Strong Passions: A Scandalous Divorce in Old New York (Hardcover)

Strong Passions: A Scandalous Divorce in Old New York By Barbara Weisberg Cover Image
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“In 1864, the nation was riveted by a society divorce trial that had everything: cheating, wealth, feuding brothers and lurid details Weisberg’s sensitive examination reconstructs the trial while giving dimension to the real-life people involved.”—The New York Times Book Review “Editors Choice”



Shocking revelations of a wife’s adultery explode in an incendiary nineteenth-century trial, exposing upper-crust New York society and its secrets.


What could possibly go wrong in a wealthy matriarch’s country home when her dilettante son, his restless wife, and his widowed brother live there together? Strong Passions, rooted in the beguiling times of Edith Wharton’s “old New York,” recounts the true story of a tumultuous marriage. In 1862, Mary Strong stunned her husband, Peter, by confessing to a two-year affair with his brother. Peter sued Mary for divorce for adultery—the only grounds in New York—but not before she accused him of forcing her into an abortion and having his own affair with the abortionist. She then kidnapped their young daughter and disappeared.


The divorce trial Strong v. Strong riveted the nation during the final throes and aftermath of the Civil War, offering a shocking glimpse into the private world of New York’s powerful and privileged elite. Barbara Weisberg presents the chaotic courtroom and panoply of witnesses—governess, housekeeper, private detective, sisters-in-law, and many others—who provided contradictory and often salacious testimony. She then asks us to be the jury, deciding each spouse’s guilt and the possibility of a just resolution.


Social history at its most intimate, Strong Passions charts a trial’s twists and turns to portray a family and country in turmoil as they faced conflicts over women’s changing roles, male custody of children, and men’s power—financial and otherwise—over wives.

About the Author


Barbara Weisberg is a former television producer and the author of Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. She lives with her husband in upstate New York.

Praise For…


[A] case from the 1860s that has all the elements of a soap opera…Ms. Weisberg has done her best to link the story of the Strong divorce to the larger realities of private lives during these years…Strong Passions gives us insights into a snobbish society.

— Charlotte Gray - Wall Street Journal

Riveting reconstruction of a scandal…In Strong Passions, by letting public and private records reanimate this vivid chapter of the past, Weisberg tells a story that fiction could not touch.

— Liesl Schillinger - New York Times Book Review

The seductive first sentence of Barbara Weisberg’s riveting historical drama, Strong Passions, sweeps the reader into the vanished world of old New York. It sets the scene for a bitterly contested divorce trial that offered a rare glimpse into the lives of men and women of all classes, from tenements to gilded mansions. Strong Passions is that rare combination of page-turner and thought-provoker.

— Helen Whitney, award-winning film producer, writer, and director

If you think your divorce was bad, Barbara Weisberg has a story for you! Strong Passions tells the true-life tale of a misbegotten marriage with echoes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edith Wharton, and the Real Housewives of New York. A cautionary tale for wives at a time when women’s rights are increasingly under attack.

— Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age

Strong Passions delivers a superb and insightful narrative of a disappointed young wife and mother who strayed into a lover’s arms in 1860s New York City. Barbara Weisberg’s rigorous detective work brings clarity to the competing accounts as she carefully teases out the characters’ emotions about love, sex, and marriage. Strong Passions is a very engrossing and sympathetic read.

— Patricia Cline Cohen, author of The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York

‘He said/she said,’—the characters for and against husband and wife echo the cast of an Agatha Christie whodunit. Strong Passions is a breathless read, a story to challenge the reader’s own judgment and character.

— Major General Mari K. Eder, author of The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line: Untold Stories of the Women Who Changed the Course of World War II

Beautifully written, solidly researched, and singularly empathetic, Barbara Weisberg’s Strong Passions is a tour de force. There are plenty of juicy, soap opera-worthy details here, yet Weisberg is alive to their larger social and cultural contexts.

— Clifton Hood, author of In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis

Strong Passions is that rare delight—a fascinating, beautifully written story grounded in research rigorous enough to satisfy the most exacting historian. Weisberg’s book is more than a riveting legal drama about gender and power in old New York; it is also a thoughtful commentary on the anxieties created by the shifting boundary between private behaviors and public selves that beset Americans today.

— Joan Shelley Rubin, Dexter Perkins Professor of History, University of Rochester, author of The Making of Middlebrow Culture

The story of Strong vs. Strong is fascinating, disturbing, and a compelling dip into a divorce of the messiest sort. Weisberg marshals her facts and exposes 19th-century New York divorce laws and the suffering of women who experienced them firsthand.

— Deirdre Sinnott, author of The Third Mrs. Galway

A suspenseful courtroom drama…[A] page-turning glimpse into the lives of 19th-century New York's upper crust.
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Product Details
ISBN: 9780393531527
ISBN-10: 039353152X
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: February 20th, 2024
Pages: 336
Language: English