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

Part 4: Front Seats reserved for the Ladies 

Like most actors of the time Henry Riley made the rounds. Outside of the major cities on the eastern seaboard, very few people could make a living at a single theater due to either lack of interest by the locals or their general lack of funds. So nineteenth century actors formed an itinerant comity that traveled from one cottonopolis or boomtown to the next; a living marching recitation of Shakespeare, bawdy stories, and songs about cheese. That is to say – they carried high culture on their backs from end of America to the other.

Due to the lack of radio or other recording devices these actors often aped the styles of their more famous brethren. These fifty cent theater-mongers imitated the powerhouses of London, New York, and Philadelphia; perfecting their speech patterns and timing in the hope that one day somebody else would be mimicking theirs.

Henry Riley offered “celebrated imitations” of both male and female performers – including the recently deceased Edmund Kean as Richard III, the famously fainting Sarah Siddons as Lady Randolph from the tragedy Douglas, and of course Junius Brutus Booth, the father of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, as Iago from Othello.

So when he came to town in the summer of 1836, it was kind of a big deal.

Arrangement were made to sell tickets to his performance, half a dollar apiece, at various hotels around the city. He offered a discount for children and claimed in his promotional pamphlets that he reserved the entire first row at every performance for various society ladies.

It was during this performance that he first made contact with Emiline Coleman. The young woman not only attended the event but apparently became smitten at Riley’s range and his beauty. One can only speculate that she fell madly in love with him by the first verse of “Butter and Cheese.”

The early days of the affair went well. Riley spent much time at the Theater and, fortunately enough for both involved, the Coleman’s house lay directly next to it.

Diagram p 6793
Map of Downtown Huntsville produced for this court case, 1837.

As one can see from the map, the Coleman’s outhouse lay directly next to, and probably drained into, the “Theatre Lot.” All Emiline needed to do was skip out into the garden and she might make an illicit rendezvous with Henry inside.

Although John J. Coleman eventually lost his wife to Henry Riley, the fact that he literally shit on the actor’s career every day provided some small measure of solace.

Part Five


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

Part 3: Who is John Coleman?

On Christmas Eve of 1829, a man named John J. Coleman married Emiline R. Williams in Courtland, Alabama. They stood together in a Lawrence county church in front of his family and made solemn vows of chastity and devotion. She hailed from Marengo county, Alabama, some two hundred miles to the south. His people were slightly more local.

The Colemans first arrived in the Mississippi Territory in the fall of 1811, and “with the exception of occasional and temporary absences,” had resided in Huntsville ever since. People moved a lot during this era, after all, the newly depopulated southeastern frontiers weren’t going to settle themselves. So by the internal clock of most Anglo-American colonists, the Colemans were practically native to Madison county – seemingly sprouting from the primordial ooze of the Mississippi Territory and ossifying into a house off Randolph Street.

Although the Colemans didn’t travel much, John Coleman’s marriage to Emiline Williams occurred after seventeen months in Litchfield, Connecticut. He’d only arrived back in Alabama in the summer of 1828, and his bride-to-be was still a 13 or 14 year old girl some 200 miles away. There’s almost no way they had much prior communication and from the relative wealth of both families, coupled with their astounding age difference, it appears that an arranged marriage occurred.

Indeed, we know that John J. Coleman was much older than Emiline R. Williams when they married, not because it is mentioned that her age was 15, but because John traveled to Augusta, Georgia to conduct business for the family in 1816, and managed to stay there for about sixteen months. Now, assuming that he was only 16 or so when this happened (and that is a hell of an assumption because people were still considered legally ‘infants’ and thus unable to conduct most forms of business until the age of 21), then John J. Coleman was, at a minimum, about twice Emiline’s age when they married in 1829.

In order to woo his young bride he showered her with gifts. According to the testimony of Narcissa Coleman, just in 1836, he purchased “a Piano Forte which cost him $200 dollars, a Dressing Bureau which cost 100$, a Gold chain which cost him 75 Dollars, a pair of Gold Earings which cost him 35 Dollars besides a great number of valuable and expensive articles of Dress.”

