Headstone of George Hilo Prosser (1855-1921), Greenwood Cemetery, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.
As regular readers of the blog know, I have been slowly making my way through all the extant nineteenth-century issues of The Wellington Enterprise, from 1867 to 1900. At present, I’m reading the year 1890. A lengthy article caught my eye, because it described an acrimonious divorce case in great detail. I noticed that the couple in question, George and Mary Ann Prosser, had the same last name as a family that rented my Italianate from the early 1930s until after World War II.
Owen Prosser (1877-1953) was a local barber. I had the privilege of conducting an oral history last year with his step-granddaughter, Mrs. Pat Markel. She remembers her grandmother and “Mr. Prosser”–as she always called him–living in the house on North Main Street. I intend to write more about that in a later post, but I was immediately curious to know if there was a connection between the Prossers of my home, and the Prossers of the divorce case.
I did some genealogical research and determined that Owen Prosser and George Prosser were brothers. Their parents, Hilo (1828-1887) and Mary Meredith (1832-1909) Prosser, emigrated to Ohio from England and eventually settled in Pittsfield, where they produced at least eleven children. George was second oldest, born in 1855, and Owen was the baby of the family, born twenty-two years later. The Prosser siblings spread all over Pittsfield, Wellington and Brighton, and many of them are interred in Greenwood Cemetery. Owen would only have been about thirteen years old when George divorced. He was not directly involved in the events I’m about to describe, but several of his older brothers were.
Undated image of Owen Prosser at work in his barbershop on North Main Street, Wellington, Ohio. Photo 970603 of “Wellington Family Album” Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.
In 1890, George Prosser was a trustee of Brighton township. He had been married to Mary Ann Runals in 1877 (the year Owen was born) and they had three children. George began to believe that Mary Ann was having an affair. “[H]is first suspicions of the infidelity of his wife arose from her relations to his brother” (Enterprise, 3-19-1890, pg. 5). Charles Prosser was two years younger than George and worked for him on his dairy farm, but was “discharged” in 1887 because of George’s jealousy. Two summers later, George hired a man named Henry Haynes to help on the farm and Haynes moved into the family home.
George soon claimed to observe his wife blowing kisses to the hired man, and testified that he saw them eating ice cream together and dancing at the public hall during the annual fair. He later saw his wife leaving an outbuilding of the family farm, “brushing her dress,” with Haynes following shortly after. George enlisted the help of younger brother Thomas Prosser (1867-1918) to confirm his suspicions. “While he [Thomas] was looking through the openings in the lumber pile he saw Haynes enter the corn-house and make a loud rapping noise, soon after which Mrs. Prosser came out of the house in her stocking feet, and entered the corn-house. Leaving his hiding place he went to the door, which was not closed, and saw them both upon the floor in the rear of the house.”
George Prosser then laid another trap for his wife, pretending to visit a sick relative, “but soon returned and crawled under the house, which stood on stone blocks.” Apparently satisfied by what he heard, he went to an attorney to file for divorce the next day. But he had one final snare to spring. George asked another brother, Frank (1872-1948), and brother-in-law Tom Burton, to help him catch the pair in the act. In the middle of a September night, the three men broke into the Prosser house. “Frank had a loaded revolver, and Tom had a dark lantern. The stairs landed in Haynes’ room, and when half way up they saw defendant lying on the front side of the bed, and Haynes lying beside her next to the wall. Both were undressed, and the bed clothing was thrown back over the footboard.” The three men grabbed the hired hand, tied him up, and dragged him down the stairs and into the front yard. George Prosser “went to the barn, procured his rattan carriage whip and commenced whipping him.” They then untied Haynes and sent him back into the house to pack up his belongings, but before he left the aggrieved husband took Haynes’ pocketbook [i.e. wallet] and removed ten dollars from it, presumably as some sort of compensation for damages done to his marriage.
Mary Ann Prosser had a very different story to tell, and she took the stand to defend her own reputation. She denied that she had ever been unfaithful and painted a picture of a spouse who was irrationally jealous and physically abusive. “At one time he knocked her down without any provocation. At another time he threw a basket of potatoes at her which he had dug for breakfast, because she had not got breakfast ready, she waiting for the potatoes. At another time he pulled her ears until the flesh was ruptured behind them. On one occasion he kicked her severely because she remonstrated against his abuse of a horse.” The night of the whipping, Mary Ann claimed that she was in her room and, hearing the noise of the brothers breaking into the house, ran to Haynes for help. She was then held at gunpoint while the Prossers bound and beat an innocent man. Her testimony, the paper reported, “was given without hesitation, and at times with much feeling” which seems to suggest that the writer believed her.
Haynes was ill with consumption and could not appear in court, but submitted a deposition categorically denying any improper involvement with Mrs. Prosser. He had denied all the allegations while he was being bound and hauled into the yard, and only later confessed to adultery while he was being attacked, “extorted under the terrible blows of the whip and a threat that he would be whipped until he did confess.” Now safe from additional harm, he retracted the forced confession.
A few other witnesses testified, including Mary Ann Prosser’s mother, who saw the grievous injury to her ears and “black and blue spots” from other incidents of spousal abuse. In giving his decision, the judge noted his discomfort with George Prosser beating Haynes and then taking his money. He did not want to find against Mrs. Prosser as an adulterous, preferring “to render a decree that would leave no stain upon the innocent children.” George Prosser agreed to withdraw his petition, which allowed the judge to grant Mary Ann Prosser a divorce on her cross-petition, on the grounds of “extreme cruelty.” He awarded custody of the couple’s oldest daughter, Stella, and their son, Elmer, to George; Mary was awarded custody of younger daughter, Ida Belle. Both parents were granted visitation rights and Mary was given alimony in the amount of $1,500, as well as “cows and horses to the value of $500.” George was ordered to pay all court costs excluding his ex-wife’s attorneys.
This story has a wild ending. I wondered what happened to Mary Ann after her divorce. I know that George married again, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery with two of his later wives. A little digging revealed that Charles Prosser–the younger brother with whom Mary Ann was initially suspected of infidelity–is buried in LaGrange, Ohio with his wife…Mary Ann Runals Prosser. The divorce was finalized in March 1890 and according to Ohio marriage records, “Charley” and Mary Ann wed on November 30th of the same year. Their son, Ray, was born in 1892 and was living with them for the 1910, 1920 and 1930 federal censuses; by 1930, Ray’s Scottish-emigrant wife, Bessie, had also moved in. Mary Ann’s daughters by her first husband, Stella and Ida Prosser, both listed their uncle/stepfather Charles as “father of the bride” on their marriage licenses, which perhaps suggests estrangement from George, their biological father. Charles Prosser died in 1936, meaning the lovers had almost fifty years together after her disastrous first marriage. I wonder if George felt vindicated when he heard the news?
Headstone of Charles (1857-1936) and Mary Ann (1855-1945) Prosser, LaGrange Township Cemetery, LaGrange, Ohio. Image from website “Find a Grave.com.”