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Bigamy - The Ultimate Betrayal

Updated on October 24, 2015
Colleen Swan profile image

Colleen is an attorney in the United States, and a solicitor on the roll in England and Wales.

"I like to be Sneaky"  An erstwhile lover encapsulates a major motive for bigamy
"I like to be Sneaky" An erstwhile lover encapsulates a major motive for bigamy | Source

The almost perfect man

I will turn 21 the next day. On the cusp of legal adulthood, I am also somewhat beyond the cusp of being absolutely in love for the first time. Yes, there have been flirtations, brief passions-occasional tears when things failed to turn out the way I hoped they would, but this time, WELL! If not the “the right one”, this man, around 8 years older than I am, is still amazingly wonderful, perfect-almost. Why this almost? The price of sugar is on the rise; shoppers have begun grousing. In the restaurant, when no waiters are near, he secretes several packets of sugar into his coat pocket, and then eases a couple into my purse. When I look uneasy and puzzled, he strokes my cheek and says, “I like to be sneaky.”

Alarmed but remaining enamored

Just what does he mean? I don’t want those packets, but fear putting them back in their container will annoy and offend him. More distressingly, why does he like to be sneaky? True, I am not above a white lie here and there, but I never enjoy the experience. I definitely do not seek opportunities to deceive or mislead anyone. Still, he was a Jesuit for several years, and his eyes seem so honest. Besides, now he is holding my hand and placing his other hand over it. I feel warmed and nested. I must have misinterpreted and over-reacted to his remark. In hindsight, I wish I had understood it to be one of the few honest things he would say to me during our 11 ecstatic months. Instead of hearing it as a warning, I went into editing mode and did all I could to delete it.

No, he was not a bigamist, but I believe much of his behavior was impelled by those urges which lead to that utter depth of betrayal.

Richard III

King Richard III born 2 October 1452 died 22 August 1485 was the King of England from 1483 until he died
King Richard III born 2 October 1452 died 22 August 1485 was the King of England from 1483 until he died | Source

Betrothal as a political tool

In early English and American law, betrothal seems to have been treated as a midpoint between our current idea of engagement and marriage. Indeed, if a betrothal took place, it could, in England at least, become a political weapon.

Two notorious examples are the somewhat villainous monarchs Richard III and Henry VIII. Richard, In order to justify his right to the throne, claimed the seven children of the late king Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville to have been born out of wedlock. He based this view on the king’s supposed betrothal, some years before to Anne of France the eldest daughter of King Louis XI of France.

Henry VIII

King Henry VIII born 28 June 1491 died 28 January 1547 was the King of England from 1509 until he died
King Henry VIII born 28 June 1491 died 28 January 1547 was the King of England from 1509 until he died | Source

Antagonizing Henry VIII was not wise

When Pope Clement VII denied Henry VIII his claim to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, due to her having been previously wed to his brother Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, Henry broke with Rome, declaring himself head of the Church of England. In fact, his barely-veiled motive was his wish to marry his then adored Anne Boleyn. Despite a marriage ceremony and her coronation as wife and queen, several years later, wishing to rid himself of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s emissaries persuaded her to sign a document stating her prior betrothal to Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland. This, in the king’s terms, invalidated both their marriage and hence the legitimacy of their daughter and future queen Elizabeth I.

While royalty found or invented loopholes, the masses were subjected to the full rigors of law. Always viewed as morally offensive, in 1604 bigamy was rendered a felony in England. As the next three cases will show, the penalties for those who flouted this law could be harsh-indeed deadly for repeat offenders.

Public hanging of a runaway bride

Mary Stokes married her husband Thomas Adams on the 15th of July 1688 at the church of St. James's Duke-place London. She stayed with Adams for eight days and then ran away. On the 5th of November 1693, she bigamously married Sebastian Judges at the same church. Next morning, she once again fled, with no explanation.

At some point between these two marriages, she had been convicted of bigamy for marrying a William Carter whilst still married to a William Brown. At the time of her arrest and indictment in 1693, she was planning to marry yet a fifth man. During her trial, she claimed her previous conviction of bigamy immunized her against future charges for the same offense. In setting forth his verdict, the judge stated that shortly after each marriage, Mary Stokes had left only after taking whatever money she could from the man who believed himself to be her bridegroom. Describing her as an idle type of slut, he sentenced her to death. Given the era, this sentence resulted in execution via public hanging.


An unwelcome wedding guest

Simon Johnson was indicted in 1702, that on the 11th of June he married Susanna Cornwell, and on the 23rd September he married a second wife in the knowledge that his first wife was still alive.