John J. Coleman had all the money he could need but ultimately found himself unable to compete with a long legged actor from Nashville.

Part Four


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

Part 2: Ann of Keen Fables 

During the strange and complex tale of Emiline Coleman’s affair with Henry Riley an unlikely actor emerged in the form of Ann. Although Ann is described only sparingly throughout the case of Coleman v. Coleman; her actions and agency ultimately serve as the catalyst that propels the divorce.

Due to Ann’s status as an enslaved young woman she is often referenced as an afterthought by the white protagonists. However, she gets a lot of screen time in comparison to other enslaved blacks in 1830’s court battles.

It appears that Ann served as Emiline Coleman’s handmaiden and gofer. She carried letters and acted as an occasional chaperon and sometimes confidant for the 22 year old married woman. Narcissa Coleman, Emiline’s sister-in-law, described Ann as “a negro Girl… about 13 or 14 years of age, worth at that time 800$ at least.” When Emiline’s husband, John Coleman, banished her from his household he sent Ann with her to Marengo County to continue her services.

However, the thing that made Ann an integral player in this melodrama was her betrayal of Emiline Coleman to her sisters-in-law. For several months she carried correspondence between Emiline and an actor from Nashville named Henry Riley.

Riley stayed at the Bell Tavern and spent weeks at a time in the city performing at different theaters. It would be inappropriate for Emiline to spend so much time around Henry without her husband. By sending an enslaved person, she circumvented this social norm and managed to communicate to her heart’s desire.

It appears that higher class white women in Huntsville all used some form of this system. Often cloistered in their homes they needed to develop what amounted to personal spy-rings to both stay abreast of news in the city and exercise a measure of influence. We know that Narcissa and Delia Coleman suspected Emiline of infidelity as early as September 9, 1836, some 11 days before she wrote Exhibit J. Both women mentioned that “reports were whispered about amongst the negroes to the discredit of [Emiline],” and that they began turning their attention towards Emiline’s business, and by extension, the comings and goings of Ann.

It appears that Ann either communicated the purpose of her errands to enslaved people attached to Narcissa Coleman’s household, that they spoke to her, or she noticed their presence. Either way, Narcissa learned why Ann went out so much and it appears that she instructed the young errand runner to bring her evidence of Emiline’s indiscretions.

Which she did.

Emiline wrote a letter to Henry Riley requesting he return a photo of her. Now this was most likely a small painting, but apparently it was highly prized her husband because he’d been inquiring about it for months. Emiline lied and said that a friend of hers named Mary Crampton borrowed it and had yet to give it back.

Instead of carrying it to Henry Riley, which she had done so many times before, Ann presented the letter to Narcissa Coleman and quickly left. This gave Narcissa the evidence she needed to begin whispering in her brother’s ear.

Part Three

Oh Henry! The Long Divorce of Emiline Coleman

Part 1: Exhibit J

Huntsville Ala. September 20th, 1836

Dear Henry,

Do not trouble yourself any longer about me I always knew I was born to meet trouble and see disappointment. Therefore I will be content though not happy, to obliterate my name from your heart, never more think of me.

The night you were in the garden Mr. C sayd I must have known you were there though he does not know who it was, but I stayed so very long when I went there before you came I had just gone to the house as he started down there. I called him I thought if you were there you would hear me and go away.

That was the only reason [I] called him the minute he came in the house he sayd I must have known who you were, he for the first time in his life spoke unkind to me I did not say a word to him, he asked me two or three times who you was but I would not tell him, he sayd if I did not tell him who it was I might go my way and he would his and he sayd a great many other things but he saw I would not say any thing, he came to bed I thought at one time I would tell him all and go to your to protect me but I thought it might lead to death and probably yours, then what would have become of me?

