“Believe in Witchcraft, do Some in Richland County”: The First Marriage and Divorce of Amos D. Norris

The name “Amos Norris” is written many, many times in the court records of Richland County in the late 1800s and early 1900s, so much so that late in his life one newspaper wrote that Amos “[seemed] to be known to known to all the attorneys of the city who claim that lawing is a pastime with him” [1]. I stumbled across his name when looking for something appropriately spooky for our blog post in October, and found a trove of tales about Amos D. Norris.

The somewhat odd life of Amos D. Norris began, appropriately, with an oddity. He was born on the leap day of 1840, February 29th in Bellville to William Norris and Rebecca Measel, and he would be a lifelong resident of Worthington Township. The real oddities don’t begin until he was a bit older, however.

He was a private in the Union Army during the Civil War, but only caught the tail end of the conflict. Having enlisted on January 1st, 1865, when he was 24, he served for not quite three months and was discharged on the 29th of March in the same year. He also claimed to have lasting disabilities due to his service, listing rheumatism and catarrh as ailments resulting from his time as a private [2]. Given that in 1890 Amos Norris was 50 years old and had been working as a farmer for decades (in addition to his hobby of “lawing,” that is), it seems less likely that his not-quite-three-month stint as a soldier caused his ailments than did his age and occupation.

Regardless, after his brief stint of service, Amos came back to Richland County and settled down. He married Eliza Snavely on the 30th of September, 1866, and they had a farm in Worthington Township, near Newville [3]. The couple began a family, and despite the death of two children in infancy, the family grew. Amos and Eliza had four children who survived infancy: Carrie E. Norris born in 1867, Joseph S. Norris born around 1871, William G. Norrise born in 1873, and Ada Norris (whose later married name was Ada Piper), born in 1877. The family was struck with tragedy when on July 6th, 1901, Joseph Norris died of tuberculosis, leaving behind a wife and a daughter under ten years old.

It was with Joseph’s death that things seemed to change for Amos and his family, although Amos was still financially sound as “a well to do farmer of Worthington Township.” Within a month of Joseph’s death, Eliza filed for divorce from Amos, in a “sensational” suit. Her suit alleged that Amos claimed “to be a wizard with the extraordinary power to make people sick” [4]. When the divorce was scheduled for court, the newspaper reported that ” the history of witchcraft will probably be entered into” during the divorce proceedings, and reported that 44 witnesses were to be called.

As it turned out, when the case went to court Eliza was the only witness called and she was cross examined for more than two hours. Eliza testified about the witchcraft her husband performed, which the newspaper wrote “was almost beyond belief in this enlightened age”:

Mrs. Norris claimed that her husband made her sick through the use of charms. She testified that her husband had a book on witchcraft and that he practiced the black art on her. She says that for one charm her husband would go out and hunt four leaf clovers and then swallow them. She said that she felt sick afterwards. She testified that her husband would cross her path when she was walking and would mutter strange words. She claims that it made her so weak that she was hardly able to walk. She testified that for another charm her husband put seven $1 bills in his shirt pocket. He would put his right hand on the pocket containing the bills and would touch her with his elbow. She stated that this also made her ill. For still another charm she claims that her husband wore something around his neck wrapped up in paper and inclosed [sic] with a little cloth sack.

Mansfield Daily Shield, 19 November 1901, page 2.

After this first day of testimony before a court full of spectators, Amos and Eliza agreed in private upon terms for the divorce to present to the court, which included Amos paying $1,075 in alimony to Eliza. However, the following day, Eliza was several hours late to court and when she arrived her lawyer declined to continue the divorce suit because she had used a different lawyer to settle the alimony with Amos. Because the lawyer refused to continue the suit, the divorce had to be dropped [5].

So it was that Amos D. Norris had two divorce suits for his first marriage, because this time around he sued Eliza for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty and gross neglect, claiming that Eliza “left his residence, and refuses to return to him and perform his household duties, such as preparing his meals, taking care of his home, [and] cohabitating with him as his wife” further clarifying that “the gross neglect is no fault of plaintiff [Amos]” [6]. He asked the court for divorce without further alimony than he had already paid, and also asked that the court deem that Eliza’s claim to interest upon his 180 acres of land was null because of their previous agreement.

Judge Brinkerhoff, who had of course been the judge assigned to the first divorce case as well, did grant the divorce on the grounds charged, but Amos was required to pay $200 more in alimony on top of the $1,075 he had previously given Eliza.

Amos seems to have continued his life as before his marriage, continuing to own and lease property in Worthington Township and farm some of his own land. It is not evident what Eliza did following the divorce, but apparently Amos had some hard feelings that he could not keep to himself after their split, because in 1904, within two years of their divorce, Amos and Eliza were back in court again. This time Eliza was suing Amos for slander, and asking a rather staggering $10,000 in damages [7].

After having come across this case in the Court of Common Pleas records, which only states the administrative details such as the lawyers involved and the damages requested or paid, I found myself wondering what Amos could have possibly said about his ex-wife in 1904 that could have landed him back in court with a slander suit with such a large sum on the line. While we will never know the exact words that Amos spoke, according to the Butler Enterprise the suit claimed that Amos spoke to other townspeople in a public space making accusations against Eliza’s virtue, indicating that Eliza “was an indecent and lewd woman.” In this case, the court case required a jury, instead of the now rather familiar Judge Brinkerhoff, which was empaneled in December. The jury determined that Amos had indeed slandered Eliza’s good name, but did not award the entirety of the $10,000 in damages requested, instead requiring that Amos pay $110 in restitution, which was still a significant sum [8].

Although this was the last time that Eliza and Amos appeared in court together, it was far from the last time that Amos graced the halls of the courthouse. For his further Misadventures in Matrimony, check back in next week!

As always, if you are curious about this or any other bit of Richland County history, stop in to the Sherman Room, use our resources online at mrcpl.org/shermanroom, or send us an email at genealogy@mrcpl.org with any questions!

Sources

  1. Mansfield News, 08 September 1911
  2. United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War, 1890,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939V-RQ2M-P?cc=1877095&wc=M626-SPD%3A174324001%2C174365801%2C174320903 : 22 May 2014), Ohio > Richland > All > image 129 of 134; citing NARA microfilm publication M123 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.)
  3. Mansfield Daily Shield, 27 July 1901, page 6
  4. Mansfield Daily Shield, 27 July 1901, page 6
  5. Mansfield Daily Shield, 19 November 1901, page 2
  6. Mansfield Daily Shield, January 20th 1920
  7. Richland County Court of Common Pleas, Appearance Docket Volume 53, Case 9461
  8. Butler Enterprise, 11 March 1904, page 7
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