Hard to believe that only a century ago, mail-order brides were a “thing.” Yes, really; you could answer an advertisement; strike up a correspondence; and if the stars seemed aligned, choose a wife or husband – all by mail.
It was a seemingly practical solution for singles stuck in remote locations – the Victorian version of a dating app. And the cost was certainly affordable. In 1878, for example, the London Matrimonial News charged just “twelve stamps for fifty words” – with an additional finder’s fee to the editor “within a month after marriage.”
Then, as now, there could be a bit of puffery, so photographs were frequently exchanged. (Predictably, that also led to occasional shenanigans involving substituted photos.)
Sometimes, the ad itself would be enough to warn off a prospective spouse. Here’s one run-for-the-hills example:
A literary poet and American lawyer, aged 26 wishes to marry a beautiful English young lady of good family, and must have at least £3,000 a year. . . He is tall, thin, extremely handsome, strictly honorable, respectably connected, extraordinary, splendid, great, and of a distinguished and rich family. . . Seeks a woman for love, to settle down and unfold the power of his genius; he will make the marriage glorious with his works. He recommends himself to the delicate women who seek an ideal in this life, because he is nearly perfect. Prefers a lady of rank.
When a prospective spouse stepped off the train or buggy, the mate-to-be might find them not quite as advertised. But some spouses only found out their mistake after a disastrous trip to the altar.
Despite the dangers involved in mail-order courtship, the practice continued well into the 1900s. And some matches were apparently successful. In 1907, for example, Miss Addison Roper of Grant Fork, Illinois, sat up late into the night reading a Chicago matrimonial agency catalogue, and on a lark decided to write to tobacco grower William Cunningham of Cadiz, Kentucky. The pair exchanged twice-a-week letters for the next three years — letters which apparently went unnoticed by Miss Roper’s father. One day the groom simply showed up at Miss Roper’s door, and (to her father’s great surprise) the couple promptly departed for a justice of the peace to be married.
Miss Effie Newland of Hoxie, Kansas, also “took up a correspondence” on a whim with a Mr. Lopez, a sailor in Key West, Florida. “But Lopez was a splendid writer, and the girl soon became infatuated,” the newspaper reported. Lopez journeyed all the way from Florida to Kansas to secure his bride. Effie’s parents knew nothing about the proposed wedding “until the hour of the ceremony.” Over the parents’ objections, the couple was married by a local judge, and promptly “took the first trip train for Key West.”
Stories of other mail-order spouses, however, turned into genuine horror tales. In 1910, Grand Rapids resident James Allen confessed to murdering his mail order bride of just three days. He was quickly sent to prison for life. As investigations continued, however, Allen was suspected of killing several other wealthy widows under similar circumstances, and making off with their fortunes. Worse yet, he’d written to as many as 300 women and was currently engaged to a dozen more.
Some 54 years old, Allen had reportedly shared photos of “young and handsome men in carrying on his amorous negotiations,” presenting himself as a wealthy farmer. But even his name turned out to be an alias; he had used at least two others. And Allen’s killing spree hadn’t just involved spouses, either. Victims were believed to include his two sisters and a son. “Three hundred women scattered all over the United States and Canada will thank their stars they did not heed his urgent wooing and sell their property to become his wife,” the newspaper solemnly concluded.
On the other hand, in 1919, it was a mail-order husband in Trinity County who sought the sheriff’s protection from his bride-to-be. “There’s a woman a-huntin’ for me with a shootin’ iron, and from her looks I shure believe she knows how to use that piece of artillery,” the cowboy was quoted as saying. The eager bride had sent him a photograph, but “the picture lied.” When the groom had second thoughts, the bride threatened “to make a sieve of my carcass.” A sheriff’s sergeant helpfully suggested the solution was a speedy bus ticket north, and promised to “entertain the lady if she shows up here.”
Occasionally, even a mail-order marriage-gone-wrong led to a (somewhat) happy ending. In 1922, Prof. John Tiernan of South Bend, Indiana married Blanche, his mail-order spouse, just two hours after securing a divorce from his previous wife. But after only nine hours as a newlywed, Tiernan threw Blanche over and returned to his first wife – who quickly got their earlier divorce annulled.
And so, perhaps, even with mail-order brides, all’s well that ends well.
Hope you enjoyed these Valentine’s tales!