I would have no one to go too all that cept me from it was on your account Henry, wait a year or two, then perhaps we may be united with honor.

The night after you let here I dreamed I was lost in the most beautiful forest I ever saw. I was walking in a little path and I came to a beautiful spring and by the side of it lay a little boy asleep, he was about three or four years of age he was the most beautiful child I thought that ever was, his hair as glossy as it could be and his cheeks like roses. I touched him and he asked me who I was, I told him my name then I asked him his he sayd he could not tell me, he told me if I would go with him he would give shelter in his fathers ship he would not tell me who his father was, and I asked myself if any so heavenly as this little boy could do me harm. I thought not.

The vessel lay at anchor in a Lake it was the most beautiful ship that ever was made, the sail was of sky blue silk, he unfurled the sail and it sett off at full speed, it was on the most beautiful water I ever saw, the form of the ship reflected in it like a mirror, it was intirely unruffled, it was as calm as though some fairy floated o’er it. Though it did not last long, a cloud arouse in the west, the wind blew very hard, the lightnings flashed the thunders rowled and the ship struck a rock and it was about to reck, the little boy clasped me around my neck and asked me if I would protect him.

I told him I would while Life last. I asked him then who was his father and he said “Henry Riley is my Father.” Great Heavens how I felt I can not describe when I felt myself clasped in your arms, for at that moment you stept on board of the ship I knew not how you got on board. I asked you how you came there your answer was you came to save us and the vessel did not sink. I was so much frightened that it waked me and I got up and felt about to see if it was a dream or not, no one was in the room with me Mr. C was in the country, I was mad it was a dream, if there is any thing in dreams how will you interpret this? Why I will tell you how I interpret it, some dreadful dishonor awaits me and you will save me from it just at the time I need protection most. I will not tire you any longer with my foolishness, write soon.

Adieu Henry. I have not been well since you left.

give my love to Sam

Yours E.R.C.

Part Two


In 1825, John Sprowe sent a letter from Natchitoches, Louisiana to a judge in Huntsville, Alabama. He thought of his youth and of his travels and tribulations. Mostly he thought of Elizabeth Sprowe.

William Ray stood before the happy couple. Rural Kentucky offered few priests to “solemnize the rites” and he stepped forward to fill the role “of his mere voluntary pleasure.” After all, it was 1799, he’d been to church before. You just say something about Jesus, gesture at the crowd, and nod slowly.

Besides, they needed some kind of parson to sanction their commitment of marital acts. “Well, I’m some kind of parson,”thought William Ray the non-parson, “and I mean, Hell, what could go wrong?”

Well, it was 1805 now, and the Sprowes committed enough marital acts between them to produce three children and a lot of fighting. They still lived in Cumberland county, Kentucky and often managed to agree that they married each other some six years prior. It made life easier.

Eventually, John Sprowe grew tired of his wife and using the technicality that “said Ray was not authorized to solemnize the marriage,” sought to find a new one. Although nineteenth-century states compensated for rural couples, incapable of formal ceremonies, with marriage provisions based on common law, he felt confident in his decision. So, one day Elizabeth Sprowe went to bed married and woke up abandoned.

Soon she received news of John’s infidelity. He’d shacked up with a woman named Rachel Davis and their life continued this way for several years. Elizabeth Sprowe cared for their children while John Sprowe lived on the other side of the county.

Apparently he visited his family to check on his property and children. Especially after he heard rumors that Elizabeth Sprowe no longer recognized their fake marriage. During one of his visits he found Elizabeth Sprowe with the silversmith John Steward.

John Sprowe found his sometimes-wife engaged in marital acts with someone that she was not occasionally married to and expressed outrage at her violation of their least sacred bond. He gathered his three children and departed.

Eventually Cumberland county, Kentucky proved too much for him and he left Rachel Davis and headed south for Alabama. Where he lived for some time, amassing considerable wealth. It appears that the couple reconciled enough for Elizabeth Sprowe to eventually make the trek to Madison county to join her children and common law husband.

