Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Rise of Divorce in Michigan

In 1897, Michigan began requiring county clerks to file information on divorces. As I have many women in my tree who divorced in the first quarter of the 20th century I wanted to learn more about the process. I began by collecting data on the number of divorces granted over time. Without further ado, here they are.



References for the graph: 1-13

One important thing to note is that the divorce statistics prior to those from 1898 were obtained by the U.S. Department of Labor. We can't know for certain how accurate they are, but they do provide information as to the trend of divorce in the state. It does appear that after 1898 the number of divorces granted by Michigan courts (both the circuit court and chancery court could hear divorce cases) began to increase dramatically in comparison with the earlier period. However, when adjusted for the increasing state population, the number of divorces rose only nominally between 1898 and 1920 (the ratio of divorces/state population increased from 0.0008 to 0.0023). [1-13, 14] One reason for the apparently sudden increase in the number of divorces is that the divorce laws may have become more permissive around this time.

Another indication of the increase in the “divorce business” comes from the number of cases pending in the courts. At the start of 1898, there were 2475 cases pending and at the end of the year there were 3323. The courts also granted 1901 divorces, 128 were withdrawn, 432 contested and 21 were refused by the courts entirely. [15] The courts were much busier by 1920. On January 1st of that year, 10,290 cases were pending which increased to 11,661 by New Year's Eve. During 1920, 8679 divorces were granted, 2221 withdrawn, 885 contested and 168 refused. [12]

Fortunately for genealogists, if there was a divorce in your family you are likely to find some record of it because it was a court proceeding. However, there were still instances when the system didn't work as anticipated. Each year, county clerks were supposed to submit returns with specifics of the individual cases as well as summaries of the local divorce business. [16] However, there were sometimes discrepancies between the two. [17] For 1898, the difference was 93 and “may be in part accounted for by the fact that some clerks do not enter a decree in divorces actually granted unless the fee is paid for the same. The result is that some decrees are never entered.” [17] In light of this, the secretary of state recommended legislation requiring that the fee be paid upfront to avoid this problem in future.

One thing I didn't realize before I began this report was that there were two types of divorce: divorce from the bonds of matrimony (absolute divorce) and divorce from bed and board. An absolute divorce could be obtained on the grounds of: 1) adultery, 2) physical incompetency of one party at the time of marriage, 3) imprisonment of one party for 3 or more years, 4) desertion for two years, 5) if one party became a habitual drunkard after becoming married, or 6) when a spouse obtained a divorce in another state. [18]

A divorce from bed and board permitted a permanent separation without actually dissolving the marriage and could be either permanent or for a limited time. Unlike an absolute divorce, this decree could be revoked by the court “upon joint application of the parties, and their producing satisfactory evidence of their reconciliation.” [19] A divorce from bed and board could be granted for 1) extreme cruelty, 2) utter desertion for two years, or 3) on complaint of the wife that the husband does not provide a suitable maintenance for her though he is capable of doing so. [18] While extreme cruelty was not a ground for an absolute divorce, the court could, under certain circumstances choose to actually dissolve the marriage if it was “discreet and proper” to do so. [20] “This is not done to meet the desire of the parties, but on grounds of public policy, to prevent the mischiefs arising from turning out into the world, in enforced celibacy, persons who are neither married nor unmarried.” [21]

Among the statistics collected by the state were the causes of divorce as listed in the petitions. It was interesting to see how these altered over time. Petitions listing adultery (2-4%), drunkenness (4-7%) and non-support (28-34%) remained fairly constant over the roughly two decades for which I found data. [1-9] Desertion decreased from 35% in 1898 to 22% in 1917. [1-9] Cruelty showed the most variability, rising from a low of 47% of suits in 1898 to 72% in 1917. [1-9] This makes sense because all the other grounds have a strict definition while what constitutes cruelty can be quite subjective. According to the laws of Michigan, to qualify as extreme cruelty the misconduct had to be “of a most aggravating nature, entirely subverting the family relations by rendering the association intolerable. It is not confined to mere physical violence, which is by no means the worst injury that can be inflicted on a person of refined sensibility, but the grievance of whatever kind must be of the most aggravated nature to justify a divorce.” [22] Examples of extreme cruelty included “persistent circulation of false and slanderous reports derogatory to the wife's character for chastity” [23], a wife accusing her husband “in public and private of infamous conduct. . . and calling him by vile and vulgar epithets, etc.” [24] and “consorting with and showing or expressing preferences for persons of loose morals and unchaste character of the opposite sex.” [24]

The laws of Michigan stated that a divorce could only be granted if the case met certain criteria: 1) the plaintiff had to be a Michigan resident for one year immediately preceding filing the divorce petition, 2) the marriage had to have been solemnized in the state, as well as one of the following a) the defendant lived in the state when the petition was filed, b) the defendant lived in the state when the cause for divorce occurred or c) when the defendant either appeared voluntarily or was served divorce papers. [25]

At the time of the divorce, a woman could ask for the restoration of her maiden name, the name she legally bore prior to her marriage or the adoption of a new name, provided there were no minor children from the marriage. [26] So, if you are trying to track down a woman and the names don't seem to make sense, this could be one reason why.

Fun divorce tidbits:

“Adultery of a wife committed with a spy employed by the husband to test the wife's virtue does not entitle him to a divorce.” [27]

“If any persons, after being divorced from the bond of matrimony for any cause whatever, shall cohabit together, they shall be liable to all the penalties provided by law against adultery.” [28]

A court could also specify in its decree “that the party against whom any divorce is granted shall not marry again” within a certain time frame, not to exceed two years from the time of the decree. [26] If anyone did remarry during that period (and was discovered) they would be deemed a bigamist and could be prosecuted for that offense. [26]

To learn more about what information you might find in divorce records and where to find these records in southwest Michigan see my post Husband, Schmusband.