Unfortunately for Johnson his first wife had heard that he was about to be married and sped by horse and carriage to the church. When she arrived the ceremony had already taken place. Johnson looked out of the church window and saw his first wife approaching. He immediately ran from the church leaving his hat behind. When arrested he confessed that he was previously married. At the police station the clerk who registered the marriage said that Johnson had asked him to keep the announcement of the marriage a secret. Further shame filled the air when the first wife announced that Johnson knew she was pregnant with his child when he had married her.

At Court the jury found him guilty, and no doubt both women would have been in the front row of the audience gratified in watching the punishment set forth by the judge; who in this case ordered the branding of the letter “F” for felony; onto the thumb of his left hand.

Lainston House

Lainston House, Winchester United Kingdom
Lainston House, Winchester United Kingdom | Source

Elizabeth Chudleigh: devoted wife or clever conniver?

The life and intrigues of Elizabeth Chudleigh, 1720 - 1788, were fascinating enough to justify a biography. Author Doris Leslie has provided this in her book, The Incredible Duchess. Indeed, Chudleigh’s claim to that title was incredible, in that it was not hers by right. In August 1744, she married Augustus Hervey, who was the youngest son of the first Earl of Bristol. Their wedding ceremony took place in secrecy during the night in a chapel at Lainston House Winchester. The couple could not risk the fact of their nuptials being known. Hervey, as a younger son, might endanger his inheritance by marrying below his class, while Chudleigh, was a maid of honor to the Princess of Wales and forbidden to marry whilst in that employment.

Augustus Hervey

Augustus John Hervey, born 1724 died 1779 was the 3rd Earl of Bristol and an admiral in the British navy
Augustus John Hervey, born 1724 died 1779 was the 3rd Earl of Bristol and an admiral in the British navy | Source

A hellish wedding night

Though courteous to the point of humility during his courtship, once having secured his lady, Hervey treated her with satanic brutality. Chudleigh stated that he would not have forced a prostitute to submit to such vileness. They soon parted with Hervey returning to the navy and Chudleigh moving to London. Neither felt it necessary to seek a divorce because their secret marriage had remained just that.

The allure of a title

Whilst in London Chudleigh became the mistress of General Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, whom she wished to marry thereby becoming a Duchess. However, Hervey was now claiming publicly that he was married to Chudleigh and would not divorce her. She in turn, desperate to avoid such a scandal, issued a legal proceeding called a “jactitation” requiring Hervey to prove that they were married. As he was unable to comply, Chudleigh was declared unmarried. Soon after, she married Pierrepont becoming Elizabeth Pierrepont, Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull.

Four years later Evelyn Pierrepont died, leaving his entire estate to Chudleigh on condition that she did not remarry. However, the will was contested by the nephew of Evelyn Pierrepont, who having unearthed evidence of Chudleigh’s first marriage to Augustus Hervey claimed the second marriage was bigamous.

During this time the father and elder brother of Augustus Hervey had died, which elevated him to the title of Third Earl of Bristol. This meant that if found guilty of bigamy Chudleigh would legally become the Countess of Bristol and if not, remain the Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull.

The guilty verdict ensured that she was a Countess; she was sentenced for her crime of bigamy to be branded with the letter “F” for felony, upon her left thumb.

The final twist

Chudleigh claimed her proven position as Countess of Bristol should shield her from this demeaning disfigurement. The judges, although accepting this claim, clearly did so with some reservations, stating that for the present, her only punishment would spring from her conscience, but added that a repetition of this crime would result in capital punishment.


A modern bigamist: Who was married to whose husband?

This conundrum faced two women when, on April 5th, 2006, the legal wife of William Jordan phoned Mary Turner Thomson, a woman who had every reason to believe she was this man’s one and only wife, to let her know her six-year marriage had been nothing more than a well-planned masquerade.

The two women agreed to meet at a coffee shop, but, not surprisingly, their conversation lasted throughout the night. Michelle’s marriage had lasted for sixteen years, ten years longer than Mary’s. Hence, as Mary states in her memoir, Michelle tended to treat her, to some degree, as her husband’s insignificant mistress. Towards the end of their talk, Mary found Michelle’s supportive tone turning aggressive, scorning her for having been foolish enough to trust William Jordan. Still, his devotion had seemed as authentic to Mary as it had to Michelle.

The tactics of bigamists

Like sociopaths of every kind, Jordan had set a subtle loom in place in which he could weave a credible reason for being away from each of his families for any number of months. As an IT Consultant, he had acquired an email address at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was able to send emails from that address. He claimed to be an agent for the CIA which justified his protracted absences from both his wives and offspring due to clandestine missions. This also served as a pretext for phoning his “wives” at various times during the day or night. Ostensibly, he had to grasp a moment whenever he could; at any time, he could be sent on a life endangering assignment.

