Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness: A Notorious Divorce in Early Twentieth-Century America

By Dr. Jean Elson

Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness Book by Jean Elson

Temple University Press
(June 15, 2017)
Paperback, 340 pages
ISBN: 978-1439913918

Book Description

The bitter and public court battle waged between Nina and James Walker of Newport, Rhode Island, from 1909 to 1916 created a sensation throughout the nation, with lurid accounts of their marital troubles fueling widespread gossip. The ordeal of this high-society couple, who wed as much for status as for love, is one of the prime examples of the growing trend of women seeking divorce during the early twentieth century.

Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness—which takes its title from the charges Nina levied against James for his adultery (with the family governess) and extreme cruelty—recounts the protracted legal proceedings in juicy detail.

*Available in paperback, kindle, and audible

From Chapter 5:
Nina could scarcely believe a house could be as quiet as the one on Washington Street. Although there were moments when she missed her children, her main response to living apart from her husband was relief. Whereas her cruise the previous spring had been an escape, her current solitude was not just a respite, it was a time to contemplate her future options. Nina marveled that she had choices to consider. Until fairly recently she had assumed life would go on the way it had for the last several years. She and James would continue living in the same house, eating at the same table, sleeping in the same room, enduring the discomfort between them. Previously this dreariness had alternated with short intervals of contentment, followed by episodes of renewed antagonism. Lately, only animosity prevailed between them. Leaving James was not something Nina had thought possible, but if she could do so and still keep her children, it might be better for them, as well as for her. Still, if James agreed to change his behavior, if he told her how much he loved and needed her and agreed to listen to plans for the children, maybe they could have the family life she had imagined on her wedding day.

One afternoon, Mrs. Batcheler came to Nina’s room and announced that her husband was at the front door asking to speak with her. Nina, her heart racing, ran downstairs and saw James standing at the doorstep. She suggested they talk outside so as not to disturb the other boarders. He stiffly handed her a bouquet of delphiniums—the first time she could remember that he had given her flowers since their early courting days. Nina immediately speculated that James’ sister Susan had suggested he bring them. As usual, though, James had gotten it wrong. He couldn’t even remember that Nina detested the gaudy purplish blue of delphiniums. The thought crossed her mind that if James was coming to suggest a reconciliation, it would have improved his position if he had brought the lilies she loved and had chosen to decorate their wedding feast.

James, oblivious to the fact his wife was not won over by the delphiniums, told her she appeared well and the children were looking forward to her return. This was not what Nina wanted to hear. There were no declarations of love from James, nor indications that he missed her. Instead, he abruptly switched to the officious manner she hated so much and ordered her to come home immediately....

Nina was determined not to continue her pattern of ending an argument by capitulating to her husband’s demands. This time she resolved to let him know they were at a serious impasse. After a few moments of silence, she inhaled and spoke. “James,” she began, “It would be far better for us both, as well as for the children, that we live apart.” James looked dumfounded, but Nina could not imagine why this would be a surprise to him. She continued, “As I told you years ago, we are not fit to bring up children in the way we live.” Nina purposely spoke in a soft tone, both so passersby wouldn’t overhear and also with the hope of keeping things calm so James wouldn’t erupt into one of his fits of temper. Her efforts were in vain.

When her husband recovered, it was to shout abusively at her. He screamed a number of things in quick succession, including that he knew he should never have let her mother and sister get near her and that she was an unfit mother. Finally, he snarled, “I will have you committed to an insane asylum!” Nina couldn’t listen any further. She was shaking as she ran back into the Batcheler house, flinging the gruesome delphinium bouquet to the ground. Later, when she reflected on it throughout the tedious courtroom proceedings, she realized this was the moment she had irrevocably determined to divorce her husband. Her memory of the humiliation, fury and revulsion at that instant would carry her through the prolonged quest to free herself from this man.

Shortly after that incident, Nina returned to Cottage #5 on Coasters Harbor Island. She spoke briefly and civilly to James only when she needed to speak at all. Nina said nothing to him about her intent to begin divorce proceedings because she knew her husband and his family would obstruct her if they got wind of it. For the first time in their marriage, she slept in a separate room from James and moved her belongings in there without consulting him. James may have imagined that he had prevailed once again simply because his wife had returned to his home and that before long all would be restored to normal and she would return to his bed, as well. Conversely, Nina believed it should have been obvious the conflicts between them were not resolved and she endeavored to make that point. “My married life had begun with illusions,” Nina later wrote, “then came the time of disillusions and now stark reality. My mother and sister urged me to consult a lawyer….”

Endorsements for Gross Misbehavior

Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness is a fascinating true story. Based on excellent archival work and Elson’s precise scholarship, this meticulous contextualizing of divorce from a woman’s point of view in the early twentieth century also has contemporary applications regarding gender relationships. Elson gradually reveals how women’s rights have evolved over the years and why changes in U.S. divorce laws were essential. The narrative has several twists—it reads like a contemporary detective novel—as every legal victory for each side was appealed by the other. This is a moving and captivating book.

—Elizabeth Ettorre,

Professor Emerita of Sociology in the School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Liverpool and author of Autoethnography as Feminist Method: Sensitising the Feminist “I”

Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness chronicles the Walkers' seven-year divorce battle with meticulous research and vivid narration. Elson charts the twists and turns of the Walker divorce to illuminate some of the profound changes in gender and family expectations that occurred during the Progressive Era.... A strength of the book is its robust engagement with primary sources: court records, newspapers, and unpublished memoirs (including hundreds of personal papers found in the back of a filing cabinet of one of Walker's descendants).... Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness succeeds in immersing the reader in the Walkers' lives, so that they feel invested in the outcome of their marriage and divorce. Elson persuasively shows that the Walker divorce raised issues that were not solely personal troubles, but ones that revealed profound social changes in early twentieth-century American culture

—History: Reviews of New Books

(Elson) has done prodigious research into the details of the players in the marital conflict, using sources that include surviving portions of Nina’s unpublished autobiography, court records, newspapers, and interviews with descendants. The story...picks up as the courtroom drama gets under way. Elson’s main objective seems to be storytelling.... Historians interested in a variety of topics might nevertheless find intriguing threads that weave through the divorce case.

— Journal of American History