References:

  1. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Second Annual Report of the Secretary of State on the Registration of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces in Michigan For The Year 1898. (Lansing, Michigan: Robert Smith Printing Co, 1900), p. clviii.
  2. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-third Annual Report of the Secretary of State on the Registration of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces in Michigan For The Year 1899. (Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1902), p. clvii.
  3. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Fifth Annual Report of the Secretary of State on the Registration of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces in Michigan For The Year 1901. (Lansing, Michigan: Robert Smith Printing Co., 1905), p. cxvii.
  4. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Fifth Annual Report . . . 1901., p. cxix.
  5. Secretary of State of Michigan. Forty-First Annual Report of the Secretary of State on the Registration of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces in Michigan For The Year 1907. (Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1909), p. 62.
  6. Secretary of State of Michigan. Forty-Second Annual Report of the Secretary of State on the Registration of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces in Michigan For The Year 1908. (Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1910), p. 168.
  7. Secretary of State of Michigan. Forty-Third Annual Report of the Secretary of State on the Registration of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces in Michigan For The Year 1909. (Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1911), p. 164.
  8. Secretary of State of Michigan. Forty-Sixth Annual Report of the Secretary of State on the Registration of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces in Michigan For The Year 1912. (Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1914), p. 67.
  9. Secretary of State of Michigan. Fifty-First Annual Report of the Secretary of State on the Registration of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces in Michigan For The Year 1917. (Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1920), p. 67.
  10. State Department of Health. Fifty-Second, Fifty-Third and Fifty-Fourth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Health On The Registration Of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces In Michigan For The Years 1918, 1919 And 1920. Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1922), p. 172.
  11. State Department of Health. Fifty-Second, Fifty-Third and Fifty-Fourth Annual Report. . . 1920., p. 273.
  12. State Department of Health. Fifty-Second, Fifty-Third and Fifty-Fourth Annual Report. . . 1920., p. 343.
  13. Department of Commerce And Labor Bureau Of The Census. Special Reports. Marriage And Divorce 1867-1906. Part I Summary, Laws, Foreign Statistics. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909). pp. 64-65.
  14. State Department of Health. Fifty-Second, Fifty-Third and Fifty-Fourth Annual Report. . . 1920., p. 277.
  15. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Second Annual Report . . . 1898., p. 119.
  16. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Second Annual Report . . . 1898., p. 120.
  17. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Second Annual Report . . . 1898., p. cliii.
  18. Department of Commerce And Labor Bureau Of The Census. Special Reports. . . Statistics., p. 299.
  19. State of Michigan. Laws Relating To The Registration of Births, Deaths, and Marriages; The Licensing and Solemnizing Of Marriages and Laws Concerning Divorce. Revision of 1912. (Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1912), p. 43.
  20. State of Michigan. Laws Relating To The Registration of Births, Deaths, and Marriages; The Licensing and Solemnizing Of Marriages and Laws Concerning Divorce. Revision of 1914. (Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1914), p. 32.
  21. State of Michigan. Laws Relating To The Registration. . . 1912., p. 32.
  22. State of Michigan. Laws Relating To The Registration. . . 1912., p. 30.
  23. State of Michigan. Laws Concerning The Registration of Births, Deaths, and Marriages; The Solemnization Of Marriages And The Issuance Of Licenses Therefor, And The Laws Concerning Divorce, And The Laws Concerning Divorce, With Suggestions To Persons Authorized To Solemnize Marriages. (Lansing, Michigan: Robert Smith Printing Co., 1900), p. 30.
  24. State of Michigan. Laws Concerning The Registration. . . Marriages., p. 31.
  25. State of Michigan. Laws Concerning The Registration. . . Marriages., p. 33.
  26. State of Michigan. Laws Relating To The Registration. . . 1912., p. 44.
  27. State of Michigan. Laws Concerning The Registration. . . Marriages., p. 32.
  28. State of Michigan. Laws Concerning The Registration. . . Marriages., p. 44.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Sonja, thank you for your article.

    I have been trying to puzzle out some of my own family history and have run into a real head scratcher, lol. Some of my ancestors are well embedded in Berrien Co. MI history. Don't want to bore you with much detail, but my GGGma (Mahala Hunter - maybe we are related?) was married twice in the same year. January 1863 to John H. Rugg, and November 1863 to Liberty Hunter. I cannot believe this could have been legally possible back in the 19th century! John didn't die, he moved to Kansas sometime before 1870 and married again. I hope there wasn't any bigamy involved, but the marriages are both recorded in the Michigan Marriage Index. Mahala's name is misspelled though as Bugg in her marriage to LIberty.

    According to your article it appears that her marriage to Liberty may not have been legal? I have more digging to do, but your article gave me someplace to start.

    Thank you very much!!! Kelly Mecifi

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Kelly,
      It's possible that the laws were different in the 1860s than later on, though if Mahala remarried just months after the first marriage that certainly raises some questions (not to mention some eyebrows). You might contact the Berrien Co. clerk's office to ask if they have divorce decrees from that time period. If not, you could contact the WMU Archives in Kalamazoo to see if they have court records for Berrien Co. from that period. It's a long shot, but you never know if you'll get lucky. Another thing to consider is her marriages occurred during the Civil War. I believe that there were certain court costs to pay to obtain a divorce and maybe neither of them had the funds (certainly possible with a war going on). It would be really interesting to find out the story. Good luck!

      Delete
  2. oops, sorry, Mahala was my GGGgma, I was one great off Kelly

    ReplyDelete