Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Great Divorce

A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times

by Ilyon Woo

“Modern Americans, bombarded with stories of celebrity divorces, probably assume that the tabloid breakup is a recent phenomenon. This lively, well-written and engrossing tale proves them wrong.” —The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date August 09, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4537-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

On a peak fall day in 1814, when America was a nation at war, a young mother named Eunice Chapman returned to her home in New York State to discover that her three young children had been carried off by her estranged, alcoholic husband. He had taken them, she learned, to live among a celibate, religious people known as the Shakers.

This should have been the end of the story. Married women were considered “civilly dead” before the law, and were unable to own property or even testify against their husbands—much less lay claim to their children, who were the exclusive property of their fathers. But Eunice was determined to win back her children, no matter the cost.

Thus began an epic five-year quest in which Eunice single-handedly challenged her husband, the Shakers, and the law in her fight to reclaim her children.

A famously petite and lovely woman, Eunice courted politicians in the New York State Legislature, penned thrilling captivity narratives, and pitted herself against not only the dominant culture of her times, but also another charismatic woman: Mother Lucy Wright, the supreme head of the Shakers and one of the most powerful women in the country.

In its confrontation of some of the country’s most fundamental debates—religious freedom, feminine virtue, the sanctity of marriage—Eunice’s case struck a nerve with Americans plagued by uncertainty in the early days of the republic (luminaries Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren among them). All of Albany was rapt during the uproarious hearings on this case, in which sex, among other topics, was so hotly discussed that lawmakers walked out of the House. The case’s culmination in a stunning legislative decision and a terrifying mob attack sent shockwaves through the Shaker community and the nation beyond.

Pulling together the pieces of this saga from crumbled newspapers, Shaker diaries, and long-forgotten letters, Ilyon Woo delivers the first full account of Eunice Chapman’s remarkable struggle with a novelist’s eye and a historian’s perspective. A moving story about the power of a mother’s love, The Great Divorce is also a memorable portrait of a rousing challenge to the values of a young nation.


The Great Divorce is a superb book—masterfully written, deeply suspenseful, and filled with fascinating facts and insights. American history would be everyone’s favorite subject if more historians wrote like this. Woo is a writer to watch.” —Debby Applegate, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

“Modern Americans, bombarded with stories of celebrity divorces, probably assume that the tabloid breakup is a recent phenomenon. This lively, well-written and engrossing tale proves them wrong.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Woo captures the drama and many ironies of Eunice’s story, admiring her courage without adopting her view of the Shakers as unmitigated villains.” —The New Yorker

“Provocative”Woo vividly tells the story of the Chapmans’ broken family, beginning with a dramatic sentence worthy of Stephen King . . . Woo tells [this story] in nuanced and absorbing detail.” —Elaine Showalter, The Washington Post

“Neglected history comes alive in this meticulously researched and compelling story of one tenacious woman. Strongly recommended to all interested readers.” —Library Journal (starred review), Nancy Richey, Western Kentucky Univ. Lib., Bowling Green

“Ilyon Woo’s The Great Divorce is much more than a fascinating account of a woman’s trailblazing battle for her children. By delving so deeply into the sources, Woo brings the past to life in all its wonderful strangeness, complexity, and verve. This is what history is all about.” —Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea

“Ilyon Woo presents the earliest child custody laws of this country with vivid relevance”[Woo] creates a tactile portrait of life nearly 200 years ago—both legal and feminist details are fascinating . . . Eunice has all the splash and charisma of a modern celebrity.” —Holly Silva, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“In addition to providing an enthralling account of Eunice’s early life, marriage, and legislative campaign, woo offers a detailed look at the Shakers’ communal way of life. . .Woo writes with verve.” —Pamela H. Sacks, Worcester Telegram & Gazette

“This is a true story of losses, but also a momentous emancipation, and what it took to get there. . . [Woo] is a wonderful resource to us today. . .Near the end, in the climax of the story, I felt as if I was gaining the kind of truth and wisdom that comes more often from a novel.” —David Ritchie, Brattleboro Reformer

“Woo gives an interesting, and at times gripping, step-by-step account of the drama, capturing the various personalities involved, the issues at the heart of the conflict, and the far-reaching political and social ramifications of the legislation. . . the challenge of the historical nonfiction genre is to give life to facts and to create an engaging story, in which nothing can be made up or embellish. Woo does an excellent job of meeting both those challenges.” —Carlene Phillips, The Harvard Press

“[Woo] moves the story forward with suspense and drama” she has written a wonderful book.” —Marlyn McGary Klee, Communal Societies Journal, Adelphi University

“A myth-smashing tale”It would have been easy to tell this story as a polemic or a melodrama, but Woo never lets us settle into mere indignation or pity.” —Anne Trubek, The Barnes & Noble Review

“This biography makes a movie-worthy story of [Chapman’s] struggle to reclaim her children and her destiny.” —Meredith Maran, More

