Marriage Touts Ensnared Couples Eloping to Northern Kentucky

A lucrative multi-level marriage industry sprung up in Covington and Newport in the late 1800s, lasting until laws were changed in 1950.

How many couples eloped to Northern Kentucky? Enough that a whole industry grew up to profit from their romance.

You don’t hear much about “marriage touts” these days, but for 50 years they were persistent and inescapable pests in Covington and Newport. In the latter half of the 1800s, Ohio tightened its marriage laws and Kentucky became far more attractive as a wedding venue. Once they crossed the river, young lovers could apply for a marriage license, procure the document, locate a magistrate or minister, have their union blessed, and be back across the bridge in an hour or two.

Marriage touts could recognize eloping couples as soon as they alighted from the streetcar with the “love glow radiating from their eyes” and, for a fee, directed them to the tout’s favored officiant.

The Cincinnati Post (1909), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Greasing the wheels of this marital machinery was the marriage tout. Hanging about the Kentucky side of Cincinnati’s bridges, this person directed prospective brides and grooms to the license office and then to the officiant of their choice. Sometimes the tout charged the groom, sometimes he got his tips from the minister or justice of the peace, and sometimes he got paid by both. According to The Cincinnati Post [April 7, 1908]:

“The professional tout has been the bane of Newport’s life for many years. His system was simple. Whenever a couple with the love glow radiating from their eyes walked off a [street]car and began to whisper mushily together the marriage tout would glide from behind a tree and grab them. Then it was all off. The tout would shove a preacher’s card into the hands of the seekers after domestic bliss and lead them gently but firmly toward the preacher who splits up his fee.”

In addition to simply directing out-of-towners to the appropriate offices, the marriage tout offered legal advice whether it was needed or not. For instance, the tout might suggest that the County Clerk would not issue a license to a bride younger than 21 (this was not true) and that the 19-year-old bride should swear to being 22 instead. For such “assistance,” the tout expected a tip.

With all these tips and gratuities floating around, a certain amount of resentment accumulated. The city magistrates objected to marriage touts getting paid for providing directions and counsel. The ministers who did not pay touts objected to their brethren of the cloth who did. Justices of the peace objected to touts sending business to the ministers.

Northern Kentucky’s lax marriage laws drew thousands of eloping couples to Covington and Newport, whose unfamiliar bureaucracies spawned a thriving industry of “marriage touts.”

The Cincinnati Post (1908), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Newport considered creating its own marriage information bureau in 1908 and hiring touts as city employees. The obvious opportunities for graft and corruption caused even Newport to blush with shame, and that idea was scuttled.

A Newport pastor, Rev. Joseph Chapman of the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Southgate House Revival), asked the Cincinnati Ministerial Association to condemn ministers who employed touts to drive up their marriage business. Apparently Rev. Chapman’s ire was enflamed when he learned that a couple asking for his address was told he wasn’t at home and to go to a Covington minister instead. He told The Post [August 26, 1908]:

“The minister who has a tout in his employ disgraces his calling. He should be ostracized. The tout is so low in morals he does not degrade himself.”

The marriage touts had their own troubles with Cincinnati cab drivers. Eloping couples taking the streetcar were easy pickings for touts who hovered at the end of the line. Cabbies, however, bypassed the touts and drove the couples right to the Courthouse steps and then on to the officiant of their choice. According to The Post [July 1, 1909]:

“The marriage guides not only have to fight the preachers of Covington, but they are engaged in a terrific industrial struggle with the cabmen of Cincinnati. Whenever they see a cab coming across the bridge and stop at the Covington Courthouse they know that there is nothing in it for them, for cabbie is quite a little ‘tout’ himself and can scent a chance for a tip all the way across the river.”

Over the years, despite perennial attempts to legislate them out of business, the marriage touts got more and more aggressive, even causing traffic jams on the bridges. The Enquirer [March 7, 1938] reported:

“A scramble among Newport ‘marriage touts’ for the Saturday marriage business caused officials on the Central Bridge connecting Newport and Cincinnati, to complain to Newport police yesterday. In soliciting business the touts mounted the running boards of automobiles from out of town so persistently that they caused a traffic congestion on the bridge.”

It got to the point where marriage touts targeted any vehicle with out-of-state plates. One Ohio man complained to Kenton County authorities that he’d been run off the road by a marriage tout while driving through Covington on vacation with his wife.

Decades of legislative initiative failed to produce an effective law controlling marriage touts. They were, after all, just citizens offering directions and advice and being tipped voluntarily. Not a single legal prohibition made it out of committee.

What finally doomed the marriage tout business in Northern Kentucky was a change in state law, effective on New Year’s Day 1950. The new statute required a three-day waiting period between applying for a marriage license and its issuance. No longer were Covington and Newport considered Gretna Greens. Per The Enquirer [April 28, 1950]:

“The three-day waiting period before prospective bridal couples can be ‘hitched’ in Kentucky has put a dent in the marriage license revenues in Northern Kentucky and has cut the marriage touting business down to almost nothing.”

According to the Kenton County Clerk, 884 couples married in Covington during the first three months of 1949. During the first three months of 1950, in comparison, only 339 couples registered for marriage licenses. At $5 a pop, The Enquirer calculated, the County Clerk office was out $2,725 because 545 prospective couples went elsewhere or nowhere at all.

That “elsewhere” turned out to be Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Northern Kentucky’s marriage touts lingered through 1950 by helping elopers find a Justice of the Peace in Indiana, but eventually home-grown Hoosier touts drove the Kentuckians out of Lawrenceburg. Business was good for only a few years until Indiana, too, imposed a waiting period.

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