Have you ever wondered why you have such a hard time tracing your ancestors? This might be the answer.
In 1898 Harry or Joseph O’Brien, was traced to Manitoba by Chief Constable McGowan, of Smith’s Falls, and captured in Portage-la-Prairie to be brought back to face his consequences. He was charged with obtaining $2.50 under false pretenses, and was put in the Perth gaol/jail awaiting trial.
O’Brien was also wanted for bigamy, and didn’t hesitate to own up to the fact that he had 14 wives. His latest victim in the matrimonial line was a Miss Halliday of Smith’s Falls. He also had two wives in Toronto, one in Carleton Place, and the others were scattered here and there. Was he punished? You tell me.
Many couples, particularly in the working class, entered bigamous unions throughout the nineteenth century. Most communities accepted these unions if they followed certain norms.
Policemen did not go around asking for proof that you were married, and therefore they didn’t go around checking that the marriage was lawful, or that you did not have a spouse from a previous undissolved marriage who was still living .
People had to report the apparent crime to the police, and then the police had to make inquiries and then determine if the evidence at hand was a likely offence.
In those days it wasn’t an offence to buy a ring, put it on a female’s left ring finger and move off to a different address and set up the household as though you were man and wife. Then when the couple later separated, and perhaps formed new partnerships, then perhaps a nosey busy body who had some prior knowledge, presumed there was a bigamist as a possible neighbour and went off to the police.
Within these parameters, neighbors and friends accepted illegal marriages, following in a long tradition of self-marriage and self-divorce. In fact, by the end of the century, judges followed community standards in their sentencing and often gave nominal punishment to both male and female bigamists. In the 1880s and 1890s, law enforcement officials were leery of bringing bigamy charges because of possible pressure from the locals.
Here are some punishments I found for bigamists:
15/1: Six weeks hard labour
15/1: One day imprisonment
30/4: One day imprisonment
30/4: One month hard labour
30/4: twelve months hard labour
31/5: Five months penal servitude
25/6: Five months penal servitude
So what have I got to add to this?
Someone in my family was ‘married’ 11 times. Only once was he charged with the crime of bigamy, but then he was pardoned when the first husband of the complainant turned up.
And we wonder why we have a hard time tracing family trees!
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