Back When Being Called a Married Man Could Be an Insult

The strange case of Doctor C.P. Gray, the Madisonville dentist who illegally presented himself as single to young ladies when he was apparently married.
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Throughout the 1890s, the citizens of Madisonville were abuzz with one question: What was Charles P. Gray’s game? Their curiosity led to one of the strangest lawsuits in Cincinnati history.

Williams Cincinnati City Directory (1895), digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

In 1894, Doctor C.P. Gray was around 30 years old, presumably single, abundantly mustachioed, and a prosperous dentist. He was the only dentist practicing in Madisonville, at that time an independent village not yet annexed by the city of Cincinnati. Gray was socially connected through the usual assortment of men’s lodges and an active bicyclist who headed the regional chapter of the League of American Wheelmen.

Gray also paid a lot of visits to a lot of single women, and that got the town gossips’ tongues wagging. At the time, visiting a young lady at her home was usually the prelude to an engagement. The whole concept of dating was unheard of in the 1890s. Young people met one another through chaperoned dances, church picnics, and the like. For private or at least somewhat private conversation, young men paid social calls under family supervision.

Although Gray visited many eligible young women, nothing came of these flirtations. No engagement, no marriage. After some years of speculation, Etta Wood, the wife of train conductor Charles Wood, came up with a hypothesis. Unfortunately for Mrs. Wood, she shared her theory with her Madisonville neighbors, and soon her opinion reached the ears of Doctor Gray. He was decidedly not amused. He contacted his attorney, Colonel Lewis H. Bond, and filed a lawsuit in November 1894 accusing Mrs. Wood of slandering his good name.

Etta Wood claimed, and Gray asserted, that he was a married man with a wife confined to an insane asylum. All this time, she insinuated, the dentist was visiting young women under pretense of bachelorhood when he was nothing of the sort.

By calling him a married man—and this was critical to Gray’s lawsuit—Mrs. Wood had accused him of a crime. Earlier that same year, the Ohio General Assembly had codified a specific law prohibiting married men from presenting themselves as unmarried to any woman. As Judge Daniel Wright explained to The Enquirer [June 15, 1895]:

“Words imputing the basest degree of moral turpitude are not actionable without they occasion special damages, unless they charge a crime.”

In other words, had Mrs. Wood merely called Doctor Gray a lecherous creep indulging in lustful designs upon innocent maidens, he would have no basis to sue. But by specifically declaring that he had violated state law, Mrs. Wood was fair game.

Mrs. Wood, through her attorney, Albert J. Cunningham, filed repeated requests for detailed information about Gray’s social life, including, according to The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [February 17, 1895]:

“…the beginning and ending of the time he was received in the social circles of Cincinnati and of Madisonville as an unmarried man, and when it was he so attended parties, dances and receptions.”

All of this documentation proved that the dentist was, in fact, single and had never married.

Mrs. Wood then asked for the name of every unmarried woman on whom he had paid a social call while presenting himself as an unmarried man; the date, duration and purpose of each of those calls; and the date of marriage of any of the women who may have been married since the doctor’s calls. The Enquirer [February 17, 1895] could barely contain itself:

“Yesterday another motion was filed asking that Doctor Gray be required to amend his amended petition by stating how, when, where, wheresoever, howsoever, whenever and in every other way, by date, time, place, circumstance and detail, all upon his acquaintance and association with the divers and sundry females he says he visited.”

Judge Wright dismissed most of these inquiries but did require Gray to list the names and marital status of each woman he visited. The newspapers gleefully reprinted the list, noting that five of the women were now married.

Because of Mrs. Wood’s interminable requests for more information, the case dragged on into the summer of 1895. With each continuance, the lawsuit attracted more national attention, especially when the attorneys engaged in particularly outrageous courtroom theatrics. The Chicago Chronicle [15 June 1895] was among many newspapers outside Cincinnati that reported on attorney Bond’s bible-thumping:

“The colonel read the experience of Joseph, who refused to leave the paths of good-doing, and said he would back the sacred book and the beautiful story against all the statutes that had been enacted by any legislature. Judge Wright was at a loss to know how the biblical incident applied to the case.”

The newspapers, as was the custom at the time, covered almost every detail except the outcome. It appears that Doctor Gray and Mrs. Wood settled out of court.

Mrs. Wood died in 1903 and left a modest estate to her children. She was a widow at her death, her husband predeceasing her in 1899. Gray eventually married Jessie Cook, a woman at least 20 years younger than him. She died in 1929 at age 42.

In his final years, Doctor Gray resided as a widower at the Masonic Home in Springfield, Ohio. The 1930 Census shows him to be 64, but when he died in 1940 his death certificate and his tombstone had him at 80 years of age, meaning he shaved five or six years off his real age all his life. It’s just one of several mysteries surrounding the litigious dentist.

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