Identity of the couple is unknown. Surprisingly, throughout the 1800s it was normal for unmarried, dating couples in America to go for walks, share picnics and carriage rides together without a chaperone. Studies are few and far between, but one done of birth and marriage records in the early 1800s in New England villages found that 1 of 3 women were pregnant on their wedding day. This footbridge appears in a number of photos I have from a single, large collection, taken by the same photographer in Noblesville, Indiana in the 1890s. Other photos include Noblesville residents I can identify, so, being that the whole of the collection appears to have been taken near the heart of Noblesville, this is likely along Cicero Creek, or between the bank and an island on White River. Gravel and dirt on the bridge suggests recent high water.
Napoleon once said, “History is a set of lies, agreed upon.” On the social science side of American history, that can certainly be applied to our beliefs about extramarital sex, divorce, and homosexuality in Victorian era America. We somehow want to believe that our time is depraved, and those folks in the “good ‘ol days” were made of higher moral fiber.
A good example in my novel Noblesville is the true story of Etta Heylmann, which I fictionalized. A wife and mother of two from Tipton county, in 1892 she ran off with another man and presumably got pregnant by him. Her husband divorced her. The man she took up with was quickly arrested in Noblesville on an unknown charge, and she later gave birth to their child alone in her room at a boarding house, having hidden her pregnancy, and then tried to kill the baby by throwing it into an outhouse pit in an alley a half block off the downtown square in Noblesville. That’s quiet a scandal, including divorce, extramarital sex, out of wedlock childbirth, and attempted murder.
Two views of the Etta Heylmann (Partlow) story from mid-July of 1893, one from Noblesville’s Republican paper, the Ledger, and the other from the Noblesville Democrat. By the time the whole story was unraveled it would reveal an extra-marital affair, a child born out of wedlock, divorce, and attempted murder.
The first sociological study of an American small town was conducted in Muncie, Indiana in the 1920s. Called “Middletown,” the study used research about life there in the 1890s as a benchmark to measure change over 3 decades. The report shows that in 1889, Muncie’s divorce rate was 9% and in 1895 had doubled to 18%. While small compared to modern America’s divorce rate, it’s far from “unheard of in those days,” as I was often assured while growing up 8 decades later. In fact, considering that the 1895 number means approximately 1 in 6 marriages ended in divorce, it reveals that everyone in those days knew someone, in fact many people who were divorced. It was far from unheard of.
In the novel Noblesville, I fictionalized Dr. Albert R. Tucker’s family, renaming them the Harrisons. In real life, Dr. Tucker had 3 sons, but in my novel I removed the middle son and replaced him with a daughter named Mary. The actual middle son, Frank, divorced his young wife in 1893, during the very summer fictionalized in the book.
In the mid-1890s this young couple lived at 1164 Cherry Street in Noblesville, Indiana, shown here with a hammock tied between their home and 1148 Cherry. My anecdotal observations are that a majority of divorces in the 1890s were among the newly married. It also seems that couples married longer who just couldn’t go on together tended to avoid divorce, instead moving to separate bedrooms and living separate lives. Hoosier newspapers had a tendency to mock divorcing couples as not being ready for the realities of adulthood and matrimony.
With divorce less acceptable, many unhappy couples took other steps that provided much the same result. Deep in any small Midwestern town lore of the 1890s are stories of married couples who no one had seen speak to one other in years. They were living in the same house, but not exactly living as a married couple. They might have attended the same church, but didn’t walk there together nor share a pew, conducting entirely separate social lives. And even more common were missing husbands and abandoned wives – that lady who lived down the street whose husband hadn’t been seen in many years. So while these types of couples didn’t divorce, they certainly weren’t married in a truly meaningful definition of the word. If we could toss these couples into the mix, what might the “divorced or living separate” rate actually be? I still believe it would be nothing near today’s rate, but something perhaps in excess of Muncie’s 18% in 1895.
Perhaps the most tantalizing hint about the extent of pre-marital sex in that era is revealed by “false-promise lawsuits.” In a false-promise charge against a man, a woman essentially claimed that she “gave over her virtue,” her virginity, to the man because he claimed to love her and had promised to marry her, but didn’t follow through. She would be seeking financial compensation or jail time for the man. These cases were not only scandalous in 1890s Indiana, but also common.
An assortment of my saved clippings from Noblesville, Indiana newspapers in 1893. On the left is the story of a false promise. Interesting that the writer states these cases were not filed often, as I would beg to differ, based simply on what I read in his own newspaper. On the right, two stories of divorce filings, one involving domestic abuse. And it’s worth considering the social intensity of these cases. They were being tried at the courthouse in the center of a small town’s commercial downtown, the place where the community’s social life played out. Life in a fishbowl!
So think this through: In a time when public knowledge of pre-marital sex was deeply scarring to a woman’s reputation, why would a woman come forward and say, “Hey everybody, I had sex with that man.” Even if you were jilted, wouldn’t it be wiser to just keep your mouth shut and suffer in silence? Yes! So my personal theory is that false-promise lawsuits were the only option for jilted women whose pre-marital sex had already become an item of gossip, and so the only way to reclaim a small measure of their dignity and honor. And my guess is that most women in this situation did simply remain silent, making the false-promise lawsuit the tip of the premarital sex iceberg.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, physical attraction and sexual urges weren’t invented in the 20th century. Just because a society didn’t talk about something, doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening.
Which is also true of homosexuality. A story line I almost used in the novel Noblesville, but didn’t, was that of Charlie Quear (I am not making that name up for cruel affect. That was actually his name – and note the spelling is different than the old unkind slang term for gays, but pronounced the same.) In the summer of 1893, Charlie Quear committed suicide in Noblesville, Indiana by swallowing a bottle of bed bug poison – a powder meant to be sprinkled in bed linens. As he was dying, Charlie explained to friends that he was in trouble with someone in town and he’d rather die than deal with it. I shared this story with a local historian and he sent me a newspaper article from 9 months before his suicide, reporting that Charlie Quear, then 17 years old, was arrested on Noblesville’s courthouse square dressed as a woman. Charlie explained to police that he was fond of another boy and was trying to make himself attractive to him.
The same historian also shared with me another newspaper clipping about lesbian lovers in 1890s Noblesville. The relationship was unnerving to their families and like Charlie’s story, it went public. In this era, homosexuality was seen as a mental illness.
Below: Death, the cost of sexual repression: The headlines on a single newspaper reveal the truth about sex, divorce, and LGBT in the 1890s. Yes there were gay people and yes, people did have extramarital sex and divorce one another, but the very sexual repression that led later generations to tell us that such things didn’t happen back then, also made a young gay boy feel like being dead in that culture was better than being alive in it, and made a young unfaithful mother think she better hide her pregnancy and kill her baby, rather than suffer the social death that no doubt awaited her if the truth were known. The chilling headline: “Charlie Quear . . . shuffles off life’s mortal coil.”
In my novel, Noblesville, I fictionalized 2 other real-life “sex crimes,” but described both as accurately as I could from historical accounts; Senator Thomas Boyd’s (renamed Swain in the novel) trial on charges of “Bastardy” –fathering a child out of wedlock, and the story of Warren Brattain (name changed to Beeman in the book) charged with “Fornication” for having an affair with his African-American house keeper. Both events actually took place in Noblesville, Indiana in the summer of 1893.