A case of researching the ex-spouse to solve a mystery.
I have known that my paternal Grandfather Clarence John had been married previous to my Grandmother Myrtle for many years. I even knew that they had had a daughter together. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I was able to find the name of his first wife, which happened while I was going through newspaper articles from Forest County, Wisconsin. In the paper was the announcement that Clarence had married in Illinois to Esther Edwards. (My father had at one time known her name, which he had found out when an uncle of his died and she or her daughter was mentioned as a beneficiary, but over time he had forgotten it.)
For my father, finding out that Clarence had a wife previous to his own mother, Myrtle, was quite a big shock, as was the fact that he had a half-sister he never met! Clarence had done a pretty good job of keeping it a very closely guarded secret from his own children, but everyone else in the family knew her and their daughter, and had even kept in touch with them over the years.
The big questions I wanted to answer were: when did this first marriage end, and where? To do this I first needed to find out more about Esther, because research on Clarence hadn’t helped. During earlier research attempting to pin down when they might have been divorced, I had found her in 1930 living with her father and Marie (the half-sister) in White Lake. The census did indicate she was divorced, but, I still didn’t know where or when. I had tried to find a divorce for them in Forest County, but no luck. I decided to continue the search further ahead in time, so I went to the 1940 census. Bingo! There she was in White Lake, with Marie, only now she is married to an Oscar Christenson and they have two daughters of their own. This was excellent news, because, usually, on these later marriage records there is a question regarding any previous marriages. As my niece lives in Antigo I asked her to drop by the register of deeds office and see if she could find the marriage in question. A few days and a text later, there it was in black and white: previously married to Clarence John, divorced October 28, 1923 in Merrill, Lincoln County, Wisconsin, the answer to both of my questions. Now I could also breath a sigh of relief, because my grandfather had definitely not been married when he met my grandmother.
|Marriage certificate for Esther and Oscar.
But of course it didn’t stop there. My first thought was, “Wow, only married a year and a half-ish. What went wrong?” The clerk of courts in Lincoln county informed me that they had divorce records from 1926 and on a little late for me. So I searched ArCat (the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives Catalog) then contacted the UW Stevens Point Area Research Center, (which holds records from Lincoln County) and asked them to sent me the case file for Clarence and Esther John/s from Lincoln County. Four days later it arrived.
The file isn’t big. Probably because Clarence never showed up in court to contest the petition or testify, even though he had been summoned to do so.
Here is the complaint:
Esther E. John vs. Clarence John
1. That she and the defendant were married at Waukegan, Ill., on January 10th, 1922; that she has been a resident of the State of Wisconsin all her life.
2. That there has been born as the issue of said marriage, one child, a girl, named Gertrude Marie; that said child is now nine months of age.
3. That beginning shortly after said marriage the defendant began a course of cruel and inhuman treatment towards this plaintiff and that some of his acts are as follows: That three months after said marriage he struck her in the face with his fist and caused her to have a black eye; that he repeatedly struck her [‘and kicked her’ is marked out]; that he has sworn at her frequently and called her indecent names and accused her of infidelity and has slandered her by telling untrue and indecent things about her character.
That ever since said marriage, the parties hereto made their home with the parents of the plaintiff on an agreement that defendant was to pay one-half of the expenses of running the household and furnish the wood; that he failed to carry out this agreement; that he failed to provide her with sufficient money to support herself and said child and she was obliged to look to her father and mother for sufficient funds wherewith to maintain and clothe herself and said child and was also obliged to use a part of her savings which were on deposit in the bank at White Lake, Wis; that she had an edowment insurance policy made payable to him on which a premium became due shortly after said marriage and he refused to pay the same and she was obliged to pay it out of her savings; that at Christmas time, 1922, he gave her no money wherewith to purchase necessitites for any Christmas remembrances and she was obliged to use her own funds for such purpose; that shortly before March 1st, 1923, he was abusing her and continued the same for a period of about one week, [‘when he left home and she did not know his whereabouts for two or three days’ – lined out] and finally on March 1st, 1923, he left her and they have not lived together as husband and wife since said date; that he is lazy and when he does get work, he cannot hold a job on account thereof; that a part of the time he runs a Jitney line; that after March 1st, about May 1st, she was obliged to enter a hospital in Antigo on account of sickness and previous to that during March and April while she was sick at home he did not call on her or see her or inquire about her condition, so far as plaintiff knows, and saw her only once during all of the time she was in said hospital; that he refused to pay her doctor bill or store bill or hospital bill until compelled to pay the doctor’s bill by law, and she was obliged to pay the store account and nurses’ bill and paid $70.00 hospital bill for the time she was in said hospital at Antigo.
4. That defendant is a strong and able bodied man and has earned at common labor, $3.50 per day and while in his Jitney business earned at least $5.00 per day net; that plaintiff has had some training as a clerk and stenographer and is capable of earning good wages but on account of her recent sickness will not be able to secure a position for a period of about six months; that she has, at all times, kept her marriage vows; that since his desertion of her, on March 1st , she has been obliged to a part of the time, pay for the care of said child; that she has not sufficient money or means of her own wherewith to carry on this action or support said child.
5. That plaintiff’s maiden name was Esther E. Edwards; that no prior action of divorce has been commenced or is now pending between the parties hereto.
WHEREFORE, plaintiff demands judgment for a divorce from the bonds of matrimoney existing between her and the defendant; for custody of said child; that defendant be required to pay the attorney’s fees and costs in this action and provide a suitable amount weekly, for the support of said child; to repay her the $70.00 which she paid the Antigo hospital; for the restoration of her maiden name and for such other and further relief as may be just. (here is the whole case file in pdf)
The divorce was granted on October 24th (not 28th as Esther indicated on her marriage certificate, a minor quibble). They weren’t officially divorced until a year after that date though.
Esther and Clarence were married in early January of 1922. Gertrude Marie was born in early August of 1922. Which means that Esther could quite possibly have been pregnant when they married. I do not know if Marie was premature, by about a month, or not. So, if they did marry because she was pregnant, it is quite possible that they married for the usual wrong reasons, and as so often happens in these cases, it didn’t work out for them.
I have a hard time believing that my Grandfather would behave in such a manner. Granted, I never knew him. But nothing I had ever heard about him indicated he would commit these kinds of acts. However, one has to remember when reading this testimony that before the advent of no-fault divorce in the United States, a divorce could only be obtained by showing one party to be at fault in the marriage. It meant that one spouse had to plead that the other had: committed adultery, abandoned the family, or (one I have seen in many divorce cases in my years at the archives), committed cruel and inhuman acts, which usually included physical, mental and verbal abuse, even if none of this occurred during the marriage. Many American lawyers and judges were advocates of no-fault divorce because they wanted to eliminate the need for perjury in the court by the parties involved in the cases, where they wanted out of a marriage for a variety of other reasons that weren’t deemed acceptable in court. By 1985 all but New York had adopted some form of no-fault divorce, it wasn’t until 2010 that New York finally passed a no-fault divorce bill.
So one does have to take these early divorce testimony records with a grain of salt. He could quite possibly be guilty of some of these charges, including his failure to pay bills. He was the oldest son, so he was probably a bit spoiled, and he was barely in his mid-20s at the time of his marriage, and divorce, so he might have had some growing up to do yet.
For me the mystery is finally over. One case solved, of the many remaining. In fact, comparatively speaking, this one was a piece of cake, once I settled down to solving it. Of course now I want to know all about this Jitney business!