John Newton Sheffey: Scandalous adultery in 1860s Wytheville

This isn’t the funny story I promised in my previous post. That one involved Stuart Sheffey and his “scandalous” living arrangements with a black wife and a white wife in the same household. The language used in that report is, well, priceless. I can’t remember where I saved that record I found via the Freedmen’s Bureau database, so that story will have to wait. I can’t publish it with that document.

This story, however, is a worthy runner-up. It’s not so much the situation which makes me smile, it’s the language. Words are priceless. One short sentence paints a very vivid picture.

It’s worth pointing out the Freedmen’s Bureau officer who wrote this account isn’t using his own words. No, he’s using the words of the person who reported the situation.

image of Freedmen Bureau's note regarding John Newton Sheffey and Evelyn F Mills, 1867.
Freedmen Bureau’s note regarding John Newton Sheffey and Evelyn F Mills, 1867.

Transcription: John Newton Sheffey (c.) and Evelyn F Mills (note: it was spelled as Miles, which was crossed out and replaced with Mills) living at [I can’t decipher the place name] are said to be living in scandalous adultery.

Scandalous. That is one loaded word. It’s one of those 19th Century words you can just hear being spoken. You can almost picture the man or woman’s face when they said it. In 1867, “scandalous” had a depth that the modern over-use of the word lacks. We’ve used it too much and too erroneously for it to maintain the packed punch it had nearly 150 years ago.

What was the scandal? Records indicate that John Newton Sheffey wasn’t married or involved with anyone prior to this adulterous relationship. All of the children attributed to him were born to him and Evelyn. Evelyn, on the other hand, was married. Oh yeah, and she was white. Quite clearly, this couple was rather open about their relationship. To be that open, they couldn’t have really cared what anyone thought of it. It’s an honesty and openness – and some might say brazenness – which seems to be a family characteristic in more than a few Sheffey family lines.

Whenever the Freedmen’s Bureau cited a person of color, that person was always denoted with either a “(c.)” or “(colored)” after their name. Whites were not. Between Evelyn not having this kind of denotation after her name – and her marriage certificate and her husband’s divorce petition – she was most certainly white. Hence the “scandalous” adultery as opposed to just plain old adultery.

Words – I love them.  Again, a simple sentence in a random document tells quite a story.


3 thoughts on “John Newton Sheffey: Scandalous adultery in 1860s Wytheville

    1. The length and breadth of digitized documents is breathtaking. None of this would be possible without the ceaseless efforts of archivists, digitizers and transcribers. 🙂

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