The most awesomest judge…

…must have been the English judge Mr Justice Maule, who used a bigamy case to comment on the embarrassing state of marriage and divorce law in 1845:

Prisoner at the bar, you have been convicted before me of what the law regards as a very grave and serious offence: that of going through the marriage ceremony a second time while your wife was still alive.

You plead in mitigation of your conduct that she was given to dissipation and drunkenness, that she proved herself a curse to your household while she remained mistress of it, and that she had latterly deserted you; but I am not permitted to recognise any such plea. You had entered into a solemn arrangement to take her for better, for worse, and if you infinitely got more of the latter, as you appear to have done, it was your duty patiently to submit.

You say you took another person to become your wife because you were left with several young children who required the care and protection of someone who might act as a substitute for the parent who had deserted them; but the law makes no allowance for bigamists with large families. Had you taken the other female to live with you as a concubine you would never have been interfered with by the law. But your crime consists in having — to use your own language — preferred to make an honest woman of her.

Another of your irrational excuses is that your wife had committed adultery, and so you thought you were relieved from treating her with any further consideration — but you were mistaken. The law in its wisdom points out a means by which you might rid yourself from further association with a woman who had dishonoured you; but you did not think proper to adopt it.

I will tell you what the process is. You ought first to have brought an action against your wife’s seducer if you could have discovered him; that might have cost you money, and you say you are a poor working man, but that is not the fault of the law. You would then be obliged to prove by evidence your wife’s criminality in a Court of Justice, and thus obtain a verdict with damages against the defendant, who was not unlikely to turn out a pauper. But so jealous is the law (which you ought to be aware is the perfection of reason) of the sanctity of the marriage tie, that in accomplishing all this you would only have fulfilled the lighter portion of your duty. You must then have gone, with your verdict in your hand, and petitioned the House of Lords for a divorce.

It would cost you perhaps five or six hundred pounds and you do not seem to be worth as many pence. But it is the boast of the law that it is impartial, and makes no difference between the rich and the poor. The wealthiest man in the kingdom would have had to pay no less than that sum for the same luxury; so that you would have no reason to complain. You would, of course, have to prove your case over again, and at the end of a year, or possibly two, you might obtain a divorce which would enable you legally to do what you have thought proper to do without it.

You have thus wilfully rejected the boon the legislature offered you, and it is my duty to pass upon you such sentence as I think your offence deserves, and that sentence is, that you be imprisoned for one day; and in as much as the present assizes are three days old, the result is that you will be immediately discharged.

R.B. Outhwaite, The Rise and Fall of the English Ecclesiastical Courts, 1500-1860, at 160-61 (2006) (paragraph breaks added), quoting the speech as reproduced in Roderick Phillips, Putting Asunder: A History of Divorce in Western Society 416-17 (1988).

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