Have you ever heard of Gretna Green? It’s a wee Scottish village, located just about 10 miles north of the English city of Carlisle and a very few miles over the border into Scotland. For close to 200 years, English lovers eloped across the border to be married there.
While English law in the 1700s prohibited marriage without parental consent until both parties were 21, the Scots allowed boys aged 14 and girls aged 12 to marry without permission. Additionally, Scottish law validated any marriage made before any witnesses – so almost anyone could officiate at a wedding ceremony. In Gretna Green, the officiant was often one of the village blacksmiths, who had the couple plight their troth while holding hands over his anvil. These “anvil priests” of Gretna Green blessed thousands of matrimonial unions until the laws changed in 1940.
But what has that to do with Cincinnati? Well, Gretna Green was so famous and so imbued with the aura of romance (it is still a popular honeymoon destination) that any city offering easy marital terms became known as a “Gretna Green.” And so it was in Cincinnati, where liberal laws and proximity to stricter states like Indiana, West Virginia and especially Kentucky meant that lots of young lovers rushed to Cincinnati to avoid dealing with Mom and Dad. Cincinnati’s elopements generally culminated in one of the city hotels, as related in this story from The Cincinnati Enquirer [16 June 1875]:
“The Gibson House has become a sort of Gretna Green institution for young people who have just ‘gone, went and done it.’ All of the above couples were accompanied by one or more friends, generally of the bride, just as if she was afraid to trust him. That’s the way it always is.”
So many Kentucky couples eloped to Cincinnati that the Daily Gazette [5 January 1877] used the phenomenon to argue for a new railroad line:
“When it becomes known that the average Kentucky belle scorns to enter the married state by a quiet wedding at home, with the full consent of all her friends; preferring rather, opposition from unreasonable parents, thus calling into exercise the chivalric devotion of her faithful knight, whereby a hasty flight to Gretna Green, which means Cincinnati, is made necessary – we say when this fact is fully recognized, there will appear weighty reasons, both on the ground of humanity and sound business sagacity, for the building of the Cincinnati Southern Railway, and especially for constructing for it a separate way through Kentucky, instead of buying the Kentucky Central.”
Officiating at these Cincinnati elopements was not the blacksmith, but one of the Justices of the Peace. It appears that some of the Queen City justices were called into action more than others. “Commodore” Edward J. Tyrell, for example, was once hauled out of bed to officiate at an emergency wedding in the parlor of his own house on Mound Street. The emergency? The hasty couple, Lizzie Darling and Joe Abacco, were actors in Sheridan & Flynn’s City Sports Burlesque Company, and the show was moving on to the next town on the very next train.
Deputy Probate Court Clerk Louis Hauser offered special elopement services even before he became a Justice of the Peace. While deputy clerk, he issued marriage licenses after hours from his home on Court Street. Once he became a justice and notary, he officiated at a lot of ceremonies, usually in exchange for a $10 gold piece.
Very often, dewy-eyed paramours arrived in Cincinnati with enraged parents (usually Dad) in hot pursuit. The Cincinnati Enquirer [7 July 1871] records a case in which two newlyweds registered at the Walnut Street House. While the young husband was out, an irate father from Indiana charged into the hotel and demanded to see his daughter. He was directed to her room:
“The pitiless sire seated himself in a chair, ruthlessly drew the helpless child of his old age across his knees, and, removing all needless obstructions, administered punishment with his horny palm, as he had done in the babyhood of his ungrateful offspring.”
Dad could not, however, unring that bell. The couple was legally hitched.
Cincinnati had some competition in the Gretna Green business. The laws of Ohio naturally apply anywhere in the state, so any border town with good roads and a willing officiant fit the bill. Thus, the Brown County village of Aberdeen, located just across the Ohio River from Maysville, also gained a reputation as one of Ohio’s Gretna Greens. Aberdeen had two men who, between them, married more than 11,000 couples over a period of about 37 years, from 1855 to 1892 – this in a village with only a thousand inhabitants. Justice of the Peace Thomas Shelton, succeeded by Justice Massie Beasley, married applicants without requiring a marriage license. Instead, the two men issued documents of their own devising, attesting that they had officiated at a wedding ceremony in the presence of witnesses. During Beasley’s term, he often performed 15 marriages a day.
So famous was Aberdeen for its loosey-goosey marriage regulations that it made front page news in 1908 when a couple from Aberdeen came to Cincinnati to get married. Walter Gardner, who traveled all the way from Aberdeen to marry Amber Griffith in Cincinnati, said his hometown had tightened up the rules since Squire Beasley died in 1892.
Ironically, although marriage laws were more stringent in Indiana, the divorce laws were so lenient that spouses from all over the Midwest flocked to the Hoosier State to untie the knot. That all changed in 1871 when the divorce laws were rewritten. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [14 February 1871]:
“Hereafter, strong-minded females, with free-love tendencies, and verdant males, who have unsuspectingly got themselves in a matrimonial noose that doesn’t suit them, will be apt to give Indiana a ‘wide berth’ in their frantic efforts to get their marriage ties dissolved.”
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.