Sleeping With Your Late Wife’s Half-Sister

Was That Ever Appropriate?

William Spivey
ZORA
Published in
4 min readDec 2, 2023

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colonial_Woman_Williamsburg_(4664967915).jpg

I’m speaking of a different time in America; things were slightly different in 1772 than they are now. It was once common for European royalty to marry relatives, which often strengthened political alliances and kept the money in the families. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were first cousins, as were King George IV and Caroline of Brunswick. In more modern times, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were seventh cousins, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are distant relations.

The gentleman in this story wasn’t royalty but was part of the American aristocracy. There is little question he loved his wife, though questions were raised about a possible affair with his best friend’s wife, with whom he corresponded for years before and after his wife’s death. The man and his wife (his third cousin) had a grand wedding on New Year’s Day at her father’s plantation near Williamsburg.

The couple had music in common; she played the piano, and he played the violin. He was building a new home at the time of their wedding and had a forte piano installed as a present to her. A visitor to their home remarked:

“You will find in his house an elegant Harpsichord Piano forte and some Violins. The latter he performs well upon himself, the former his Lady touches very skilfully and who, is in all Respects a very agreable Sensible and Accomplished Lady.”

It was her second marriage, her first ending upon the death of her husband. She returned home to her father’s with her young son, John. While living there, her new husband-to-be began courting her, and after little more than a year, they married. Their courtship was interrupted by the death of her son, John, of an illness.

Her father wasn’t an example of morality, or maybe he was an example for the man later in life. John Wayles had three wives, all of whom died from different disorders. After the death of his third wife, John Wayles took up with an enslaved woman, Elizabeth, by whom he had six children.

The couple had six children together, though only two lived to adulthood. Childbearing took a toll on the wife, Martha, and within months of the birth of their last child, Polly, Martha passed away. Her death was not a…

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William Spivey
ZORA
Writer for

I write about politics, history, education, and race. Follow me at williamfspivey.com and support me at https://ko-fi.com/williamfspivey0680