Divorce Records in Newspapers: Genealogy Research Tips

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott describes how divorce announcements in old newspapers helped him fill in his family tree.

Early on in my work as a genealogist I made the decision to subscribe to GenealogyBank.com to see what they might have in their online Historical Newspaper Archives that could help me with my family history research. I subscribed as a member well over four years ago now and it is still one of the genealogy databases I use most often for my research, and continually tops my annual review of my best genealogy investments. The wide range and the natural diversity of what those newspapers report often hold significant clues to helping me break down my genealogy brick walls.

While all of the marriage and wedding newspaper articles are of course helpful in tracing my family lines, so are the news articles that cover the other end of the spectrum: divorce notices and court proceedings.

It seems that today there is a lot of talk about the prevalence of divorce in our modern society, and that this is a recent development. However, when we look at a few historical newspaper articles we can see that divorce is not a new phenomenon at all—it has been the situation for some time.

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Old News Shows Divorce Isn’t New

As I began my genealogy research on this topic one of my first discoveries was an 1890 Ohio newspaper article that began with these lines:

Never before in the history of the state courts in this county has the divorce branch of the court been so busy. It must be that the tie binding the marriage relation to society is growing more and more frail.

Sounds like a comment that might be made today—but it was another line in the article’s headline that really captured my attention. It said: “Mrs. Vicha, Who Had a Husband Living.” Mrs. Vicha is on my family tree; it seems a couple of my own ancestors were adding to this growing trend of divorce, but I will talk more about this a bit later.

More and More Divorce Cases Begun and Decrees Granted, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 October 1890

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 October 1890, page 6

Three years later, this 1893 article lamented: “The divorce business is on the increase in the Cuyahoga county courts, new cases being filed faster than the old ones are disposed of.”

Divorce Grind, Plain Dealer newspaper article 20 May 1893

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

A few years later, this 1905 Georgia newspaper published an article titled “Record Breaking Divorce Session. Thirty Divorce Suits Acted Upon in Three Hours Time Yesterday by Superior Court.” As you might expect this was not welcome news, and the article included the following statement: “It would seem as if there was a divorce epidemic in the city.”

Record Breaking Divorce Session, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 29 October 1905

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 29 October 1905, page 6

Ten years later, a 1915 Washington newspaper published this article headlined “Olympia’s Divorce Record. During Year [There] Has Been One Divorce For Every Four Marriages in Thurston County.” One of the items of note in this article is the final sentence which reads:

But for each divorce granted it is estimated that the average will run close to one minor child left without the double protection of both parents, showing that divorce is responsible in a way for the rapidly increasing populations of children’s homes.

Olympia's Divorce Record, Olympia Daily Recorder newspaper article 27 December 1915

Olympia Daily Recorder (Olympia, Washington), 27 December 1915, page 1

I make this introduction to illustrate the fact that divorce has been fairly common for generations and as such we, as genealogists, need to be aware of that and always on the lookout for it as a possibility in our family trees. Plus, oftentimes you can find some very good information from a divorce proceeding that has been reported in the newspaper.

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A Double Marriage, Divorce & Attempted Murder

Let me go back to the case of Mrs. Vicha mentioned above, who apparently was not exactly single at the time she married Mr. Vicha. He was one of my ancestors, Frantisek (later Frank) Vicha. The Mrs. in the case was Katie Slamsidlova. Reading this historic news article whet my genealogy appetite to take a look and see whether I might find a reported prior marriage for Katie. The divorce article reported that Frank testified: “He solemnly avers that when he married Mrs. Vicha she already had a husband whose name was Krejci.”

It didn’t take long before I was able to find out that, while Katie married my ancestor Frank Vicha in 1883, in 1877 she had also married a Frank. The only problem was the first Frank had the surname of Krejci. So it would appear that Frank Vicha’s testimony in the divorce case had been correct, at least as far as Katie’s prior marriage. However there was another small matter I discovered in that 1890 newspaper article. It was this line: “Again Vicha says that after the marriage his wife favored another man and gave birth to a child whom he disowned, but which is now dead.”