“A gripping read. Ilyon Woo is a scholar who draws on an impressive array of primary sources, but her lively prose is anything but scholarly. That Woo succeeds in making the reader sympathize with Eunice Chapman is not surprising; that she also makes the reader feel empathy for the Shakers and the troubled James Chapman is a measure of her masterful and sensitive storytelling.” —Glendyne Wergland, author of One Shaker Life: Isaac Newton Youngs, 1793-1865

“A writer of extraordinary empathy and great resourcefulness, Ilyon Woo has transformed a neglected historical record into a vivid evocation of an era and an amazing tribute to a remarkably tenacious woman, Eunice Chapman. Meticulously researched and compellingly narrated, The Great Divorce will stand in the pantheon of American women’s history writing.” —John Matteson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts

“American history, law, religion and politics all come alive in this poignant account of an abandoned woman’s rescue of her children in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Ilyon Woo gives us the unfolding drama of the first and only legislative divorce in the history of New York as part of a larger struggle for civil identity and women’s rights. It is not enough to say that this story of Eunice Chapman’s fight against injustice is well told. Ilyon Woo tells a story that every American should want to read.” —Robert A. Ferguson, George Edward Woodberry Professor of Law, Literature, and Criticism, Columbia University and author of The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820

“Ilyon Woo has taken the stuff of obscure history and transformed it into a gripping drama that resonates with our own world. Though she lived in the 19th century, Eunice Chapman reminded me of Erin Brockovich—a woman on a mission who fights like a tigress for what she believes in. Woo has an eye for the telling detail, and a prose style as elegantly spare as a Shaker chair. The result is a heart-warming, finely written story of one woman’s battle against fanaticism, a story that has particular resonance today.” —Simon Worrall, author of The Poet and the Murderer

The Great Divorce is a riveting tale of betrayal and redemption. Ilyon Woo’s story of Eunice Chapman’s desperate legal struggle to retrieve her children from the Shakers brings early nineteenth-century America alive. Woo blends a thorough knowledge of the era with a novelist’s eye for character and place to make us understand how one woman could wage such an epic battle and why we should know about her crusade.” —Michael Grossberg, Sally M. Reahard Professor of History & Professor of Law, Indiana University, and author of Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America

“A smoothly narrative and revealing debut”Full of information about women’s lives and status at the time, the book makes the case that Eunice’s charisma and obsessive determination helped her overcome the usual rejection of women in the public sphere. Both Eunice’s struggle and the Shakers’ story fascinate equally while dispelling romanticized myths of utopian societies in the tumultuous post-revolutionary period.” —Publishers Weekly



Enfield, New Hampshire
May 1818

Five years after the children first disappeared, it had come to this: a hundred strangers circling the Shaker village, torches lit. It was an unseasonably cold night for May, with snow on the ground for reasons no one could explain. The intruders crouched along the trim white fences, hovered by the low stone walls, and rode their horses around the village’s periphery, marring the strange spring snow. It was said that five hundred more might come by morning.

Leading the mob was the mother of the missing children, Eunice Chapman, a woman so small that she might have been mistaken for a child herself, her eyes scanning the darkened village. Somewhere here—in one of the closed workshops or barns, or perhaps in the looming, four-story dwelling where the Shakers spent their nights—was her former husband, James, and with him, the children he had stolen from her: Julia, Susan, and George.

The Shakers were saints, James had declared, but to her, these so-called Believers were as far from holy as they could be: They were responsible for separating her from her family, and for hiding her children. Now, after a long search and years of legal warfare, she was closer than she had ever been to bringing her children home. She would do whatever was required. As she had warned the Shakers two days before, “I will scare you yet and make you tremble.”

But James was equally resolute. He had once declared that he would sooner kill himself than give up his children, and days earlier had announced that he would rather send his children floating down the river than see them reunited with their mother. By law, children rightfully belonged to their father, and James Chapman had no intention of surrendering his kin.

There had never been much love between the Chapmans, not even when they were courting more than fifteen years earlier. Yet even when the gulf between them had been widest—when the two would sleep on separate floors of their home or James would sleep with other women, when Eunice would threaten James and he would spit into her face—they had never imagined that they would come to blows like this, with hundreds gathered on either side of them, and with everything between them distorted by the glare of torchlight.

The story leading to this standoff begins with America in a time of revolution. The United States was at war with the British during the so-called “second American Revolution,” or the War of 1812. The government was nearly bankrupt and a spirit of speculation was running high, propelling the country toward its first financial crash, the Panic of 1819. Gleaming new steamboats dotted the nation’s harbors, and freshly paved roads led the way out West, testament to the transportation revolution then under way. Even legal tradition was coming unmoored as Americans, newly released from the constraints of British rule, sought to define justice in their own terms. And all across the country, religious revivalism raged, stoked by the hopes and anxieties of a people who yearned for something definitive, if not in this life, then in the hereafter.

