The crime of bigamy and the changing punishments over the years

Picture of two doves and two hands with flowers around

A wedding card from the museum collection - Credit: Honiton Museum

Throughout history, the crime of bigamy has been punished, though the severity of the punishment has lessened over time. 

Early offenders were hung, then later they were deported, then came imprisonment with the branding of the right hand and more recently imprisonment with hard labour. The most fitting punishment I’ve found is that in Hungary a man convicted of bigamy was condemned to live with both wives in the same house.

In 1943 Mr Justice Tucker said at Devon Assizes in Exeter: “Nobody likes sending people to prison, especially when they are good workers and citizens otherwise. But what am I to do if at every Assize I visit I find people committing bigamy right and left? Something has got to be done because it is the law of the land that people shall only have one wife or husband.”

There were several prosecutions for bigamy following weddings in Honiton. Patrick Roland Anderson, a 39-year-old former GPO employee then a lorry driver for a haulage contractor, was charged with bigamously marrying Doris May Kingsland at Honiton Register Office on March 24th, 1939. His wife Elfrida who he married in Exeter in 1926 was still alive. He was sentenced to nine months' hard labour.

Maud Eliza Furzey kept a tobacconist shop in New Street and Stephen Streener, a Private in the Pioneer Corps, became a regular customer. They married in St Paul’s Honiton by special licence on February 8th, 1942. He stated that he had been drinking at the time and that he did not know that he went through the marriage ceremony until three days afterwards. His legal wife was living in Northumberland with seven of their 13 children. He was sentenced to four months imprisonment. His first wife died in 1944 and he was discharged from the Army on compassionate grounds to look after his children who he neglected and was sentenced to a further six months.

There was a special defence for bigamy. If the accused’s spouse had been absent for at least seven years, they could be presumed dead by the accused without having positive proof. That was the justification given in defence of Walter Collins, a labourer of Dowell Street when he was charged with marrying Sarah Harvey in 1919 while his wife Emma was still alive and living within ten miles of him.