Infidelity, Law, and Divorce: Helen Dalton and Catherine Forrest

In antebellum America, divorce trials were the focal point for the conflict between the autonomy of women and the authority of men. Although cases in which women such as Helen Dalton and Catherine Forrest were charged with adultery became notorious, the truth was that women constituted the majority of divorce plaintiffs. In addition, juries seldom found women guilty of adultery, because they knew the devastating effect a guilty verdict would have on the women’s lives.

Helen Dalton

Helen Dalton was accused of adultery by her husband, Frank Dalton, but maintained her innocence, arguing that her relations with her supposed lover, William Sumner, had not been improper. The ensuing divorce trial was complicated by counter-accusations of adultery and spousal neglect leveled at Frank Dalton, allegations of an aborted pregnancy, and Sumner’s death following a brutal beating by Mr. Dalton. The case questioned the possibility of platonic friendship between men and women, and the acceptability of coquettish behavior from married women. Though her defense was greatly compromised by the abortion rumors and flirtatious letters exchanged between Helen and Sumner, the defendant’s characterization as a young innocent, a naïve and lonely young bride incapable of immoral thoughts or actions, was very compelling.  Ultimately, the jury could not reach a verdict, but even without a definitive conclusion, the details of the case were enough to propel sales of pamphlets that detailed the courtroom proceedings.

Catherine Forrest

Catherine Forrest defied scandal: turning the public notoriety of her divorce trial to her own advantage, she won her case despite refusing to conform to a passive woman’s role. The case, in which Catherine sued for divorce from her husband, highly popular actor Edwin Forrest, garnered fanatic attention from the public and the media. The divorce trial, in which both husband and wife accused each other of infidelity, lasted more than a month. The defense attempted to characterize Catherine as a profligate woman, offering testimony from servants about her drinking and frequent male visitors. Catherine’s lawyer argued for her modesty, her desire for privacy and a life away from the public eye, blaming Edwin’s wild traveling lifestyle for their marriage’s failure. The intelligent, composed woman plaintiff contrasted starkly with her brash, impassioned actor husband and his mobs of young male supporters, who crowded the courtroom and interrupted testimony with laughter and hissing, and forced the judge to restore order on numerous occasions. Ultimately, Catherine triumphed on all counts, despite her refusal to conform to the characterization of the woman-as-victim, which was appealing to juries of the time. Subsequent appeals courts upheld the verdict in Catherine’s favor. Catherine went on to capitalize on her public visibility, pursuing an acting career of her own, and her performances drew crowds who had followed the trial.

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“The Transformation,” in The Lives of Helen Jewett, and Richard P. Robinson (New York, 1849).

The Dalton Divorce Case (Boston, 1857).


 “Catherine N. Forrest.” and “Edwin Forrest,” in Report of the Forrest Divorce Case (New York, 1852).

 “Catherine N. Forrest.” and “Edwin Forrest,” in Report of the Forrest Divorce Case (New York, 1852).