According to a witness named Bird Brandon, by the time he remarried John Sprowe owned seven hundred acres of land and enslaved six or seven people. Unfortunately for Elizabeth Sprowe another woman benefited from his considerable holdings.

Although the Sprowes lived together as a married couple, off and on, since 1799, John Sprowe chose to legally marry Pamelia Brown on April 11, 1822.

All court records indicated that they still resided in the same household when the marriage occurred and that he left their children with her before moving into Pamelia Brown’s home. Shortly afterwards he sold the seven hundred acres and purchased land in Louisiana. Even in his 1825 deposition from Natchitoches, John Sprowe admitted that he wished to continue living with Elizabeth Sprowe so long as they were “not bound.” One wonders what Pamelia might have thought of that.

The court eventually dismissed Elizabeth Sprowe’s petition for a divorce. John Sprowe continued to reside in Louisiana. They probably moved back in together a few years later.


Elizabeth Sprowe v. John Sprowe, Book A, 40-42 (1822).

Attack on Samuel

Samuel Hagard was a well traveled man and a merchant by trade. He owned his own company, S. Hagard & Co, but also conducted business throughout the south for Charles N. Bancker Merchants & Partners – a trading firm operated by an amateur astronomer and botanist from Philadelphia.* There is no record of why Hagard stopped in Huntsville, but cotton seemed the most likely product from 1820’s Alabama that might interest a financier from Philadelphia.

Colbertson Griffin was a laborer in Madison county. As we’ve seen time and again many nineteenth-century workmen could not adequately maintain themselves and turned towards some form of crime to supplement their income. Griffin proved little different. When Samuel Hagard passed through town Griffin might have noticed his nicer clothes or ready cash. Maybe the fact that he was new attracted Griffin’s attention. All we know is that on August 9, 1823, Colbertson Griffin accosted Samuel Hagard and took from him various notes worth about seventeen dollars.

Prior to 1863, states established and regulated their own ‘wildcat’ banks that might issue all forms of paper currency. So although it was technically American money many of the stolen notes were signed by bank presidents and cashiers from Nashville and Shelbyville in Tennessee, the Bank of North Carolina, the Bank of Augusta, Georgia, and the Planters and Merchants Bank of Huntsville. Each note listed the name of the original person that the bank issued it to along with the words “or bearer” so as to make them useful for trading; so during the early nineteenth century a cursory glance at someone’s money might reveal far more about them than it does today with our standardized bills.

Of course, it didn’t help Colbertson Griffin’s case that he wore a stolen coat while robbing Samuel Hagard. Apparently on February 1, 1823, Griffin assaulted another man named Samuel and stole from him “one blue cloth coat of the value of forty five dollars of the goods & chatels of one Samuel Coltart.” Coltart reported the crime shortly afterwards but may have not recognized the original thief or he knew Griffin did it but the sheriff proved too lazy to arrest him.

Either way, Colbertson Griffin reasoned that six months was long enough to hide the coat and decided to show it off when he came across Samuel Hagard’s money. For his crimes Griffin received a total of forty lashes and four-and-a-half hours in the stocks spread out between “the 20th, 21th, and 22nd” days of November 1823.


The State of Alabama v. Colbertson Griffin, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 243-244 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Colbertson Griffin, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 247 (1823).

* The Banckers were apparently Loyalists during the American Revolution and moved from New York to Pennsylvania after the war. Their family papers can be found at the New York Public Library. http://archives.nypl.org/mss/192

A Full Child

July 20, 1853, proved to be a difficult day for William Edwards. He’d been imprisoned in the Madison county jail since December 8, 1852 for an “alleged offence” against the state of Alabama and now he received news that Julia Edwards gave birth. William learned of his paternity from behind bars. It seems strange that nobody mentioned Julia’s pregnancy prior to the delivery but it appears that mid-nineteenth century sheriffs possessed other priorities.

