ALBERT V. ALBERT
In Albert v. Albert (1885) the Supreme Court of Montana held that a single incident of physical abuse by a husband against his wife could be deemed to constitute "extreme cruelty" so as to justify the granting of a divorce. The decision arose out of a petition for divorce filed in the Second District Court of Deer Lodge County by Kate Albert against her husband, Charles. Mrs. Albert claimed that she had been repeatedly beaten and whipped by Charles, and that the abuse she had incurred constituted extreme cruelty within the meaning of the applicable common law standards prescribing su.cient cause for the granting of a divorce. Mr. Albert defended his actions by claiming that he had beaten his wife on only one occasion and that he had been justified in doing so because Kate had publicly accused him of adultery.
In its charge to the jury, the trial court sided with Mr. Albert's view of the legal standards applicable to the situation, instructing the jury that even if they found that Mr. Albert had in fact struck his wife on more than one occasion, those actions did not necessarily establish the charge of extreme cruelty. The court further instructed the jury that if they found from the evidence that Mrs. Albert had "provoked" her husband to strike her, then Mr. Albert could be excused for treating her in a harsher manner than would have otherwise been justified. Based upon those instructions, the jury concluded that Mrs. Albert had not established her claim of extreme cruelty and denied the requested divorce decree.
On appeal by Mrs. Albert, the Montana Supreme Court reversed the trial court's judgment. In a decision that represented a significant departure from prevailing judicial interpretations of traditional gender roles and marital relations, the court held that even a single act of physical violence by a husband against a wife constituted sufficient proof of extreme cruelty to justify a divorce decree. The court further held that mere words uttered by a wife against her husband could never provide an excuse for a husband's violent response.
For the next twenty years the Montana Supreme Court's enunciation of this "single incident" standard for extreme cruelty provided the foundation for additional judicial tinkering with traditional legal interpretations of the marital relationship. Some legal historians, for example, point to the Albert decision as illustrative of the leading role played by western and Great Plains legal institutions in the evolution of new patterns of judicial recognition for the emerging "cult of true womanhood" and "companionate marriage ideal" of the Victorian period. In 1906, however, the Montana Supreme Court stepped back from the progressivism embodied in Albert and reversed itself on the single incident standard. In Ryan v. Ryan the court held that Albert had been superseded by legislation which provided that only mistreatment resulting in "grievous bodily injury" to a wife could give rise to an action for divorce. In response to Ryan, the Montana legislature amended the relevant statute again so as to provide that even the threat of grievous bodily harm would su.ce to state a claim of extreme cruelty. Thus, Albert v. Albert remains a leading example of the evolving progressivism of Great Plains legal institutions in the reshaping of gender roles and marital dynamics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Mark R. Scherer University of Nebraska at Omaha
Albert v. Albert, 5 Mont. 577, 6 P. 23 (1885).
Petrik, Paula. No Step Backward: Women and Family on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier, Helena, Montana, 1865–1900. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1987.