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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.