It’s good to get divorced

The New York Times, 12 June 1942. Click on the image to read the article.

As those who have applied to hereditary societies may already know, several groups have a policy of requiring every birth, marriage, and death certificate for the most recent three generations of the lineage, with like information for their spouses. While this may not be difficult for everyone, some may not not know where all of these events occurred, especially for the generation of their grandparents. Legal access to these records varies from state to state, and not every state has readily available indices to such records. The following is an interesting example of utilizing records when your ancestors eloped.

In this case, my friend’s wife was applying to the Mayflower Society and trying to locate the marriage of her father’s parents (both of whom are deceased, as is her father). The announcement at left appeared in The New York Times on 12 June 1942 announcing a marriage that had occurred on 23 March 1942. No indication of the place of marriage is given, and no formal announcement of the couple’s engagement had appeared before this notice. The bride was a resident of New York City, and no record of their marriage was found there, nor back in the groom’s native Ohio. Where they got married appeared to be a mystery, and no one alive in the family knew either.

There are several twentieth century marriage indices online for various states, but not every state is available and searchable. While my recent post discussed indices for New York City and New York State made available on through the efforts of “Reclaim the Records,” this covered marriages in New York City until 1995, but New York State only until 1936.

Sometimes college alumni books may list a person’s place of marriage, but not always. At this point, it seemed like the applicant trying to find her grandparent’s marriage was at a dead end, and the recommendation was to fill in the lineage application citing this marriage announcement with the notation that no actual record was found.

I recommended to the applicant she call the Summit County Clerk of Courts and request a copy of the divorce record…

However, one remaining thought entered my mind. This couple got divorced! Betty married again in 1978, and the marriage certificate indicated that her marriage to Robert Saalfield ended in divorce in Summit County, Ohio on 11 July 1974; it even provided the decree date. I recommended to the applicant she call the Summit County Clerk of Courts and request a copy of the divorce record, on the chance that this would list the Saalfields’ actual date and place of marriage.

Now, I should also point out that access to divorce records, especially for (say) grandchildren, is not always available depending on the laws of the state. I had mentioned in a past post that my great-great-grandparents divorced in 1913 in Pennsylvania (I know the date based on my great-great-grandmother’s second marriage), yet I was told by the court there that I actually needed to hire an attorney to unseal this divorce record, despite the fact that they are dead, their children are dead, and all of their grandchildren are dead!

However, in the case of Ohio there was no such legal barrier. The applicant got a quick response back and got the entire record of divorce. The most useful piece of information, of course, was the following:

Goshen, New York is about 60 miles north of Manhattan. There is no publicly available index for the state of New York at this time, and without knowing this was where the couple married, getting this record might have been difficult. But thanks to their divorce, here it is:

I should also point out that the actual date of marriage is 23 May, not 23 March as the New York Times marriage announcement had claimed. You can imagine for yourself why this change might have occurred.

Finding out the place of marriage when a couple elopes can be difficult, but if that is the case, it’s good they got divorced!

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

9 thoughts on “It’s good to get divorced

  1. Oddly I had the same problem. I had no record of my parents’ marriage which took place in 1945 in the Philippines while they were both on active duty in the U.S. Army. However the record of their divorce in Los Angeles was very accessible and worked just fine.

  2. I live in one of the few places in New York state where they have open marriage indices from the 1880s to about 1965. In fact I am going to the Rochester New York library to get some marriage and birth information for one of my relatives today.

  3. I tried to get the records for my father’s divorce in the Bronx in 1931, but they are sealed for 100 years to everyone except the parties and the lawyer. When I asked why, I was told there was information that could be used for fraud, like social security numbers, which didn’t even exist at the time. Since this was more than 85 years ago, everyone involved has been dead for a long time. What will it take to get this changed?

  4. Your interesting post is a prime example of why every record, including official death certs, must be taken with a grain of salt and supported with as many other records as possible. We just can’t believe what we read without as much evidence as possible.

    The situation you describe happened to a friend of mine. Her children were planning a big silver wedding anniversary party for her and her husband. The problem was that the date was wrong. My friend was expecting a baby when married. Her mother was mortified and told the whole town that her daughter had married months before the actual date. As my friend was far away in college, no one was the wiser. My friend never could bring herself to tell her children til the silver anniversary party came up. They told their children at last and everyone managed to survive. My friend shared the story with our class at a reunion. Times have indeed changed.