It was during this period of unrest and discovery that Eunice Hawley Chapman—a woman born two years into the War for Independence, on November 22, 1778—began a revolution of her own, one that eventually made her known across the country. It started when her husband, a troubled merchant named James Chapman, sought to join the Shakers near Albany, New York, and resolved to take his children with him.

Today, the Shakers are remembered mainly for their handand canny, she learned through difficult experience what was expected of her as a woman and how to exploit those expectations. She turned feminine weakness into a source of political strength, using every strategy available to her—including some forbidden ones—in her quest for her children.
From 1814 to 1819, this determined mother—a “modern enchantress,” as she was called by some, or an “ornament to her sex,” as she was known to others—waged a war against her husband, the Shakers, and the law and culture of her times. Rather than stay out of the public sphere, as women were supposed to do, she fought her way through courtrooms, wooing politicians and drawing the attention of such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren. She whipped up a mob, staged a kidnapping of her own, and—perhaps most skillfully—penned thrilling tales of Shaker bondage that sensationalized her story. Throughout, she succeeded in making her case about much more than herself, convincing the leaders of her state and the public beyond that freedom of religion, the sanctity of marriage, feminine virtue, and even democracy were at stake. This, in the end, enabled her to achieve a landmark legal victory that granted her unprecedented rights as a wife and mother and put her more than a century ahead of her time.

Witnesses were often baffled by how this tiny woman managed to accomplish all that she did. Some were certain that a kind of witchery or magic was at play. The truth is that Eunice Chapman was far more savvy and capable than she appeared. Publicly, she may have played up her helplessness, but privately she imagined herself as a warrior, Moses leading his people or Abraham put to the test—nothing short of a divine instrument. At the height of her battles, and on the brink of conquest, she taunted the Shakers with these formidable words:

Think not that the battle is over after such a victory is gained—I am consulting my friends, COLLECTING MY FORCES FOR A NEW INVASION. You see what I, as an instrument in the hands of God, have brought to pass—You see that all your money and lawyers, nor your Gods could not save you—You have fallen before a poor weak woman. You will soon see what will become of your boasted Military law—I shall yet convince you that my children is my object—And my children I will have.

It has been said that well-behaved women seldom make history. Had Eunice Chapman behaved in the manner expected of her, her story would have long been forgotten. Because of her un-abashed defiance, however, her tale is here for the telling.

Reading Group Guide

1. What was the basis of Shakerism’s appeal to converts like James Chapman? What do you think drew him to the Shaker religion and way of life, and why did this attraction not have the same affect on his wife?

2. James claimed that Shakerism made him a “better man.” Do you believe this is true and why?

3. An early visitor to the Shakers once remarked that the society seemed ideal for “all those who in one way or the other seem left out of the game or the battle of life.” Do you agree with this assessment? Can you imagine joining a society like the Shakers? What would be most attractive to you? What do you think would be most difficult for you to accept or give up?

3. Do you agree with this assessment? Can you imagine joining a society like the Shakers? What would be most attractive to you? What do you think would be most difficult for you to accept or give up?

4. Jesus once said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Do these words, as the Shakers believed, give support for their lifestyle? If not, what is the difference?

5. Why was it so hard for Eunice and James Chapman to be divorced? Compare views toward marriage and divorce, then and now.

6. Compare the competing visions of motherhood offered by Eunice and the Shakers—and compare Eunice Chapman, Ann Lee, and Lucy Wright as Mothers. In what ways did the Shakers challenge traditional women’s roles? In what ways did they reinforce them?

7. Look carefully at the correspondence between Eunice and Mother Lucy in Part II, Chapter 8, “Mother Against Mother.” Who is the savvier mother?

8. Eunice was called an “ornament to her sex,” a “modern enchantress,” and a “hussy” by various people in the book. Which description, if any, do you think is most accurate and why? What made her such a controversial figure?

9. What are the pressures Eunice faced in the limelight? How are these challenges like or unlike those that female celebrities, politicians, and other public figures face now?

10. Thomas Jefferson denounced one version of Eunice’s act as “bigoted and barbaric.” Do you agree? What was at stake in the passage of her law?

11. Eunice won rights to custody and divorce that were unprecedented in New York state. Do you think that she deserved what she got?

12. Each part of the book begins with a spiritual reference. How does each epigraph relate to its part? Examples:

Part I: How did a “broken heart” prove to be a blessing for characters such as Eunice, Mother Ann, and Mother Lucy?

Part II: The Shakers are known for their straightforwardness and honesty, but Eunice denounced them as imposters. Is there a way to reconcile their behavior in the Chapman case with the virtues for which they are famed?

Part III: Many outsiders denounced the Shakers for “breaking up families” and giving up natural relations; the Shakers, meanwhile, claimed support for their beliefs in Biblical passages such as Mark 10:29-30. Can the two sets of views be reconciled?

13. Thousands of Americans have called themselves Shakers at various points in time (20,000 by one scholar’s estimate); the society is now down to three members. Why do you think the society does not have the same pull that it did in years past?