When “Britain’s most notorious bigamist,” Emily Horne, was handed a 10-month suspended prison sentence in 2009 for marrying five times without ever divorcing, her gender caught many off guard.
Isn’t it usually men who commit the offence?
The male bigamist might be more common, but according to University of Alberta historian Mélanie Méthot, who published a recent study in Women’s History Review, there is a long history of female bigamy in the U.K. and Canada.
In fact, according to Canadian court records, about a quarter of bigamists are women, said Méthot.
“I thought that historically it was always men that committed bigamy,” admitted Méthot.
While researching social reformers in Canada at the turn of the 19th century, she was struck by the appearance of three court cases of bigamy in the same year—two of them female—and soon discovered no one had written about them.
“But it makes so much sense that some women did commit bigamy, because they were abandoned,” she said. “They didn’t have the same choices then and needed someone to take care of them, especially if they had children.”
One of the most famous Canadian female bigamists was Irene Hornby, a Montreal woman who married five times and was sentenced to four years in the Kingston Penitentiary in 1943.
Her last three husbands were all in the army at the time, and she was only caught because authorities discovered their military allowances going to the same address, said Méthot. The story attracted international headlines.
Méthot noted in her study that rates of female bigamy rose sharply during wartime, when women were left behind to fend for themselves on the home front.
Yet while there were ample cases of female bigamy filed in court, judges were reluctant to prosecute, wrote Méthot, who looked closely at more than 100 cases in Nova Scotia and Quebec.
“Judges imposed lighter sentences on female bigamists, believing that women and children suffered the most from husbands’ and fathers’ indiscretions, which sometimes led to illegitimate children or left the mother and children destitute,” Méthot explained.
And while some newspapers of the period warned of “unscrupulous temptresses, the ‘new kind of vampire’ marrying soldiers for their military allowances,” Méthot found no evidence of such offences in the legal archives.
“Bigamy laws did not explicitly state that marriage served to protect women and children, but judges did not hesitate to attribute that function when passing judgment,” she said.
Other media accounts depicted female bigamists as victims rather than criminals, recognizing that “bigamous wives did not threaten society to the same extent that male bigamists did.”
Méthot argued that examining the history of bigamy calls into question the whole purpose of marriage today, since her analysis demonstrates how “individuals, judges and society saw marriage as an institution that could protect women and children” in an age when women were dependent on men and divorce was much harder to get.
“What is a marriage supposed to do in this age of common law?” asked Méthot. “Why do we need to marry at all? Women no longer need to be supported by men since they are now an important part of the workforce, so marriage no longer fulfils that function.”
She said a full knowledge of that history and how the concept has changed over the years could help legislators draft new laws more in keeping with contemporary social mores.