One can imagine William Edwards in his cell contemplating all that life had thrown at him. He served a sentence that he felt unjust and now a child’s future lay before him. It must have felt heavy. Either Julia visited later that week or someone brought the babe to see him. William gazed at the swaddled infant and saw a healthy child. Its limbs looked strong and it carried the fat of a newborn. It was what every parent wished for their own offspring.

They took the child away and William returned to his contemplation. He soon found the time to do math.

Julia Edwards last saw her husband as a free man on September 2, 1852, when he left Nashville to travel back to their home in Alabama. Through injustice or just desserts he ended up in the Madison county jail on the eighth of December. He did not have “intercourse with her again until the twentieth day of December following, when she visited him in the jail,” and despite this conjugal visit he heard persistent rumors from other prisoners that Julia Edwards now slept in many different beds.

Especially the bed of a man named John W. Jones, whom William suspected Julia of seeing in the spring of 1852, which may have prompted their brief removal to Tennessee.

William Edwards sat in a cell and realized that only seven months passed between Julia’s last round of affections and their most recent family member. The child he saw possessed no stunted growth nor small stature, William Edwards “[felt] satisfied [that the baby] is a full developed nine-months child and is not his own.”

On April 17, 1854, he sued for divorce. The sheriff could not find the long gone Julia Edwards nor the babe she bore. The court quickly dismissed his suit.


William Edwards v. Julia Edwards, Book S, 100-102 (1854).

The Court Lesters

Edmond Lester had two brothers; Andrew and Winbush. He married a woman named Anne and they resided in Madison county during the early 1820’s. The three Lester brothers worked as laborers. It appears that Andrew and Winbush lived together while Edmond and Anne owned their own house. The Lesters were more boring than a pile of wood.

Until August 4, 1823, when neighbors found Anne Lester’s badly beaten corpse.

Naturally, the sheriff came to speak to Edmond Lester. He pleaded his innocence in the matter and his brothers said that they spent the whole day with him and had seen nothing. The sheriff hauled all three of the boys in and their trial began on the last Monday in October.

The jury heard testimony from the state that between one and two o’clock in the afternoon, Edmond “did strike beat and kick the said Anne Lester… upon the head breast back belly side and other parts of the body,” before throwing her down to the ground repeatedly. Court documents stated that whoever examined her corpse found an inch deep wound on the left side of her head and a six inch long gash near the base of her skull. Taken together these wounds meant that she probably “instantly died” upon receiving them.

After killing her, Edmond Lester dragged her corpse for several miles and “did put and cast to conceal and hide the said Anne Lester,” by dumping his wife’s body in the Flint River. Witnesses stepped forward to say that they’d seen Edmond commit his horrendous crimes.

Yet, none of these witnesses saw Andrew or Winbush. It emerged during the trial that neither of the men participated in the murder or concealment of Anne Lester, but instead spent the entire day at “a place of election to wit Griffins,” to witness the outcome and spectacle of raucous local democracy. Although both men testified that they’d gone to the house of Edmond Lester during one or two in the afternoon and saw nothing amiss there, multiple witnesses managed to put them at “Griffins,” until the “going down of the sun.”

The simply lied to protect their vile brother. Fortunately, the jurors found the truth and Edmond Lester swung from the gallows on the first Friday in January of 1824. Andrew Lester went to prison for perjury and Winbush Lester went home.


The State of Alabama v. Edmond Lester, Andrew Lester, & Winbush Lester, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 218-219 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Andrew Lester, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 244-245 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Winbush Lester, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 246-247 (1823).

Land in an Upheaval

Stephen and Dempsey had a bad day. Both men lived in Madison county and were enslaved persons, so they honestly probably had a lot of bad days, but those were quotidian. Maybe they developed coping mechanisms to deal with the daily oppression of specific men, but this day tore through their lives with all the mercy of winter.

