“Gretna Greens” of Indiana
As each state established marital laws, the majority of states had requirements for marriage that included limitations like waiting periods, blood tests, age limits, parental permission, verified witnesses, certified officiants, and a variety of other regulations meant to keep the marriage process genuinely intentional and legal. Various exceptions to these stringent laws sprang up across the country at different times and for different reasons. These limitations put a damper on the couples who wanted to elope for whatever reason. Offering “quickie” marriages became something of a cottage industry where the waiting periods were shorter or non-existent. We are likely all familiar with Las Vegas, Nevada, and its modern-day status as a marriage hot spot. Other historic “Gretna Green” destinations were Yuma, Arizona, and Elkton, Maryland. But before all of those places earned elopement destination status, there was a whole state of Gretna Greens in…Indiana.
“What’s a Gretna Green?” you may ask. The original Gretna Green was a small Scottish village just across the border from England. In 1754, Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was enacted in England and Wales. It decreed that marriage was to be restricted to people over age 21 (unless there was parental consent), raising the age from 16. The logic behind this decree was primarily to curtail cases of seduction, bigamy, and fraud, and to manage wayward romances that were ill-intended or predatory. However, the age of 21 was seen to be far too old for many couples. For those seeking a marriage, one option they had was just across the border in Scotland. Scottish laws were much more lenient, allowing girls as young as 12 and boys as young as 14 to marry in a simple handfasting ceremony, requiring only two witnesses. In Gretna Green, the blacksmith was a popular option for conducting marriages since they were located at the center of the village where five main roads converged. The blacksmiths were called on so frequently that they became known as “anvil-priests.” Tollbooth attendants were also known to have performed ceremonies as well. The whole idea of “running off to Gretna Green” soon was applied to any quick elopement destination, even on this side of the pond.
As early as the 1870s, Indiana was becoming a destination for folks itching for nuptial commitments without delay. There was no waiting period, but there was an age limit of 18 for women, 21 for men without parental consent, and 16 and 18, respectively, with consent. The officiants were known as magistrates or marriage squires although they were required to be judges, justices of the peace, or certain types of Christian clergy. Once the influx of people looking for marriages became noticeable, some of the businessmen in Indiana border towns saw an opportunity just waiting to be fostered. The primary destination towns were Jeffersonville, across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky; Lawrenceburg, across the Ohio River close to Cincinnati, Ohio; and Crown Point, just across the state line from Chicago, Illinois. Marriage parlors and salons were established and aimed to create a “one stop shop” for the eloping couples. They could get the license, the rings, the flowers, clothing, the exchange of vows, and sometimes a dressing room or a room for the wedding night all at the same place.
Since it became a booming business, the different parlors had stiff competition to face. Unique assistants to the magistrates were hired to essentially hustle brides and grooms into their particular parlor. These folks were called runners, touts, steerers, and occasionally “bride grabbers,” with the intent being to out-hustle the other runners from the competition. Runners also often served as spur of the moment witnesses to young couples, attesting to ages of people they had just met. There were even people known as “pluggers” who were usually women riding the ferries or trains, trying to find potential brides who could be swayed toward an establishment by “word of mouth” type hinting. These “assistants” to the magistrates would hang out at the ferry dock, the train station, and the courthouse trying to intercept people before they could make their decision about another wedding parlor.
Starting around 1900, attempts were made to reign in the practices of the marriage squires, but laws were often ignored. Runners were barred from acting as witnesses, but that law was also largely ignored. Other ordinances affected local practices, but many exceptions were lifted by 1908, and the Gretna Greens were back in full swing again. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that wedding services took a steep decline like most other businesses. Some magistrates decided to team up together, working in shifts from a single location. This consolidation saved them money on the rent and personnel expenses, because they no longer needed a staff of runners or pluggers since there was just one place to go. They also got much needed respite from the 24 hour, 7 days a week demand.
Elopement destinations saw a renewed uptick in business in 1941 when the United States entered World War II. The urgency to get married before shipping off to war was driven by various reasons, but when the threat of a sudden separation between a soldier and his girl became so very real, a popular solution was marriage. This uptick was also noted in Elkton, Maryland and Yuma, Arizona.
Some notable famous marriages that took place in Indiana Gretna Greens were those of silent film star Rudolph Valentino and designer Natacha Rambova (1923), popular boxer Kingfish Levinsky and fan dancer Roxana Sand (1934), and starlet Jane Wyman and actor Ronald Reagan (1940).
