Monday, November 19, 2012

Premarital Divorce? What?

Well, now I'm confused. While at the WMU Archives in Kalamazoo, I went hunting for more divorce records, this time for Cass county, Michigan.

Before I entered the archives I had information from a Civil War pension application file that told the following fragmentary tale. Once upon a time Gaylord Brown married Lydia Whitcomb. Then Gaylord's brother, Fernando, caught Lydia's fancy. She jilted Gaylord and married Fernando. In an attempt to corroborate this information I searched databases at Family Search. I found a marriage return for Gaylord and Lydia stating the date of marriage was 24 July 1881. A marriage return for Lydia and Fernando provided a date of marriage of 11 Jun 1893.

When I went to the WMU archives I wanted to find divorce records, particularly the bills of complaint for Gaylord's divorce from Lydia as well as Fernando's divorce from his first wife. I hoped these records might shed light on the circumstances of Lydia's defection. The first thing I discovered was that only the divorce decrees were available for Cass county on the microfilm at the archives. I need to find out if the bills of complaint still exist and are locked away somewhere where I can someday access them.

Although I didn't discover all I hoped for I did gain some information, but as usual, I was left with more questions than answers. Instead of finding a single divorce decree for Gaylord and Lydia I found two. That was a surprise, but that wasn't all. As I added the information to my family tree software I discovered that, Gaylord and Lydia divorced (12 Jul 1881) before they even married (24 Jul 1881). Clearly this is wrong.

So what is going on here? I still need to figure it out, but I have a few ideas. First of all, I'll believe the divorce date of 13 Jul 1881. It comes from the microfilm of the original court record signed by the judge (a primary source of the information). Now the question is, is the marriage return correct? Unfortunately, I don't have sufficient information to make that determination. The marriage return is a derivative record, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is wrong. The return was filed 16 Feb 1882 and it is certainly possible that whoever recorded the information here transcribed it incorrectly. However, as there are two divorce records (the later one provides a divorce date of 27 Feb 1893), it is theoretically possible that within days of their divorce becoming final that Gaylord and Lydia remarried. Hey, I didn't say that makes much sense, but stranger things have happened.

So, if we accept the first divorce date of 13 Jul 1881 then it must mean that Gaylord and Lydia were married prior to that date, and at least as early as 13 June 1881 when Lydia filed the bill of complaint. Unfortunately, I have failed to find an earlier record of marriage for this pair of lovebirds. While vexing, the lack of a record isn't a complete surprise to me. Although civil registration began in Michigan in 1867, I have found that for the first couple of decades afterward some records didn't seem to make it onto the official rolls.

The 1880 census is likewise unenlightening. Gaylord Brown does not appear in the census in Cass county, but a Joseph Brown born in 1843 in NY (the right information for Gaylord) is living in the appropriate area of the county with his wife, Lydia. Census enumerations being what they are, I can't conclude anything from an entry like that.

So, where does this leave me? Well, it leaves me in Tennessee, nine to ten hours away from any records that might settle this, assuming the records still exist. I suppose it will supply me with ample time (in theory) to compose some hypotheses and plan my attack for the next time I'm in the area. That's genealogy for you.

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