Stephen belonged to a man named Richard Holden and Dempsey to a man named Davis Battles, there’s no clear record of the relationship between Stephen and Dempsey, or even if Holden or Battles owned farms near each other. At worst any of these people might only rarely encounter each other about town – until July 19, 1823.

Williamson Land felt something that day. It was some other kind of fury. There’s a theory about white southern violence, that it grew from the brutal nature of slavery in our ancestors’ day to day life. It’s true. After all, “you can’t hold a man down without staying down with him,” and you certainly can’t hold half your population down without dragging something wrong out of the other half.* So, something wrong came out.

He saw two black men and he did “beat wound and ill treat,” them until they were almost dead. Had the men stolen from Land or attacked him then the court would not have gotten involved. Williamson Land woke up that day with something broken inside him. That’s all.

Fortunately the jurors found him at fault.** Unfortunately they only fined him, which meant that Richard Holden and Davis Battles received $50 and $20 respectively as a way to compensate them for the loss of profits caused by the suffering of Stephen and Dempsey.


The State of Alabama v. Williamson Land, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 234-235 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Williamson Land, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 235 (1823).

*Booker T. Washington quotes are pretty good quotes.

**literally the only bright spot in all of this is that a man named Nashville Malone served on the first jury, that’s the best bootlegger name that ever existed

Philip Hoffman said Trappin’ Ain’t Dead

Philip Hoffman possessed an entrepreneurial spirit that frightened almost everyone around him. Liquor always aroused the part of the human soul given over to mischief and chicanery, but these properties proved more frightening during the nineteenth century, a time and place when people did things like nearly kill a man with an ear of corn or periodically burn down the home of their enemies. What’s worse is that those activities probably occurred while sober, so just imagine what old-timey Alabamians got into while drunk.

Either way, the state of Alabama eventually retaliated when they found out how much bootleg Philip Hoffman sold out of a shop in Huntsville. His largest buyers consisted of three men; Richard Clemens, Henry Webb, and John Cox – who all purchased illegal whiskey and brandy several times throughout September and October of 1823. He faced two different trials for selling to these men at different times. Which means he got busted on September 2, 1823, accepted the fact that he probably needed to pay a fine or serve some time and then turned right back around and continued slinging that Tennessee Gold until the sheriff showed up again.

However, all of this pails in comparison to the amount of gumption it took to keep selling illegal liquor after his first arrest. For you see, on September 1, 1823, the local law wandered over to Philip Hoffman’s shop and found it packed with “many slaves and negroes of sundry of the good citizens of the county.”*

This is where things get interesting. Although his later arrests explicitly mentioned whiskey and brandy being sold, his first arrest describes the beverages as “spirituous liquors of various kinds and fermented liquor and drinks,” which implies that Hoffman might have known someone with a moonshine still or produced his alcohol at home. All I can imagine is the sheriff and inquisitor showing up, opening a cask, and just staring in horror at the bubbly rotgut in front of them.** His means of production probably got confiscated, but that just meant he’d have to fall back on his higher priced stash of actual liquors with real human names.

Although white people sold illegal liquor to each other all the time, Philip Hoffman made the beautiful mistake of allowing enslaved people to “assemble tipple drink carouse and commit many unlawful tumults,” at his home. This massive breach of the social contract meant that officials paid a lot of attention to his business dealings in the days and weeks ahead. Which got him caught multiple times and ending up costing him about seven dollars in fines between his three separate liquor cases. One can only wonder how he raised the money.

The next time you’re carousing and committing some unlawful tumults with your various compatriots; pause for a moment to look up at the shining moon, gently whisper his name, and then pour out a dram for this archetypal American hero.


The State of Alabama v. Philip Hoffman, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 232-233 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Philip Hoffman, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 233 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Philip Hoffman, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 233-234 (1823).

*Philip Hoffman got busted and instead of packing it in he said “trappin’ ain’t dead” then got arrested for the same thing the next day.

**Literally says that the state sent an inquisitor to investigate this case. Nobody expected it.