Missouri in the 1870s: Marriage and Its Scandals

“The Interrupted Wedding” by Edmund Bristow (Wikimedia Commons)



Someone far more altruistic than I has transcribed old issues of the Jefferson Democrat word by word, starting a little before the 1870s and ending a little after, for the Jefferson County Historical Society. You cannot find this amalgamation of humor, tragedy, scandal, poignancy, derring-do, and sweet quirkiness in all of Netflix. And so, I have pulled the juiciest bits into themes for your entertainment. We shall begin (as more historians should) not with the aftermath of the Civil War or the Battle of Little Bighorn, but with the battles, conquests, and skirmishes to and from the altar.

They reveal far more.

Marriage in the 1870s, for example, was a competitive but disorganized sport, each ceremony removing a potential rival from the fray.

“We understand that Miss Dobbins (that was) was considered the belle of DeSoto,” the newspaper editor writes in 1873, “and of course there was no chance for anyone else until she was out of the way.” Later, he writes, “We thought months ago on seeing the two together that this would make a good match, but we had no idea that the parties themselves had any thought that way. We congratulate them on their consummation, and have no doubt there are several widowers who are glad that Mr. Clemens is now out of the way.” And in 1879: “It was a happy occasion for all present—and everybody felt like heartily congratulating Mr. Roraback over his conquest.”

Conquest. Should women have been flattered to be the spoils of war? Even Helen of Troy was its pawn. By the 1950s, the game would be “catching a man”; at this point, it was conquering a woman. When a man from another county married a local woman, the editor did not “consider it quite right for the young men of Jefferson county to allow strangers to come in and carry off such prizes right under their noses.”

Ah, well. Let us leave woke aside and read about the parties. Some celebrations were stylish, with “a liberal tripping of the light fantastic toe,” but there were rowdy traditions, too, like “the wild boys of Hillsboro” serenading the newlyweds with cow bells, tin pans, horns, dumbbells, and human screeches and yells. “The bride and groom stood the din first rate but finally ‘come down’ with a treat,” as was expected.

For one lavish wedding, the presents were listed, among them “an elegant silver tea set, a fine case of very heavy silver spoons and forks, a beautifully designed butter dish in frosted silver, a massive silver waiter, a full china tea set, and one of those indispensables, a sewing machine.” None of which sells today at IKEA. Presents were also listed for a couple’s fifth (“wooden wedding”) anniversary: “jewelry casket and shoe blacking case…celery spoon and pickle fork; kindling and cypress knees…three dolls…Japanese glove box…corner what-not… lemon-squeezer and jumping jack.”

It all feels quaint, for a minute. But why would I assume that tighter social norms would have managed to suppress any erratic behavior? In 1867 in Old Mines, the paper reported “a genuine elopement”: “It seems that the gay ‘Lothario’ of this transaction—Charles Sullivan—had been but two weeks previously united in the silken bonds to a most respectable young lady from Big River,” he writes. “A fortnight often works wonders in the history of men’s affairs, and in this case certainly did. Charles concluded that his affections had been misdirected, and on the evening of the 12th inst., he abandoned his wife and left for parts unknown, in company with the object of his later love. A Miss Adaline Trokey was the absorbent of his second affection, and the remorseless couple are now denizens of some other locality.”

Another man left his wife and child to run away with a widow, and right after his departure, his wife gave birth to another child. “Mrs. Stewart has been making love to Cosby for at least six months,” the editor disclosed. But the money she inherited from her husband “will soon be spent,” he warned, “and Cosby’s trouble will begin, and the guilty conscience of the heartless wretch will furnish sufficient punishment—provided he never returns to this county.”

This was not an era of journalistic objectivity. Stories were, however, followed up assiduously: “We published some time since notice of the marriage of a boy named Samuel Helterbrand, to Miss Pamela Kite, a woman old enough to be his mother and a cripple besides. She had some little means and provided him a home during the winter, but when spring opened he became frisky, as lambs are apt to, and left her. It is now reported that he has taken up with another woman—a grass widow named Scaggs.”

And what was a grass widow in the second half of the nineteenth century? Originally, the phrase referred to a discarded mistress or unwed mother. Today, we understand it to mean a woman who is divorced or whose husband is temporarily absent. But at the time of this writing, Americans had spun an etymology no one could later prove: “grass” was said to be a corruption of the French word “grace,” “hence grass-widow would mean a grace widow: one who is made so, not by the death of her husband, but by the kindness of her neighbors, who are pleased to regard the desertion of her husband as equivalent to his death.” By the 1870s, the Catholic hierarchy had taken over from the neighbors, granting priestly permission for such women to call themselves widows.

Today’s scholars have found no French grace in the record and suspect the “grass” referred to an outdoor meadow used for quick sex in lieu of a proper four-poster. But semantics mattered not a whit compared to “the astonishing news” that “Capt. Everett’s wife has left him and ran off with a young school teacher named O’Conners. Stranger things happen but seldom, and the woman must have been crazy.”

The editor tipped his hand more subtly when he was forced to publish fluff. “The marriage last week of Mr. O.H. Donnell to Miss Isella Jarvis deserve more than the passing notice we gave last week,” he wrote dutifully, “as it was probably the largest affair of the kind that ever took place in this county.” He continued only to say that the reception, given by the groom’s uncle, was “attended by a large number of invited guests.”

He did not tiptoe around familial tensions, though. At one wedding, “the novelty of the occasion was that the parties were chased by the bride’s angry and objecting mother.” At another, the bride’s parents drove her suitor away, but then the bride ran away, too, and after one minister refused to marry the (underage) couple, a second minister tied the knot. Was it refreshing, to have the world know your marriage started with so much friction? At least no one had to pretend….

Another rambunctious affair began when a young man named Jack Quinly “got on a rampage…on account of a girl that was staying with Wm. Turner; and smashed in a window and otherwise damaged Mr. Turner’s residence.” Quinly tore away, but Mr. Turner followed him to St. Louis and had him arrested. They were on their way to a justice of the peace to have him tried when “the girl overtook the party, and she and Quinly were married, and everybody felt so awful good-natured that prosecution for the disturbance was abandoned, and Quinly and his bride went on their way rejoicing.”

In 1876, the newspaper announced the marriage of John Carrow to Miss Effie Afton Hiawatha Lucy Coon Lee. “The bride is an estimable young lady,” the editor noted, “and her full name is given not through sport. Her father named her after three steam boats, and we presume she is not ashamed of it.”

Divorces cropped up more often than one might expect, as did curt announcements like this one in 1866: “Whereas, my wife Mena Shores, has left my bed and board without just cause, this is to notify all persons not to trust her upon my account.” One man had to sue for both divorce and recovery of his property, and the editor noted that “the petition filed in the latter case would be amusing if not so pathetic.” In another case, “D.J. Ayers proved to the satisfaction of the judge that his wife Eliza P. had abandoned him or misbehaved, and was granted a divorce from the bonds of matrimony connecting him with her. He is now ready for another wife.”

Proposing may have been a competitive sport, but marriage was far more than a game. It was a state of life that could both anchor and elevate a man. When the “old batchelor” Veazy Price finally married, the editor predicted that he would “bless the day when [he] became a perfect man.”

Poll married men today, and see how that lands.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.