This time the records said something quite different. Yes, there was a child, born in 1885, and it was a boy with the given name of Charles. The birth record lists Katherine Slamsidlova Vicha and Frank Vicha as parents. Oh, and this child happened to live to 1971. To add to the mysterious ways of this case, I also found that in 1917 Frank applied for a military pension based on his service fighting the Northern Cheyenne during the “Indian Wars” and listed Charles as one of his sons. To add one more oddity, Katherine continued to live with members of the extended Vicha family and continued to use the Vicha surname up to and including it being on her death record.

I don’t want to forget to add one more item of interest. I found this 1895 article that contained this line:

Frank Vicha is on trial in the criminal court for attempting to shoot his divorced wife, Kate Slamincha [sic].

article about Frank Vicha's trial for attempted murder, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 December 1895

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 December 1895, page 5

Great-Grandpa Vicha

Here is another example of learning family history from divorce proceedings reported in newspapers. In the earliest days of my genealogy work I was understandably pleased when I came across this 1887 article that was simply titled “Licensed to Marry.” This article reported that a marriage license was issued at the Probate Court Office the day before for Joseph K. Vicha and Anna Knechtl. Joseph and Anna are my maternal great-grandparents.

marriage license announcement for Joseph Vicha and Anna Knechtl, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 29 April 1887

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 April 1887, page 5

Unfortunately, according to family lore, this marriage ended in divorce—but as can often happen, this unfortunate fact provided me with continued good information for my genealogy.

This great grandfather of mine is my “brick wall.” He disappeared from any United States Census after 1900 and his last listing in the City Directories of Cleveland is in 1907. It wasn’t until I discovered the divorce proceedings in the archives of the Court of Common Pleas for Cuyahoga County, Ohio, that I learned a divorce had been granted to my great grandmother Anna on 22 June 1911 “after an absence of 3 years” by Joseph. These files, as you can see from the excerpt included here, have many details of interest to a genealogist.

photo of the divorce record for Anna Knechtl and Joseph K. Vicha

Photo: divorce record for Anna Knechtl and Joseph K. Vicha. Credit: Scott Phillips.

To add an interesting twist, this divorce proceeding was after Joseph had quitclaimed his half-interest in the family home to his wife for only $1, according to the online records of the Recorders Office for Cuyahoga County.

I was about to call it a day when I made one more discovery: an article from a 1901 Ohio newspaper. Listed under “New Cases” for the Cleveland courts was this: “76192 – D. H. Tolman vs. J. K. Vicha. Appeal.”

article about a court case involving Joseph Vicha and D. H. Tolman, Plain Dealer newspaper article 19 October 1901

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 October 1901, page 9

This simple listing rang two bells in my memory. The first memory was from an old Ohio history book I had read that had mentioned the name of D. H. Tolman in very negative terms.

This was borne out when I read an article from a 1913 Georgia newspaper that began with this sentence: “Daniel H. Tolman, ‘King of the Loan Sharks,’ must serve six months in the penitentiary for usury.”

article about D. H. Tolman being sentenced for loan sharking, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 30 November 1913

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 30 November 1913, section: Holiday Number, page 9

The second memory was of my mother’s voice telling me a story long ago of her missing grandfather. She had asked her Uncle Ed why he never went looking for his father, Joseph Vicha. His response to my mother was: “Why would I? What if I found him and he owed someone a lot of money?” I wonder if Uncle Ed knew something he wasn’t telling?

So don’t keep secrets!

I’d enjoy reading any comments you have about what genealogy information and clues you have found from old divorce records in newspapers.

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Genealogist Chips Away at His Family History ‘Brick Wall’

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells how the discovery of a faded news clipping in the drawer of an old desk provided an important clue about his family history.

The most impenetrable brick wall in my personal genealogy quest began as, and continues to be, my maternal great grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha.

When I was starting my genealogy the sum total of our family’s knowledge about my great grandfather Vicha was his name, his wife’s name (Anna Knechtl), and a penciled note of unknown date and author that simply stated “Joseph K. Vicha – Pisec (sic).” Nothing more.

