Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak searches old newspapers to learn about how our ancestors regarded the marriage of cousins. Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.
Most people don’t marry close relations, but sometimes while tracing ancestry you might observe cousins that married close cousins. Being naturally curious about this practice, I decided to look back 100 years or more to see what people thought about married cousins.
What did I find? Most of the answers came from questions posed to advice columnists.
In many places it was against the law for cousins to marry, but not everywhere. Some of the supporting reasons for or against the practice were interesting – and others, somewhat amusing.
Responses to the question: Should Cousins Marry?
In 1907, I found an article written by an eminent, but unnamed, German specialist.
He addressed the theory that marriages between blood relations produced unhealthy children – and concluded that the various laws prohibiting unions between alcoholics, as well as those with tuberculosis and deafness, were more important than laws prohibiting marriage between close cousins.
Mrs. Adams, whose advice column ran across the country in 1910, felt it was not advisable for persons so closely related as first cousins to marry. However, in the end she preferred not to solve the perplexing problem because it was a frequent practice.
In her advice column “Heart and Home Problems,” Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson of the Daily Illinois State Register addressed the concerns of a 17-year-old who was engaged to her much older second cousin, who was 30.
Her opinion was that first cousins should never marry, and that it was not advisable for second cousins to do so either. You may enjoy reading the clip as she also added a tasty recipe to her response.
In 1914, a column titled “Advice to the Lovelorn” addressed the question, “Should Cousins Marry?”
Doris Blake wrote:
“Sometimes the answer is given by the law. In many states the marriage of first cousins is illegal. True, this law may be evaded by having the wedding ceremony performed in another state but there are unpleasant complications about the children…
“The marriage of cousins is less a question of right and wrong than of expedience. The close blood ties is inadvisable, if not dangerous. Such a marriage may turn out all right and – IT MAY NOT! It is taking great chance and my advice is nip sentiment with your cousin in the bud lest it bloom unhappily.”
A complicated story was reported in 1915.
Two cousins had met and married without knowing that they were related. They had the same surname, but hadn’t realized their fathers were brothers because they were estranged. This column noted that the district attorney would let her know the legality of the marriage the next day. I was unable to find the answer to this question, so I’m thinking the couple may have left town or divorced quietly.
From a practical standpoint, one young lady joined a discussion in 1916 and said it was a matter of economics. After all, if two of your cousins marry, you’ll only have to purchase one wedding present whereas you’d otherwise have to buy two!
Wonder if the medical community would give the same advice as Doctor William Brady gave in 1919?
He felt that if there were no hereditary defects in the family, then go ahead. However, if there was alcoholism, epilepsy, insanity or the like, the chance of having defective offspring doubled.
Doctor Brady addressed the question again in 1920. His follow-up response suggested that marrying for love was nonsense as “love is an imaginary state.”
Are there any cousin marriages in your lineage? In my ancestry, I have not found cases of first cousins marrying, but there are a number of old examples of second cousin unions. One bit of lore that came through the family suggested it was acceptable due to religion. Use the comments section below to tell us what you have found about your family.