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Does Christianity Breed Bigamists? The Australian Experience 




Parmida Beedle in collaboration with Mélanie Méthot*


Why were all the Australian bigamists from the Christian religion?


Dedicated visitors to THE Bigamy Blog may have noticed that despite the diverse characters, situations, and outcomes it features, the bigamists invariably share one element: they went through Christian marriage rites. To lend a little variety, this post shines the spotlight on a singular story involving Jewish marital rites.[1] While some 11% of the couples of bigamous unions married once at a registry, only 5 bigamists went through two non-Christian forms of marriage.[2] One of its kind amongst the 900 or so known bigamy cases in Victoria (1850-1960), Percy Lesser’s tragic tale leaves readers feeling more than a little bewildered. The available press coverage, legal documents, and civil record contrast Jewish religious rules with Australian civil laws, ultimately helping uncover the complex nature of their relationship and what it meant for Jews living in the state.    

 

Percy’s Poor Life  



 

Like many other ambitious immigrants, 35-year-old Percy Lesser had great plans for his future in Australia. Leaving his gentile (non-Jew) wife Emily behind in England, he set sail for Victoria in 1921 with high hopes of finding suitable employment and earning enough to line their pockets. Emily rejoiced at the idea, excited at the prospect that her husband could make more than the 12 shillings and 6 pence per week he had earned as a non-combatant in the army [3]

 








Spoiler alert: his life did not go according to plan. 



        

On foreign land, where he identified religiously with less than half a percent of the population, Percy struggled to connect with others or to make ends meet. This latter fact is strange since post-war Australia abounded with opportunities for enterprising minds and hard workers. Unsurprisingly, Percy’s inability to secure a permanent job sent him spiralling into a state of depression. His mournful confidences to Emily would later be printed in The Melbourne Age and indicate the low point that Percy had reached: 


I thought it best to let you know that my end has come. The only thing that is left for me to do now is to end my life and put myself out of misery. I often wish when I lay under a tree that a snake would come and kill me so that I would not have to do it myself. [4] 

     

 

When at last the doleful man found work as a presser and cleaner, his sole companion, hotel keeper Mr Heywood, soon visiting England, offered to call in on Percy’s family. Bound to his new job with little choice but to scrimp to survive, Percy awaited news from his beloved wife. He relied on his friend to relay details of her well-being. Mr Heywood, though, could not offer reassuring words. To Percy’s chagrin, Heywood confessed that: “her people were severely against him.” Heywood advised that the gulf between the Jew and the gentile woman was so vast, the couple should separate. Papers reports that he asked: Why don’t you give her a chance to marry again and free her?[5] Though not Jewish himself, Heywood instructed the heartbroken man that he need simply to send a letter to his wife explaining his change of feelings, something that Truth would go on to label “Bush Lawyer Advice.”    

 

Percy did not have contact with his wife for almost the entire year, after Mr Heywood convinced him to send out his “divorce” letter. But as unemployment struck again, and Percy was without consistent income or shelter, he sent yet another letter, this time out of desperation, hoping his wife would help him turn his life around. In early 1923 Emily Lesser received a missive of woe from her beleaguered husband, asking her to sell all their belongings to pay for his travel fee back to England.

So now the only thing left if you ever want to see me again is to sell up everything, sacrifice everything, spare nothing if you want to save my life,”

he wrote somewhat boldly. [6] Emily did not respond to him or follow his instructions. Instead, the courageous woman sold her house to purchase herself a ticket to re-join her bootless husband. Surprisingly, by the time she set foot in Melbourne in June 1923, Percy had taken a second wife.     

 

 

Critical Context on Our Bigamist’s Background  

 

First, it’s important to realise that like most Commonwealth countries, Australia made exceptions for Quaker and Jewish marriages by allowing couples to solve a number of family affairs internally. Each religious authority decided what made a valid marriage. According to Percy’s faith, Emily’s Christian roots rendered the union void from the start. [7] The surviving documents relating to Percy’s saga offer us a micro lens to gauge how individuals understood and interacted with one another during a time of such contrasting legal frameworks. Specifically, the newspaper coverage of Percy and his bigamy file expose how the courts’ lack of respect for Judaism fed public opinion about this particular bigamist.                  