  5. When a friend applied to the Mayflower Society, she spent years tracking down the various records necessary EXCEPT for proof of one marriage for ancestors who’d been dead for something like 150 years. Oddly, the Society wasn’t obsessed with the actual date or place of the marriage, only “reasonable evidence” that they, in fact, had legally wed at some point. As my friend wasn’t a newbie genie, over the course of 40+ years research before she had any idea she might be a Mayflower descendant, she’d already gathered many records and such pertaining to this couple’s life together, including several accounts that showed the community they lived had always regarded them as legally married. Although she never did find an actual marriage record, this thick file of alternative evidence was enough for the Application committee, and she was finally approved for membership.

    On a slightly different note, I have one set of gr-grandparents who were married at a (now Weat) Virginia courthouse that was burned to the ground during the Civil War. I’d always worried that I’d never be able to locate proof of their marriage until a 4th cousin came across a packet of letters in the attic of the ancestral home on a farm in Pennsylvania. In the packet was a letter from my ggm to the brother who’d inherited the farm, the first sentence of stated “today is our 50th anniversary” and the day, month and year attests that it was, in fact, written on her and Great-grandpa’s 50th wedding anniversary. Although I don’t have the original letter, the Xeroxed copy I do have is in my “important documents”.

  6. About 16-17 years ago I helped enter marriage records for the Howard County Historical Society. The vast majority of marriages were performed by Ellicott City ministers who met incoming trains from Baltimore, Maryland. Quite a few were out of state and it seemed like I was cataloguing the East Coast’s Gretna Green.

    The website states: The Howard County Historical Society collection contains over 38,000 ministers’ returns of marriage licenses, unused returned marriage license applications, and courthouse ledgers of marriages performed in Howard County, Maryland, between 1860 and 1939. There was no waiting period in Howard County and over 90 percent of the marriages were of out-of-county couples.

    In addition to what is displayed on the index, a license sometimes contains state/country of birth, race, previous marriage status, occupations, name and title of minister, town of marriage, and consenting parents if the groom was under age 21 or the bride was under age 18.

    The database is worth a look at

  7. This is great information. At the present time, I have no desire to join any of the “big name” lineage societies, but I had been concerned that if I ever wanted to, I might run into a road block pretty quickly. I can find no official record of my paternal grandparents’ marriage, and suspect that they used a California confidential license, since they were (in actuality) “living together.” Their parents were good friends, and so when my grandmother started law school at UC Berkeley, she boarded with my grandfather’s family…and that’s how they ended up courting and then getting married. There are any number of newspaper announcements of their engagement and marriage, however, so I guess I’m good to go if I decide to apply someday. FYI, their first child was born nearly 4 1/2 years after their marriage, so no need for them to have fudged any details in their public announcements!

  8. My older half sister and I are DAR eligible through our father, with proof via a letter from the pension office, and our gggg grandfather’s pension file. She knows the date her mother married our father from a newspaper article, and I’ve got my parents’ marriage certificate. But while she has stories about when her mother and father were divorced, she was so young that she doesn’t remember the event, and everyone involved is dead, including all our parents and their siblings. Newspapers finally pinned the divorce down to the month and year, though without a precise date. The newspaper listed divorces every few weeks in a “clump” so we know that within a month after my sister was born, her mother filed for divorce. Yet three years later, the family of three were listed together in the census. A year and a half later, the newspaper, in another “clump” of divorces, listed her parents under the “divorces granted” column. So we still don’t have specific dates, but we now know approximately when her parents were divorced. My parents met the following year, something we knew, but weren’t sure of in relation to the divorce from his first wife before this newspaper verification. Were either of us to want to join a heritage society, would these records be sufficient, even though the divorce records, from the early 1940s, aren’t entirely specific? As next of kin, is she eligible to get a copy of the divorce record from that date?

  9. I had the exact same problem–nobody knew where my grandparents were married. I was able to get their California divorce from 1957 but the papers sent did not say anything about when the marriage had taken place. My grandmother is a Zabriskie descendant and the compiled genealogy says she was married in March 1930, but she was single in Albuquerque in the 1930 census. Also I had heard that my aunt was already on the way so I suspected it was really March 1931 and she moved the date back. Just recently Ancestry added Arizona marriages and there it was–my grandfather was a resident of Los Angeles, my grandmother of Albuquerque, and they met in the middle, getting married 30 Mar 1931 in Kingman, Arizona. So now I can complete my Mayflower application.

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