In 1845, the conviction of Thomas Hall for bigamy was reported as an example of the unequal way in which the law operated, with great play being made of the steps that Hall could have taken to free himself from his first wife by a divorce, were it not for the cost involved. Since then, virtually every account of nineteenth-century bigamy or divorce has included some version of the judge's apparently ‘brilliantly sarcastic’ speech.
But what the judge was reported as saying at the time differs in a number of crucial particulars from what later commentators have reported him as saying. Later accounts have played up the misconduct of the first wife, inflated the cost of obtaining a divorce, and exaggerated the poverty and lowly status of Hall, while playing down the sentence he received and ignoring his deception of his second wife.
This paper traces the evolution of the account over time, and identifies the timing of the various changes that were made. It illustrates how history is used – by politicians, reformers, and scholars – to support both a particular view of the past and to bolster claims as to how the law should change for the future.