son-in-laws, John Grant, gave him a horse and sent him back to Lawrence county to collect Martha Valliant and inform her that he’d found a good spot of land in Tennessee for them to die on. John Grant returned with her demands for a divorce. Robert seethed at the news and made the perilous journey, for someone of his advanced age, out to the homestead of Richard Brooks. He accosted his own daughter and demanded that she return her mother, but apparently his son-in-law had “consealed her” but nobody knew where. In a desperate attempt to right this wrong, Robert went before the Madison county court and delivered a romantic speech; stating that “he never can nor will consent to be separated [from Martha Valliant]… after raising a large family of children from many other considerations this idea of separation is heart rending.”

She heard his words. Martha Valliant dismissed the suit in April 1836. They retired to Memphis and presumably died shortly thereafter.


Martha Valliant by her next friend Richard J. Brooks v. Robert J. Valliant, Book H, 9-18 (1832).

*Can I point out that a married couple in their sixties was raising a young child in nineteenth century Alabama? The Valliants were friggin’ passionate about each other well after some of their contemporaries would have given up and become bitter old white people.

**Learning new strokes can be a difficult process.

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