by Michael Bell

Symbolically debt-free unions.


Pattern for a woman's circa 1750-1800-style shift.
Image source: Kannik's Korner.

Philip Shearman shuffles nervously in the dust beside the highway as the wedding guests wait expectantly for the bride to make her appearance. At last, in the dim moonlight, they see a scantily clad figure approaching. Yes, it is Hannah Clarke. Philip crosses the highway, takes her hand, and leads her back across the road to join the small band gathered before Justice William Hall. No one seems to notice that the bride is wearing only her shift.

Is this one of those modern ceremonies, the kind where a couple is joined in holy matrimony while dangling from the end of bungie cords or skindiving in shark-infested waters? No. This is near the village of Mooresfield, Rhode Island, in 1717. And this was not some quirky, isolated event. It was just one instance of a longstanding, relatively widespread custom. Shift marriages were performed during the 1700s in the Rhode Island towns of North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Hopkinton, Richmond, Westerly, Newport, and Warwick. Maybe in others, too.

The belief was that a widow who wished to remarry could be freed of her former husband's debts by marrying in her shift or smock. A dictionary entry under "smock marriage" refers to this belief as "erroneous," implying that such ceremonies carry no lawful authority. Yet many of the Rhode Island examples have come down to us in the form of legal records, signed by ministers of justice. In Rhode Island, at least, shift marriages appear to have gained legitimate status.

Normally, in Rhode Island, such marriages took place at night (some say it had to be midnight), next to a highway (a crossroad was preferred). Sometimes the bride was required to cross the road four times prior to saying her vows.

While Rhode Islanders who are aware of this custom like to think of it as belonging wholly to them, examples have been documented from other states and regions, including Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, and the South. Indeed, the practice seems to have originated in England (whence the term "smock marriage"), where it was the groom who would be absolved of any liability for the debts of either his new wife or her previous husband.

It seems reasonable that originally the bride was to be totally without clothing. The link between nakedness and starting anew is obvious. After all, we make our worldly debut innocently in our birthday suits. By shedding our clothes, we symbolically divest ourselves from the past. We may then enter into a new relationship unfettered by any prior obligation. Perhaps modesty eventually led to the donning of one undergarment (as well as the cloak of darkness common in Rhode Island).

Modesty was served in a different fashion in Vermont. In at least two instances that have been recorded, the widow stood, totally disrobed, in a closet with her hand extended through a hole to join that of her future husband. The ceremony was then performed, after which the bride put on her wedding attire so that she could emerge and join the celebration fully clothed.

Examples from the South most clearly suggest that this custom may not be limited to monetary concerns. A Southern woman who married in her shift was said to have "cut off the past entirely." Some have argued that the concentration on indebtedness in New England is a reflection of the sharp Yankee, his eye focused always on the bottom line.

The bottom line for one fortunate man was literally his neck. The following unusual variant of the shift marriage was reported as occurring in New York City in 1784: "One day a malefactor was to be executed on a gallows; but with a condition that if any woman, having nothing on but her shift, married the man under the gallows, his life was to be saved. This extraordinary privilege was claimed; a woman presented herself, and the marriage ceremony was performed."

The Mooresfield example described at the beginning of this article may seem mundane in comparison, yet it has had a lasting effect on local place names. Although few people know why, on some maps the intersection of Slocum Road and Stony Fort Road, where the three towns of Exeter, North Kingstown, and South Kingstown meet, is still named Shift Corners.

For more on shift marriages, see Sidney Rider's Book Notes, Volume 1, under the headings "Curious Rhode Island Marriages" and "Shiftless Rhode Island Marriages."

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. This article originally appeared in the August 1993 issue of Guide to the Ocean State. It appears here with permission of the author.

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This article last edited April 21, 2004

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