“Cruel, Barbarous & Inhumane”: Emily Cornelius and Planter Divorce

On August 19, 1852, Emily Cornelius fled. She hid, not for the first time, among her neighbors and begged their protection from the man who beat her, William Cornelius, her husband.

Emily and William married September 23, 1847 in Madison County. William was a rich man. He owned about 810 acres and counted among his property at least twenty slaves: Jim, Thirston, Chainey, Jules, Horace, Andy, Bake, Buck, Little, Jae, Bill, Dennis, Palena, Katy, Evilina, Solomon, Sarah, Jane, Charlotte, George, Larkin, Francis, and an infant named Lena.

With his wealth and land, all derived from his surplus of slaves, William Cornelius achieved the status of planter – the rough and tumble elite of antebellum slave society. A planter, even a minor one like William Cornelius, wielded great and ugly power over their estate. White men who were free to terrorize, rape, and sometimes murder, planters rarely resembled the coiffed and dainty aristocrats of film and popular legend.

Due to this power, influence, and their relative scarcity when weighed against the general population, we do not have many records of planter divorces in the antebellum South. Indeed, the normal circumstances for divorce rarely applied to them. Less wealthy white men who allowed a female slave to take their wife’s place in bed might face a case, while planters’ concubines would often be overlooked by wives who wanted to keep their comfortable home. Planters also found fortune in their own counties and had no reason, like so many poor men, to shrug off the burdens of family and flee to Arkansas or the Republic of Texas. In addition, a legal quirk has prevented further insight into plantation marital strife. South Carolina possessed some of the largest and wealthiest plantations in the antebellum South. However, due to their conservative nature and quixotic constitutions, divorce was not legalized there until 1950, almost a century after the end of the slaveholding planter class.

Instead, the few planter divorces on record are often the result of dramatic and brutal domestic violence.

For the first years of their marriage William drank often. Emily described him as “addicted to the immoderate use of intoxicating drink,” but all else was otherwise peaceful. Around 1850, his behavior changed and William Cornelius became “cruel, barbarous, & inhumane.”

When he drank he fell into the “frequent habit of heaping curses & imprecations of the most direful character,” upon her. It quickly progressed from curses to shouted threats of violence and death. Then he started hitting her, delivering “violent blows with his fists & feet upon your oratrix.” During the worst assaults neighbors intervened to save her life.

Emily Cornelius began running from her husband. She counted at least four times prior to August 19, 1852. Each time she hid from him, William appeared later, sober and making “the most earnest asseverations…& uttering promises of the most solemn & sacred character,” that he would quit drinking. Each time she returned, convinced by his pleas, that she might “hope for peace & happiness & safety in the discharge of her duties as a wife.”

Each time he lied. The tension built in their marriage and he progressively used greater means of violence. In early June 1852, Emily Cornelius gave birth to a son – William Roland Cornelius – like his father. During her recovery period, when the infant was but three weeks old and she still feeble, William Cornelius attacked her. She cradled the infant in her arms while her husband “threatened to take the life of your oratrix if she opened her mouth.” During the assault William grabbed a chain and raised it to threaten her. He said he would kill her with it.

His mother, Ellen Cornelius, intervened. Ellen Cornelius moved between them and bodily shielded both Emily and the infant from her son’s rage. For this she “received a severe blow.” Afterwards, when William Cornelius began to drink they both hid.

Just a few weeks later, on August 19, he confronted her in a drunken rage. This time he brandished “an open Kine in his hand,” and told her it was time for their “final separation.” William told her to run and never come back, stating that if she returned he would finally kill her. She fled. Emily Cornelius took refuge with the neighbors and this time refused to return to her husband despite all his pleadings. [1]

In her suit Emily Cornelius lists her total property as a slave named Harriet “about 14 years of age,” who acted as a nurse for her infant son. She requested that the court grant her a divorce, custody of William Roland Cornelius, and a portion of her husband’s ample estate as maintenance.

William Cornelius responded the same day. He affirmed that, yes, they had married in 1847, and readily recognized that he was “addicted to the occasional immoderate use of intoxicating drinks,” but protested at being called “an habitual drunkard.” He said that he wanted to quit drinking and wished longingly that “his morbid apetite for stimulants had permitted him to keep his oft renewed resolution of Amendment.” He alleged that Emily Cornelius knew about his problems with alcohol long before they got married and “they have become no worse since.”

The response also implied that the marriage was a sham to get at William’s money. He claimed that prior to the wedding he had been “in one of the worst paroxysms of intoxication of about a week’s standing,” and that during the actual ceremony he “was so much under the influence of liquor that he could scarcely stand.”

William Cornelius framed the divorce proceedings as an elaborate ruse by Emily’s father to get some money to pay off his debts in Texas. His evidence for this was that her parents had been visiting during his most recent, and last, alleged assault and that she had spent much time with them. Despite all these claimed machinations by herself and her family, William Cornelius contended that he held her in “tender regard,” and simply wished for her to quit the divorce bill.

Abram Walker, the chancery court judge, saw all of this and issued his ruling on June 29, 1855. There would be no divorce, but William Cornelius would pay at least a thousand dollars in alimony and the infant should remain in Emily Cornelius’s care. Although it did not grant her absolute autonomy, one can imagine Emily Cornelius finding temporary relief in this outcome.

It would be far too temporary. William had successfully appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. In 1858, almost six years after Emily Cornelius petitioned for divorce, some men in Montgomery made a final declaration.

The remarks of Alabama Supreme Court Justice George Stone summed up the difficulties that the wives of planters sometimes faced when seeking equality before the law. Although Justice Stone readily admitted that when William Cornelius drank he became “a boisterous madman; [and] that these fits last for days,” and that his violence required the intervention of neighbors to protect his wife and mother, the Justice still thought William Cornelius capable of reform. Poorer men who drank too much and assaulted their wives often had their marriages dissolved, but due to his wealth and stature, William retained some possible future rights to his son when he no longer required, “those tender offices that only a mother can bestow.”

Although everyone knew of William Cornelius’s temper and fondness for liquor and witnesses readily told of his cruelty towards Emily Cornelius, he managed to parlay his wealth and power into good lawyers and Supreme Court appeals. Emily Cornelius appealed to the better nature of antebellum slave society and found none.


Censer, Jane Turner. “”Smiling Through Her Tears”: Ante-Bellum Southern Women and Divorce.” The American Journal of Legal History 25, no. 1 (1981): 24-47.

Emily Cornelius by her next friend Robert True vs. William Cornelius, Book V, 605-618 (1852).

[1] Kine is both an archaic term for cattle and general farm implements. The documents do not specify but it is most likely a tool that could have done serious damage.


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