How to Find Your Ancestor’s Divorce Records in the Newspaper

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena describes how old newspaper articles about your ancestor’s divorce can provide valuable family history information to help with your genealogical searches.

I am always surprised when people assume life was so much better generations ago. After all, there was no divorce, drunkenness, or crime, right? Well the great thing about newspapers is that they document all of life: the good, the bad and the ugly. And yes, that ugly included events happening in the “good old days.”

Need proof that yesteryear wasn’t so grand all the time? As long as there has been marriage, some couples have regretted the day they said “I do” and looked for ways to sever that tie. One way to examine American divorce statistics is through U.S. census data. The following newspaper article provides statistics for marriages and divorces based on U.S. census data for the years 1887-1906. In that 20-year period there were 12,832,014 marriages and 945,625 divorces.

Startling Divorce Statistics Given by Census Bureau, Morning Olympian newspaper article 22 December 1908

Morning Olympian (Olympia, Washington), 22 December 1908, page 4

Divorces are recorded in several ways in the newspaper, providing useful clues for further genealogy research. Some examples of divorce records that you can find in newspapers include notices to an absent party in the legal advertisements section, short articles about the outcome of a divorce trial along with other court actions, or even a longer article with detailed descriptions of the allegations, the trial, and the outcome.

The following old news article about divorces heard in the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) court makes it obvious that “the divorce business is on the increase” because of some apparent reasons, such as domestic violence and adultery. Consider the treatment of this unhappy woman: “A long story of extreme cruelty was related by Mrs. Caroline Pavlikofsky as a ground for divorce from Gotlieb Pavlikofsky.” It’s reported that in one year of marriage he had “frequently beaten her…drove her out of the house, threw a burning lamp at her, threatened to beat her brains out with a heavy pan, and such things.”

Divorce Grind, Plain Dealer newspaper article 20 May 1893

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 20 May 1893, page 4

A boon to genealogists are the newspaper articles that list the full names of all the parties involved in divorce court cases, including the judge.

20 Divorce Suits Are Dismissed, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article 4 February 1908

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 4 February 1908, page 3

Once a genealogy researcher finds mention of their ancestor’s divorce in the newspaper they should then search the Family History Library Catalog or consult with the relevant county’s courthouse to find additional divorce records. If you have never researched court records I recommend studying the book Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures by Christine Rose, as well as The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val D. Greenwood.

In some cases you may get much more than just confirmation of your ancestor’s divorce from the newspaper. In the old divorce article example below you also get some additional information and perhaps motives. Historical newspaper articles about divorce cases can also include other important data like marriage date, some possible motivations to marry, and the complaints against the spouse.

Divorce Docket Day, St. Louis Republic newspaper article 25 June 1889

St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, Missouri), 25 June 1889, page 12

Not everyone lived happily ever after. Divorce in your ancestor’s time period was a reality just as it is now. Search newspapers for references throughout your ancestor’s life in your genealogy research and you might be surprised by what you find out about your family history.

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Written by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s degree in Religion. Presenting on various subjects involving genealogy, women’s studies and social history, Gena has spoken to groups throughout the United States and virtually to audiences worldwide.

Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, GenWeekly, FGS Forum, APG Quarterly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. She is the author of the books, Putting the Pieces Together, Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) and From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012).

Gena is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s journal Crossroads. An instructor for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Gena has written courses about social media and Google. She serves as Vice-President for the So. California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, board member of the Utah Genealogical Association and is a Director for the California State Genealogical Alliance.

Her current research interests include social history, community, social history, community cookbooks, signature quilts and researching women’s lives.

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