The truth emerges

Given the knowledge that Jordan was a con man and bigamist, Mary terminated all communication between them, remaining detached from his confessional phone calls. In time, she was forced to face him in a grueling court setting during his prosecution for bigamy and an array of other offenses involving dishonesty. In a moment alone, he tried yet another excuse: even if he had told her some lies, their love for one another was never in doubt. Hence, she ought to forgive him. Still, when they encountered each other in court, before Jordan had time to assume his façade, she saw in his eyes the coldness of a master calculator.

In December 2006, Jordan was sentenced to a prison term of five years. Fortunately, Mary Turner-Thomson has turned her grief into a positive motivational force for others in her position. Many such women struggle to understand what appears to have been their humiliating level of gullibility. She enables them to see the reasons for their trust, combined with the tactics of an effective fraudster.

Primary motivations of bigamists

It seems the most common reason for unlawful marriage is the wish to control the life of another being. Although William Jordan duped Mary Turner-Thomson of more than two hundred thousand pounds during their six years together, she does not believe his financial gain to have been substantial enough to explain his exquisitely orchestrated charade. Once apprised of his treachery by his legal wife, Michelle, Mary examined Jordan’s printed materials left in her home. These included manuals as to how to hypnotize someone by a combination of intensive eye contact and verbal repetition. In fact, Mary had known of Michelle for some while, but Jordan spoke of her as a friend with ongoing financial struggles. At times, he convinced Mary she had talked on the phone with Michelle, but tiredness and an extra glass of wine had left her with no recollection.

The craving for unending euphoria

The experience of falling in love means existing in an unreal dimension. The sense of infinitude brought about by its onrush of endorphins can become addictive. No day-to-day relationship can compare with the skylark singing of such an enchantment. We have, during the initial delight, become enthralled by an ideal of ceaseless bliss.

While most men adjust to the realities of bills, laundry and such, there are those who seek some means of retaining the comfort of a long-term relationship with the mountaintop heights of emerging love. Thus, rather than forfeit either, they do all in their power to savor both pleasures. If this means a feigned marriage to a current beloved, so be it. Unforeseen problems arise when, once the magic has faded into the mundane, a new fairy queen must be found to re-ignite the lost lightning. If this Aphrodite presses for the commitment of marriage, she may well become the third “wife”. Eventually, the man is found out, or simply grows too old and weary to find the sham worth its effort.

Young girls dream of their wedding day


The female bigamist: not as common, but a menace to men

From their prepubescent years, many girls begin planning that ceremony which they believe will transport them from ordinariness to magnificence. I recall, during those years of my life, while chatting with friends as we crafted bridal veils or tiaras, the number of guests we would like to invite, our maid of honor and bridesmaids. Fortunately, as an adult, I viewed these fripperies for what they were, and dismissed them accordingly. Apparently, some women find these airborne thoughts all but impossible to release. As one woman said, “I didn't want to divorce my husbands; I just love getting married”.

Varying views on monogamy

There are those who, while living in countries where bigamy is illegal, believe this law to be both needless and arbitrary. Prior to the legalization of same gender unions, marriage consisted of a bond between one man and one woman. Still, arguably, nature intended otherwise, allowing men to father children for their entire lives. This is unjust to women, most of whom have a nesting instinct, and cannot earn a livelihood and look after children. Nature is centered on procreation rather than the well-being of females

Polygamy as an accepted matrimonial form

In some middle-eastern countries, polygamy (marriage generally between one man and more than two women) is built into societal structure. During the 1980s, “Nancy”, a college acquaintance, met and soon grew to love a young man from Saudi Arabia. Still, when he asked her to marry him, one major hurdle marred her delight. While willing to live with him in his homeland, she was not in the least prepared to learn he already had a wife there. Nancy would be the second of what could legally be four wives. Could she accept sharing a husband and home with a senior wife, her children, and potentially others?

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Her decision and its consequences

Nancy dealt with this quandary by choosing to try to adapt to this framework. She reasoned that she had never felt such affection and tenderness with any other man. Thus, having vented her hurt and anger at his not having informed her beforehand, she married him on the understanding that it would be on a trial basis.

Once in her new home, there were some tense and unpleasant moments with the first wife. Still, having had a baby and gotten part-time work teaching English, she decided to stay. To the best of my knowledge, she is still there. I assume she is happy.

© 2014 Colleen Swan


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