Oh Henry! The Long Divorce of Emiline Coleman, Part Five

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5: “…we should seize Riley”

Judge Smith owned land all around Huntsville’s downtown. He rented his shed on Randolph Street to the stonemason William Edwards and both John Lewis and Preston Yeatman used the judge’s “large brick stable [on Green Street]… as a salthouse.” Both locations provided perfect vantage points for surveillance of the Coleman property.

coleman edits
Emiline and Henry are terrible at subterfuge.

Normally such surveillance might include mundanities like: John Coleman on a horse, Emiline Coleman drinking tea, or someone reading a book.

However, on Sunday, September 10, 1836, William Edwards noticed something different. His shed, “being on much higher ground than any part of said Coleman’s premises,” overlooked all of Randolph Street and allowed Edwards a view down into the Theatre on clear days. Around three or four in the afternoon, “during the continuance service of the Methodist Church,” he saw Emiline Coleman slip from the main house and down into the privy. Scarcely a moment later Henry Riley, “crossed the fence into the complainants garden and went into the same privy or necessary house.”

Apparently this happened often, as Edwards noted that “on divers occasions I had watched the maneuvers of Mrs Coleman and this man Riley,” which included the adulterous conspirators leaving notes for each other in fence posts and the aforementioned outhouse rendezvouses. William Edwards returned to his work but noted that not long after the two began their privy shenanigans; John Coleman rode up on a horse and, unable to find his wife or assuming that she went to church, began reading a book by the window.

Edwards ran into Henry Riley not long after this near “Mr Sydne’s Lot” (number 6 on the map) and spoke with him briefly about his time in the toilet. No reliable account exists of this encounter, but it appears that Edwards’ casual snooping entered the rumor mill and produced well hewn gossip about Emiline Coleman’s impropriety.

Such gossip died down, though never fully evaporated, following the departure of Riley’s acting troupe. However, his reappearance in early December ignited a flurry of activity, both among people who liked talking, and between himself and Emiline Coleman. More conspicuous than his reappearance was the fact that he was “unaccompanied by the residue of the Company and without any ostensible business.”

Henry came to see Emiline.

Preston Yeatman noticed his sudden reemergence and felt compelled to track the actor all over Huntsville. So when Yeatman, and his associate John Lewis, noticed Riley hovering beneath a window – they paid attention.

Around two p.m. on Saturday, December 17th, 1836, the two men quit unloading salt from a wagon as Henry Riley walked up the street and instead ran inside Judge Smith’s stable and watched intently through the grates. The solid brick structure hid them as “the window blinds of a window on the second story… cautiously opened and a small piece of paper drop[ped] down at the feet of said Riley.” The actor cast several furtive glances around the street to make sure nobody watched him as he “picked up the paper and thrust it into the pocket of his pantaloons,” before scurrying off towards to the town square.

Preston Yeatman and John Lewis turned to look at each other and they said ‘oh dang, we should tell somebody.’

That somebody happened to be James W. McClung, a close associate of John Coleman and a man of hasty action. He knew of the rumors circulating about Emiline Coleman, a woman whom he described as “volatile and girlish,” and it appears he was none too fond of Riley either. Upon being informed of the paper dropping, McClung immediately found John Coleman. McClung formed an impromptu posse of himself, Coleman, Lewis, and Yeatman; who at McClung’s suggestion that “we should seize Riley and thus get possession of the paper,” set off for the town square.

Henry resisted their initial demands but the four men assaulted him and afterwards “forcibly examined the said Riley’s person.” They indeed found a letter in Riley’s pantaloons.

I am so much pleased to see you here once more but it is impossible for me to speak to you. I am still the same and ever shall be return home Henry and forget me if you please if it is ever in my power to become the Bride of H with honor I will, and as soon as I can you shall know it keep my secret if you please, never betray me so long as you live, write a letter this evening and tonight after tea slip it through the window blinds of the porch I will be there playing on the piano. Adieu Henry

Yours – Yours

Distraught at this plain evidence of Emiline’s affair, John returned to his work at the Land Office; where he spoke with his close friend Samuel Cruse. John remembered his sister, Narcissa, warning him of Emiline’s infidelity, but had ignored her and instead listened to Emiline’s tales. While he contemplated his next move the three other men ran Riley out of Huntsville, apparently he left so quickly that his luggage remained in town.

Samuel Cruse had an idea. He remembered that Henry Riley stayed at the Bell Tavern inn. So he accompanied John to the place, and after some misgivings from the owner, they barged their way into Riley’s room. There they found a large trunk, which they forced open. Among Riley’s clothes and baubles they found fifteen letters written to him by Emiline Coleman, as well as “a miniature of Mrs Coleman, which I recognized as a likeness of her.”

Samuel Cruse paid for a stage coach to take Emiline to her father’s home in Marengo county. John Coleman paid for a lawyer. On November 1, 1837, the court granted him a full divorce.


John J. Coleman vs. Emiline R. Coleman, Book J, 91-114 (1837).

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