Looking Back: Early records show many reasons for divorce

July 06, 2004|BRENDA S. EDWARDS

Extreme cruelty was the grounds for divorce in the years before no-fault law was enacted.

"Everybody had to use that phrase to get a divorce," said Lisa Thompson, state genealogist. "That was the standard phase used but laws have been changed on divorce because the language was confusing."

The no-fault law was passed in the 1970s. Now people don't have to prove anything and no one has to be at fault, she said.

Thompson got her first look at divorce documents when she started researching her family history and was surprised at what she learned from her research. Her grandmother divorced during the Great Depression.


"I didn't know I had a stepgrandfather and I didn't know he'd been married before," she said. He was married in the 1940s in Michigan, then married Thompson's grandmother in the 1950s. The divorce papers showed Thompson's stepgrandfather was divorced on grounds of "extreme cruelty."

Thompson reviewed several early divorce cases during a recent meeting of the Boyle County Genealogical Association in Danville.

She said reasons for divorce in earlier times were because of desertion of spouse (a common reason), felony conviction, adultery, cruelty, addicted to bad habits and if a person joined a celibate society like the Shakers.

"We have lots of primary sources," said Thompson, who works at the Kentucky Department of Libraries & Archives research room in Frankfort.

The state archives has records of divorces granted before Kentucky became a state. Besides circuit courts where divorce records are kept now, records can be found in legislative records and other state papers. The state legislature granted people the right to proceed with divorce and in some cases granted the divorce.

Divorce records are in state Senate and House of Representatives journals prior to the 1900s. Some are indexed.

Governor's journals and papers also tell about divorces, especially if a man abandoned his family. The governor would send out notices to bordering states to look for people.

In the beginning years of Kentucky law, a couple had to be separated five years before they could divorce. In some cases, they had to be divorced two years before they could remarry.

A July 1793 edition of the Kentucky Gazette showed that a Scott County couple petitioned the legislature to separate them as man and wife. The couple said they were "unhappy when they joined in wedlock and had lived in perpetual misery." The state House referred the case to the Committee of Religion. Thompson never found out what actually happened.

Divorces can tell you a lot about early Kentucky

Divorces can tell you a lot about early Kentucky, said Thompson. President Andrew Jackson married Rachel Robards in the late 1700s before she was divorced. They thought the state legislature had approved the divorce, but it had not. After the divorce was granted, the Jacksons married again in 1793.

Records also show who owned property and sometimes who inherited the land when they came to Kentucky.

The state provided support for the wife and child in 1811. In 1912 a law was adopted stating if a spouse left, a woman could consider herself divorced and could marry within a year. She could also have her maiden name restored.

It was in 1850 that the state legislature passed the divorces to the circuit courts which had sole responsibility to grant divorces, said Thompson. Before then the records were kept by the state legislature.

Thompson said many divorce records can be found in the state archives. Researchers can find out details about a family, such as when they came to Kentucky and where from.

Thompson said the state archives have an index of divorces in 19 counties. Copies are $6 each.

She said that when looking for an early index, the wording is different. She said if a person's name cannot be found, look under the index to general laws; acts of benefit that will enable a woman to get a divorce; index to local matters; local and private acts and general laws.

Reasons used for divorce in 1870s were abandonment, drunkenness, adultery, and lewd and lascivious behavior. Now all a couple has to do is file papers without giving a reason, and in some cases, the divorce is granted within a few months.

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