Saturday, June 30, 2012

Husband, Schmusband: Divorce Records

Some of the more interesting records I have come across in my genealogy research are divorce records. By “interesting,” I mean juicy. Of the ten or so divorce records I have examined, all but one of them included some pretty “interesting” reading. There was the wife who “did not perform her marital duties,” nudge, nudge, wink, wink. There were many accusations that husbands and wives were carrying on with other people, if you know what I mean. I quote from one such case in which the husband stated that his wife "disregarding the solemnity of the marriage relations. . . indulged in violent sallies of passion."  There were even a few in which the husbands were accused of occasionally being physically abusive.


I should note that the records I have perused encompass the first 25 years or so of the 20th century. Divorce was becoming more common, but it was still difficult to obtain a divorce in those days and some states had stricter laws than others. Grounds for divorce at the time were limited and included cruelty and abandonment. No-fault divorce was only introduced in 1970, first appearing in California. Therefore, it is important to remember that some claims may have been exaggerated to increase the odds of obtaining the divorce.

My family, not to be left out of a current trend, jumped on the bandwagon. Divorce seems to have been a way of life for one group of sisters in my tree. Between the three of them they married a total of twelve times and divorced eight times (another husband died and one deserted). One of these records even cleared up the mystery of why I could not find one of these women in the 1900 census. While the divorce complaint itself contained nothing to tell me why the marriage broke up (she just moved out), it did include the name my relative married under. It was time to create a new spouse in my family tree and hunt her down in the census (success at last).

The winner for most husbands in the shortest period of time goes to Ada Wallace who married five times in total. She seems to have gone through husbands like a snake sheds its skin. She married for the first time when she was just fourteen to a man 29 years her senior, Charles Hoard. Five children and 15 years later she apparently left her husband. Unfortunately, only the final divorce decrees exist for this time period in Branch county, Michigan so I don't know the details. Next she married George Alger to whom she remained married for 4.5 years. Their divorce records indicated that her husband, George, periodically went away for days at a time. When he did, Ada sometimes went out dancing (all night) with Charley Carr. Barely a month after the ink had dried on her divorce papers Ada married husband #3, who surprisingly, (to me, at least) was not Charles Carr, but Henry Miner. Within six months he was also history. A year and a half later she married husband #4 and again the marriage lasted about six months before the court approved her fourth divorce. Again, Ada had been seeing Charley Carr, who even spent the night (when her husband was gone) according to the landlady. A year later she finally married Charles Carr, and to her credit, remained married to him for thirty-four years until his death. I can't help but wonder why she married husband #3 (who was not mentioned in the divorce records with George Alger) or even husband #4 if she was frequently going dancing with Charley. Was she trying to make him jealous? Or at ten years her junior did she think he was just too young to marry? I'll probably never know.

One question that might come to mind after finding so many divorces is why some of these women married so often. It is easy to snicker, but it is useful to remember that although times were changing, women still didn't have many options. These probably included moving in with a relative and/or getting a job, becoming a domestic servant or getting remarried.

So, now that I have piqued your interest, where can you find divorce records for counties in southwest Michigan?

Records can be found at:

WMU Archives: chancery records (which include divorces) for Kalamazoo and many neighboring counties which may include: Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, Kent, Muskegon, Ottawa, St. Joseph, and Van Buren . To make sure they have the records covering the county and time period of interest I recommend contacting them to ask before planning a visit.

Van Buren District Library: Allegan, Cass and Van Buren (on microfilm)

Kalamazoo county court house (201 W. Kalamazoo Ave, Kalamazoo, MI): chancery records starting about 1934 (earlier records are at the WMU archives).  For a practical guide to viewing records here (what's onsite, copy costs, etc.) be sure to read my post about doing research at the court house.

Your first step will be to consult the index (usually on microfilm). Be sure to select the roll with the year range in which you believe the divorce occurred. While indexes may be organized differently, the ones I have seen (Kalamazoo county) are organized as follows. For each initial letter of a surname there are many pages broken down into names beginning with the same two or three letters (e.g. Gary, Gardner, Garson, etc.). I advise starting in the appropriate section, but don't despair if you don't find the record you are looking for. I have frequently seen names entered in the wrong section so you may want to peruse all pages for that initial if you aren't already woozy from staring at microfilm for too long. If all else fails check a different year range or a different county.

Once you have identified the record, be sure to take note of the item number or any other information in the index. The last thing you want to do is hunt for the entry again. While you are already there, be sure to note any other court cases pertaining to your family. You never know what you might uncover. Armed with this information you can select the appropriate roll of microfilm and scroll through the records until you find the correct case number. If you are lucky the file will include both the initial complaint as well as a cross bill (so you can read both sides of the story). While a divorce is probably never fun it can make for interesting reading and above all, teach you more about your relative's life and character.

If you would like to know more about divorce around the turn of the century, including acceptable grounds, you may want to read The Rise of Divorce in Michigan.

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