Over the years of my searching, I can happily report that I have been successful in finding my great grandfather’s birth family, home village in Bohemia (Czech Republic now) of Milevsko, and have traced this family line back to the mid-1600s in Bohemia. However, he still disappears from view in 1911. But what wonderful things I am finding in the years between his birth in 1862 and his disappearance in 1911!

What I am discovering to be an extraordinarily useful method in my work is to expand the search terms I am using in GenealogyBank.com and other places.

A couple of examples might help me explain this best.

Quite by chance, my cousin was rummaging through an old family desk when he came across an envelope. It held a barely legible, torn, and undated newspaper clipping. This article showed me that my great grandfather was a labor union activist with something called the C.L.U. in Cleveland, Ohio.

old, faded newspaper clipping about J. K. Vicha, the author's ancestor

Old, faded newspaper clipping that provided the author his first clue in tracing his ancestor J. K. Vicha

Upon learning this I immediately started searching anew on GenalogyBank.com. I searched using terms such as C.L.U., Central Labor Union, and Joseph K. Vicha in the search boxes and I struck gold!

My first hit was an article from the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, dated 28 November 1896 and headlined “Vicha Will Resign. Will Retire From the Presidency of the C.L.U.” I still feel pleased when I think back on that discovery, and am thankful the newspaper articles in GenealogyBank.com are very carefully digitized and come complete with attribution of newspaper and date.

Vicha Will Resign, Plain Dealer newspaper clipping 28 November 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 November 1896, page 2

This early article held the new clue that my great grandfather was seeking an appointment from Ohio’s governor, Asa S. Bushnell, to become the superintendent of the Free Employment Bureau. On I went with new searches looking into the Free Employment Bureau in Cleveland and sure enough there was more to be learned! Soon I was discovering that my great grandfather was also a close political advisor to Robert E. McKisson, a two-term mayor of the City of Cleveland from 1895 to 1898.

Mayor McKisson Had His Picture Taken at a Bohemian Reunion, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 June 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 June 1898, page 5

I was fast learning to follow each seemingly unrelated, but actually related, clue in article after article. For instance, moving from Vicha I found myself searching on Central Labor Union, then moving to C.L.U., Mayor Robert McKisson, Labor Unrest, Cloakmakers’ Strike, Lumbermen’s Strike, Czech, Bohemian, and the name of each company where my great grandfather was reported to have been working. One especially nice aspect of GenealogyBank.com is that it not only contains papers from the major Cleveland daily, the Plain Dealer, but it also has issues from the Cleveland Gazette and the Cleveland Leader.

Real Condition Given by Superintendent Vicha of the Cleveland Free Employment Office, Cleveland Gazette newspaper article 15 December 1900

Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 December 1900, page 1

While searching each new term, it was exciting to find that while my great grandfather did start out as a tailor just like his father, he:

  • became a Union organizer
  • was active in some of the most contentious labor strikes in the history of Cleveland
  • was elected the president of the Central Labor Union
  • received a gubernatorial appointment as the superintendent of the State of Ohio Free Employment Bureau in Cleveland
  • fought against sweatshops and child labor in Cleveland
  • authored a bill for the Ohio State Legislature to provide for the teaching of Bohemian (Czech) in the public schools
  • worked as a political advisor to Mayor McKisson
  • was instrumental in the mayor’s campaigning in the Bohemian community of Cleveland
  • and, while making some of the most powerful enemies one could have (such as Mark Hanna, Max Hayes, and United States President William McKinley), great grandfather Vicha was also recognized as one of the most influential Bohemians in Cleveland at that time

Unfortunately, my great grandfather does simply disappear in 1911. Family legend has it that he was branded “persona non grata” by his political and business-community enemies in Cleveland and was forced to leave in order to find work and survive.

Undeterred, I am continuing my hunt—chipping away at the brick wall that is Joseph K. Vicha after 1911. I just have this feeling that the resources of GenealogyBank.com are going to hold the key for me!