Divorce has affected many generations in my family. Some occurred during years when it was rare for divorce; others in accelerating divorce rate eras. Regardless, any such move was always a source of great gossip about the parties involved. In the late 1800s the United States began to see an amplification of divorces during the women’s movement. A group of conventional religious men wanted strict laws to fight this rising issue; they were known as the National Divorce Reform League.
It is interesting to note that in 1890 only 5000 divorces were granted whereas less than a century later 1,000,000 were granted. Divorce bore a stigma within the society of the late 1800s, even though women were entering the workforce in increasing numbers, primarily as domestic servants. Women’s suffrage also was bringing to women the right to control their monies, to increasingly own their property, and to be granted custody of their own children in oft heated battles. By 1896 women could vote in four states. Times were changing.
This all sounds like the creation of great change in a short period. However, in looking at my own family’s ancestry, I found the story of the Durhams and the plight of unwanted and unexpected divorce petitioning in times of many children and almost no monies. This brings a stark reality to divorce in rural Kentucky and Missouri in 1883. Following is the story of John Coleman Durham and his two wives:
“Kentucky Jim” Durham and Jane Coleman Durham, cousins, married. James moved to Missouri to be near his father several times, but kept returning to Kentucky. Jane became married to Kentucky Jim and must have been in Missouri with him because their son John Coleman Durham was born in Missouri. Don’t know why Kentucky Jim didn’t want to stay in Missouri, but Kentucky drew him home time and time again.
John Coleman Durham, son of Kentucky Jim; John married Rachel Black on August 5, 1869. By 1883 they had 5 children. Rachel was born with a birth defect, a club foot. We do not know which foot or how badly turned in this foot was. She was able to walk and to travel, and travel she did – to court to defend herself against her husband’s filing for divorce! Divorce was uncommon in the late 1800’s and would quickly be the topic of a great deal of gossip.
John was a school teacher who had five living children with his wife Rachel in Kentucky. His eyes strayed all the way to Missouri. They became focused upon his first cousin, Martha Washington Durham, whom he met while teaching in Missouri. John was much older than Martha who was born the same year that John married his first wife Rachel in 1869. Sometime around 1893 John filed for divorce against Rachel and he alleged that she was unfaithful, but nothing about his own wandering eye for Martha.
Back home in Kentucky, Rachel got notified of the divorce and the court date…in Missouri. To fund her trip to Missouri, she sold her cow for train fare. She also gathered letters attesting to her good conduct from the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. Having no luggage, she packed her clothes, letters, and necessities, placing them in a flour sack for the trip. From the sale of the cow, she received enough money for the trip to Missouri and the trip back, and it was her intention to bring her straying husband back to Kentucky on that return trip. She was extremely gutsy to say the least. With her limited funds, she did not have the monies needed for a room at an inn or for transportation or even food while in Missouri. John knew she was arriving, but he did not come to the train station to meet her. A minister who happened to be at the station helped Rachel by providing shelter and transportation to the courthouse.
John, who had failed to come to the station, also failed to come to the courthouse! No information is known as to when John got his divorce, but, he has six children with Martha without marriage but finally did marry her in 1913. Rachel did not die until 1918. John died 13 years after he officially married Martha.
Rachel showed extreme courage in her trip to Missouri. Traveling alone, hard. Traveling with a club foot, likely hard. Traveling with no funds, hard. John abandoning her completely, hard.
When she returned to Casey County, Kentucky, she did get her cow back though. That is a good thing. The milk cow was either bought by her brother Andrew Black or retrieved in some way by him, and returned to her and the children.
And life goes on….and today there are high divorce rates in America.