 


Ten of the 15 articles covering the case specify Percy’s faith, but neither the journalists nor legal professionals involved took any of its parameters into consideration in investigating his reasons for and method of obtaining a divorce. To begin with, the get (the official Jewish divorce document) only requires (1) that a spouse write a letter announcing their separation and (2) identifying a substantial

reason. We know that Percy could not support his wife, which counts as a valid reason to divorce. [8] So, Percy had complied with Jewish law before he married Ivy Leah Rosenberg. Not only did Percy meet both conditions for divorce, but Mr Heywood’s story justifies his action and gives credit to his first plea, “guilty only of ignorance.” [9]

 

If Percy considered his marriage void, the court strongly believed otherwise. The media reaction conveys a wide belief that his British Christian wife deserved protection. Papers reported that “Mr. Justice Macfarlan, having read this letter, remarked that the letter was not based on religious scruples at all. What it really said was that she could marry again, and that he would not “let on” that he still existed.” [10]  The judge completely disregarded the notion of a  get,  perceiving the letter Percy sent to Emily only as an easy way out. The ever sensationalist paper, Truth, displays its overt anti-Semitism by characterising Percy as a miserable Jew and contrasting his Christian Emily, a “mere reed of a woman” to his “sturdy little Jewess in an expensive grey costume.”[11] Percy was a man who had committed two evils - abandoning his legal wife when he felt it was convenient, and taking a second when he decided he wanted to.  

 



“Guilty “Only of Ignorance” - Jew Bigamist’s Plea - Gets Rid of Christian Wife - And Loses Jewish Spouse,” Truth, 9 March 1924.      

 

If in most bigamy prosecutions, the courts identify the second wife as the victim, in Percy’s case it was his Christian wife Emily rather than the Jewish Ivy who warranted sympathy from the public. They wrote little about Ivy, apart from the fact that she left Percy after discovering the bigamy. 



Some papers approached the case differently, discussing Percy’s struggles to succeed in Australia. Instead, they emphasised Mr Heywood’s role in the demise of the first marriage. These papers may have been on the right track. Hindsight certainly proves Mr Heywood the more consistent scoundrel. Civil records reveal that at 75, Heywood married the 40 years old Emily, hinting that his hurried insistence for Percy to set her free was motivated by his own desires. [12]  

 




 







Ancestry public member photo of Henry Heywood.  

  

Percy Lesser’s story contains a variety of unique features such as a Jewish and Christian mixed marriage and describes the arduous life as an immigrant. It suggests that Australia was not the land of promise that migrants often believed it was. The saga also provides us with an emotional story of a man’s loves and losses. More importantly, however, it exemplifies the complicated relationship between Jewish and Australian laws in the 20th century and reveals the intense anti-Semitism that operated within a legal system that was unwilling and unable to recognise anything outside of its own narrow ethical and religious parameters.

 

  

REFERENCES 


1 Public Record Office of Victoria [PROV]  30/P/0029/824. “Percy Lesser Bigamy”

2 Our dataset includes where couples went through a form of a marriage in 64 % of the total marriages.

3 PROV, VPRS 283/P0002, 1924/214. “Lesser v Lesser”. 

4 “Jew and Christian - Bigamy Alleged - Accused’s Religious Scruples,” The Age, 22 February 1924.   

5 “Russian Jew Commits Bigamy - An Extraordinary Story,” The Ballarat Star, 20 March 1924.  

6“Jew and Christian - Bigamy Alleged - Accused’s Religious Scruples,” The Age, 22 February 1924.    

8  Extensive literature also points to the tumultuous history of reconciling Jewish laws with civil laws in countries with a Christian majority. See Lois C. Dubin,“Jewish Women, Marriage Law, and Emancipation: A Civil Divorce in Late-Eighteenth-Century Trieste.” Jewish Social Studies 13, no. 2 (Winter 2007): 65–92; Rena N. Lauer, “In Defence of Bigamy: Colonial Policy, Jewish Law and Gender in Venetian Crete.” Gender & History, vol. 29, no. 3, 2017, pp. 570–588; Pinchas Roth, “‘My Precious Books and Instruments’: Jewish Divorce Strategies and Self-Fashioning in Medieval Catalonia.” Journal of Medieval History 43, no. 5 (December 2017): 548–61; Moses Mielziner. The Jewish Law of Marriage and Divorce in Ancient and Modern Times, and Its Relation to the Law of the State, 2nd ed. New York; Cincinnati: Bloch Publishing Company, 1901. The Making of Modern Law: Foreign, Comparative and International Law, 1600–1926.

9 “Guilty “Only of Ignorance” - Jew Bigamist’s Plea - Gets Rid of Christian Wife - And Loses Jewish Spouse,” Truth, 9 March 1924.     

10“Russian Jew Commits Bigamy - An Extraordinary Story,” The Ballarat Star, 20 March 1924.    

11 “Guilty “Only of Ignorance” - Jew Bigamist’s Plea - Gets Rid of Christian Wife - And Loses Jewish Spouse,” Truth, 9 March 1924.     

12 BMD Victoria, 1820 / 1925.     

 

 

 

 


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