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So, you're a single mother in 1908. Now what? (5 photos)

'Remember This' columnist Mary Harris explains how marriage, divorce and parenthood was scandalous business in the late 1800s, early 1900s

My great grandmother was a bigamist. When I first discovered this fact, I was a little shocked. I had been searching for her for a long time but she had been largely lost to her family due to the physical separation of immigration from Scotland, and also because she was what one of her brothers-in-law referred to as a “shady lady.” That less than complimentary moniker was likely bestowed on her when she found herself a single mother in 1908. Having a child out of wedlock, at that time, was a terrible scandal and both mother and child were often permanently scorned by their community.

What then were her choices? Eventually, she left her community, likely in shame, and traveled to a larger city to find work to support the child whom she left with her parents. After working for four years as a domestic servant for a wealthy family, she found herself expecting again. Now what? She married the father this time. The alternative was to lose her job and live in poverty, or perhaps send another child home to her parents.

Great Granny, her husband and new baby daughter immigrated to Canada. After about a year here, her husband took off back to the old country, leaving his small family to fend for themselves in rural Ontario. Now what? The resourceful young lady quickly found a position as housekeeper to a middle-aged bachelor farmer and, in due time, married him. Their 1917 marriage registration states that the bride was a widow.

Again, what were her choices? She was alone in a foreign country with no family nearby. She had a child to look after, and no social support system yet existed, but a wealthy landowner wanted to marry and support her. She did what she thought was the right thing to do.

In 1917, there were no real and accessible divorce laws in Ontario. A man could divorce a woman for adultery, but a woman could only divorce her husband by proving both adultery and cruelty. In either case, the dissolution of the marriage could only be done through an act of Parliament, something that could cost in the neighbourhood of $1,000, and so really only available to the rich.

I was floored by this little nugget, likely gleaned from an international news agency, printed in the Northern Advance on April 9, 1891.

“Confusion of progeny constitutes the crime (adultery) and therefore a woman who breaks her marriage vow is much more criminal than a man who does it. Man, to be sure, is criminal in the eye of God, but he does not do his wife a very material injury if he does not insult her. A wife should study to reclaim her husband by more attention to please him. Sir, a man will not once in a hundred instances, leave his wife for another if his wife has not been negligent in pleasing.”

Plenty of folks quietly separated from their spouses and went on to live with another partner, but this was technically illegal. Also in 1891, a pair of young folks, married to other people, ran away together from their home town of Lindsay, Ont. and settled in Painswick, the location of appropriately named Lovers’ Creek. Mr. and Mrs. Nichols, actually Richard James and Elizabeth White, had their romance cut short when two of Elizabeth’s big burly brothers came looking for them.

The two would likely have been left alone, but the brothers visited Constable Sweeney, in Barrie, and insisted he do something. Sweeney went to Painswick, and found James collecting mail at the post office there, and arrested him for abduction and of cohabitating as man and wife. Mrs. White was later picked up outside the Barrie Hotel and also arrested. Both parties were sent to the Barrie Jail.

Judge Ardagh found them both guilty. Mrs. White was allowed to leave with a suspended sentence for her part in the crime of “violating the laws of public morality”, while her paramour was kept in jail for another week to hear his sentence.

With divorce out of the question, and cohabitating a risky business, many people like Great Granny took to a chance with bigamy. The neighbours would stop gossiping if a wedding was held, and everything might just work out fine as long as the first husband or wife never got wind of the event.

Dr. Herbert Sheppard wasn’t so lucky. The local papers were filled with the juicy details of his bigamy trial in 1910. He married Mabel Louisa Sanders of Barrie in 1869 and had six children with her. The doctor was anything but wealthy. In fact, he reportedly moved his family constantly due to his debt. They were all over Ontario, through Michigan, and finally at Duck Lake, Sask. where he left them in 1884.

The first Mrs. Sheppard had heard about his marriage to Lucy Moore in 1908 and had him charged. Strangely, the doctor did not deny that he had married twice, but corrected the court – he had been married three times! He claimed to have married his second wife about 10 years previously, but could not remember her name. Dr. Sheppard was getting older, and just a bit forgetful, but he was certain that he obtained a legal divorce from at least his first wife.

In the end, no evidence of any mysterious wife number two could be located, but divorce papers from his first wife were found and the charges dismissed. What Dr. Sheppard avoided was three to seven years in prison.

I sometimes wonder if Great Granny feared getting caught. Did her second husband know about her early marriage? With her ex far away in the Scottish Highlands, she likely thought she would never hear from him again.

While Canada dragged its feet on divorce legislation until 1968, the laws surrounding marriage and divorce in Scotland were changed in 1938 and 1939. It was then that Great Granny’s first husband began asking around among her relatives as to where she might be found. He wanted to send her divorce papers so that he could remarry. Her family refused to help him.

I have a copy of their 1912 marriage registration. It has an amendment in the margin, a stamp that says ‘Divorced 1939’. Was the marriage dissolved in her absence, or did her former husband locate her in Canada and have papers served? By 1939, Great Granny would have been remarried for 22 years. It might have been an interesting time to be a fly on the wall!