The Gretna Green status of Indiana began its demise in 1938 when the state supreme court upheld a residency statute from 1852, requiring at least 30 days of residency status. In 1940, blood tests were required to ensure neither party had syphilis, essentially enforcing a waiting period until results for those tests were produced. In 1958, the legislature passed a bill that enacted a 3-day waiting period. The World War II marriage boom was over by then, and other elopement destinations were available, although still farther flung to the east and west. Las Vegas took the crown as the primary place for “quickie” marriages after Indiana changed its laws.
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Tying the Knot and the Records it Entails
The term “marriage record” is an umbrella term which encompasses numerous types of religious and civil records and were normally the first type of vital records recorded in a geographic area. A marriage record can entail so much more than simply the names, location and date of the union. The religious and civil records not only tell an important part of the family history narrative, they also can reveal details about our ancestors which cannot be found in other records. It is important to understand why specific types of marriage records were created to get the most out of them.
Annulment - Retroactive invalidation of marriage, which can be legal or religious in nature.Typically found in church or court records.
Application - The bride and groom applied to a civil authority for permission to marry. Requirements differed by state and time period, but there was generally a waiting period after applying that may have also included the necessity for a medical examination or blood test.
Banns - Announcement of intent to marry to see if any parties objected to the union, such as prior marriage or intention, close familial relationship, etc. Banns were normally to fulfill mandates by a religious entity. The announcements themselves usually occurred three times at specific intervals prior to marriage.
Bond - Usually posted by a family member of the bride, showing that a couple intended to marry. The bond amount reflected the amount of money that a groom would be forced to pay if the marriage did not occur. Bonds were most common in the Southern United States and were posted in the county where the bride resided.
Consent Affidavit - Consent provided by a parent or legal guardian of an underage bride or groom. The age of majority differed by time period and location. These records were sometimes held with other marriage records or within other court records.
Contract - A legal engagement agreement, which was entered into by wealthy parties. If either party was found to be in breach of contract, the matter could be settled by the courts.
Divorce Decree - Legal dissolution of a marriage granted by a court.
Divorce Petition - Legal documents which might include affidavits by the spouses involved, as well as their family or friends.
Intention - Normally posted in a public location to show the intent of a couple to marry, allowing for objections by others. Most common prior to the mid-19th century.
Marriage License - Document which showed that a couple had a legal right to marry, normally granted by a county or city authority.
Marriage Return - Proof of marriage returned to the civil authority by clergy or justice of the peace who performed the ceremony.
Marriage Certificate - Normally given to the couple at the time of marriage or after filing by a civil official.
Marriage Register - Line entries for all marriages that were registered in a civil jurisdiction.
Publications - Newspaper announcements and articles regarding engagement or other form of intention, license issue, wedding or anniversary celebration. These announcements can be among the most biographically rich in detail of all marriage records.
The details encompassed in each type of record varied greatly by time period, document type, location and authority who maintained the record. In fact, it can be helpful to seek out multiple types of records for a singular event, as each may have recorded different details. In general, marriage records may include the date and location of marriage, and details about the bride and groom such as full names, ages or birth details, residences, occupations, marital status at the time of license, as well as names of parents and their residences and occupations. In addition, names of witnesses to the marriage, which could also be family members, and the name of the officiant performing the ceremony.
The majority of records are not yet digitized. Have You Included Offline Records in Your Research?
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Melissa August, Time (https://time.com : accessed 4 August 2022), “How One Small Maryland Town Became the Marriage Capital of the East Coast in the Early 20th Century.”
Gretna Green (https://www.gretnagreen.com : accessed 5 August 2022), “Lord Hardwicke 1754 Marriage Act” and “The Famous Blacksmiths Shop.”
Brittany Kropf, Indiana State Library (https://blog.library.in.gov : accessed 4 August 2022), “The Marrying Kind; or, the tale of Indiana’s Gretna Greens.”
“Led to the Altar by the Ear” The Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis, Indiana), 24 November 1912, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 5 August 2022), citing print edition, p. 59, col. 1 – 5.
Susan Marg, Las Vegas Weddings: A Brief History, Celebrity Gossip, Everything Elvis, and the Complete Chapel Guide (United States): Harper Collins, 2004, p. 1 - 2; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 4 August 2022).
Doug Towne, Phoenix (https://www.phoenixmag.com : accessed 5 August 2022), “The Best Little Hitchin’ Post in Arizona.”
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Rudolph_Valentino,_ Natacha_Rambova,_1923.jpg : accessed 10 August 2022), digital image, black and white photo, 1923, “File: Rudolf Valentino, Natacha Rambova, 1923;” image uploaded by user Mu.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 24 August 2022), digital image from original original b&w negative, “[Wedding party inside arbor of flowers],” unknown year, Digital ID: cph.3a38388.