All this business about the reverend who was busted with massages and meth reminded me of a certain kind of newspaper article that you might notice if you do any research in the 1920s but which is less common today. It wasn’t that long ago that everyday adulterers sometimes found their names published in the local newspapers for all their friends and family to learn, and not just when the eternal love triangle turned deadly, ended in arrest for bigamy or other criminal charges, or involved a man of the cloth.
In the early 20th century, any garden variety divorce case with a good, strong whiff of sex—particularly when third parties were named—was a good bet for page one, sometimes with illustrations or photographs. Even an affair several states away could earn a slot above the fold.
Readers enjoyed stories about old-fashioned sexual misconduct replete with proper names and details. Few public or private people enjoyed or could reasonably expect privacy in their most personal lives. Before and through the 1920s, most every newspaper published in the United States was a local scandal sheet. Editors routinely sent reporters to the courthouse to write stories about divorce cases and civil lawsuits for personal torts with euphemistic legal names like “alienation of affections” and “criminal conversation.” Translation—adultery. (The word “alienation” there is a concept from property law. To “alienate” here means to separate possession from ownership – the wife owns her husband, but the mistress is in possession, enjoying the rents and labors of another’s man.)
This piece was typical of such courthouse reporting. In this case, the spurned wife sued her husband’s mistress.
MRS. MAMIE ALLEN ASKS HEART BALM
A suit for $50,000 damages for alleged alienation of her husband’s affections was filed today by Mrs. Mamie F. Allen, wife of John H. Allen, of the Allen Electric Company, 210 East Fifteenth street, against Miss Mary Thomas, formerly stenographer and bookkeeper for Mr. Allen. The divorce case of the Allens is set for trial April 7. Mr. Allen today said the suit was merely an effort to obtain money and incite prejudice before that case was heard.
But even when there wasn’t scandal, in the 1920s newspapers, an ordinary divorce involving wholly private persons who’d been faithful during the marriage still merited a few lines on an inside page.
DIVORCES TO THIRTY-FOUR
William Spencer Adams, traveling salesman, said his wife, Daisy Adams, left him in 1918 and four years later he found her with a carnival. In the meantime, he went on, she acquired the habit of smoking cigarettes—not a cause for divorce, the court observed—and when he rented her an apartment in Springfield, Mo., she continued her nagging, spent all his money, and refused to let him talk with the children. He was given a divorce.
Both of these gems are from the Kansas City Star, 1924, and this last one is from the Marion Daily Star in Ohio, 1919. Imagine something like this appearing in your local newspaper today. Whether you'd react with shock or amusement depends, I suppose, on whether you'd run the risk of being so depicted.