A Jefferson District Divorce

Lewis Edward Peverill was not the most pleasant of people. He had a nasty temper, especially towards those who could not fight back.

He came from a large family, indeed the Alexandria area was practically awash in Peverills in 1890-1920. George and Sarah Peverill had emigrated from Blackthorn in Oxfordshire, England, arriving in the port of New York in July 1853 with oldest child Mary and sons John, James, Richard, Lewis, and George. They quickly moved to the Alexandria area of Virginia, adding Thomas to the family in 1861.

Their son Lewis married Prudence Haynes, also from England, in 1868 and they settled initially in the Mt Vernon area. Working as a gardener he saved enough money to buy a 7.2-acre farm on the banks of the Potomac just north of Alexandria City for his growing family. One of those children was “our” Lewis E Peverill, born in February 1878. He grew up surrounded in the area by six siblings, six uncles, an aunt, and 39 cousins, along with 45 children of those cousins. As a point of interest, and confusion, both senior and junior Lewis Peverills went back-and-forth on the spelling of their first names, although the son seems to have moved from Louis when younger, to Lewis later on.

He initially worked on his father's farm but turned to carpentry in his mid-teens. In May 1897 eighteen-year-old Rosa May Javins had the misfortune to marry the younger Lewis and, after a brief stint on his father's farm, they moved to the City of Alexandria. The first two years of marriage were apparently unremarkable, except for the birth of their son Robert Lee in March 1898. After that, things went downhill.

Curses and threats escalated to punches and by the winter of 1909/1910 he was refusing her money for clothing, providing little for food, and had even cut back on the coal he provided her to keep warm in the winter. She was reduced to taking handouts from family and friends to get by and in February 1910 she left. With only a sixth-grade education her options were limited, but she moved to DC to work as a seamstress.

Virginia has a two-step divorce process, the first being application for a decree of separation, known in legalese as a divorce from bed and board or a divorce a mensa et thoro. Having met the statutory requirement for a year apart Rosa (who also went by Rosie) filed for a decree of separation in December 1911. A transcription of her application is available here, laying out his cruelty in general terms. This was reinforced by a set of depositions taken by her lawyer in March 1912 to show Lewis' treatment of her in more detail. The decree of separation was granted the next month.

The next step was the application for a full divorce and that was signaled in April 1913, when a second set of depositions, seen here, was taken to meet the legal requirement that there was no chance of reconciliation. Through all of this Lewis had been represented by Crandall Mackey, perhaps the foremost lawyer in the county, but no defense was ever raised.

In October 1913 the Alexandria County Court concluded that Rosie's claims had been “fully proven and established” and a full and final divorce decree was entered.

Neither of the principals saw much of old age. Lewis apparently had a hard time reconciling himself to the divorce and when he registered for the draft in 1918 he continued to list Rosa Peverill of DC as his next of kin, despite being surrounded by family. Indeed, he told the census takers in 1920 and 1930 that he was married, although he had not remarried and was living with his brother on the farm inherited from his father. He worked as a “truck farmer” through the 1930s until 15 October 1945, when he did not respond to calls for breakfast and was discovered dead in his bed of natural causes. He was 67 years old.

His father's farm had already been sold by that point, and in February 1942 the so-called “Peverill Tract” was rezoned by the City of Alexandria from residential to commercial in order to make possible the construction there of the now-closed coal power plant.

Rosie had a shorter, but probably happier life. In 1921 she married childhood friend Zach Talbott, a telegrapher for the railway, and they lived on Kennedy Street in DC until her death in December 1940, Zach having preceded her earlier that same year. Both are buried in Franconia, Virgina, although in different cemeteries, each with their parents.