cover image Strong Passions: A Scandalous Divorce in Old New York

Strong Passions: A Scandalous Divorce in Old New York

Barbara Weisberg. Norton, $28.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-393-53152-7

Historian Weisberg (Talking to the Dead) digs through newspaper archives and legal libraries to deliver this captivating chronicle of a high-society scandal that riveted the nation during the final years of the Civil War. In a highly emotional state after the death of their third child in 1862, New York City socialite Mary Strong confessed to her husband, Peter, that she’d been having an affair with his brother. The couple soon separated, and Peter sued for divorce and custody of their two daughters. Mary countersued, alleging Peter had also committed adultery; she claimed he had forced her to have an abortion, then had an affair with the abortionist. By the time of the trial in 1865, Mary had disappeared with one of her daughters, in response to Peter having refused to return the other daughter after a visit. The jury was deadlocked and the divorce was not granted (based on two jurors’ opinions that Peter, the original claimant, was as guilty as Mary), though later negotiations allowed the couple to divorce. Weisberg presents her narrative as a suspenseful courtroom drama—related through witness testimony from servants, family members, and a “ladies’ physician,” among others—with informative contextual asides on new developments in women’s rights and the ongoing war. It’s a page-turning glimpse into the lives of 19th-century New York’s upper crust. (Feb)