Bigamy

The latest article from Rebecca Probert, Professor of Law at the University of Exeter, in The Journal of Genealogy and Family History is Escaping detection: illegal second marriages and the crime of bigamy. Here’s the abstract.

Official statistics on the number of prosecutions for bigamy clearly cannot be taken as an accurate guide to the number who went through a ceremony of marriage with a second ‘spouse’ while still married to their first. Nonetheless, when we compare those who were prosecuted with those who were not, the differences that emerge should make us cautious in assuming that the offence was common. There is evidence to suggest that many of the unprosecuted may not have been bigamists at all, given how long they waited to remarry. Even those who did not wait may have believed or persuaded themselves that their first spouse was dead and that they were entitled to remarry. Others adopted tactics to ensure that their bigamous marriage would not be discovered, with most moving considerable distances before remarrying and a few adopting aliases to disguise their identity. The data from the sample suggests that it was the fact that most of these bigamies were undetected, rather than tolerance of bigamy within the community, that explains why they escaped prosecution.

Do you have bigamous marriages in your family tree?

I have two instances. One where the first wife remarried under her maiden name, eight years after the marriage to my great-grandfather, who had a subsequent and long common-law relationship. In a second case, the wife married as a widow nine years after the first marriage, and seven after they broke up. Likely unknown to her and despite significant efforts to track him down in the UK her first husband was very much alive in the USA.

6 Replies to “Bigamy”

  1. I found one, in a US Turner family I thought maybe had been related to me. They weren’t.
    The Mum, with two tiny daughters living here in Ottawa, had her husband die. Not knowing where his relations were in Scotland, she published notice of his death in a Scot publication.
    The result? She was contacted by his wife and five children who had no idea where he had disappeared to. Cheers, BT

  2. I discovered that my son-in-law’s great-great aunt married her second husband during WW1 using her daughter’s name as an alias. She was well documented as his “wife” in the CEF records and came to Canada as a war bride. Twenty years, seven children later she left her abusive alcoholic husband and went back to England. Found her living with her first husband from 1939 and they both emigrated to Canada when he retired, after the second husband had died. The priest in Ottawa had found out and retrospectively annotated all the baptisms as “illegitimate”. When she died the obituary called her first husband her second husband. You can see the tragedy through the records. Very sad.

  3. In England my Great Grandmother and her husband both comitted bigamy. Her husband remarried and started a new family and my Great Grandmother married my to-be Great Grandfather. They were able to remarry because their first marriages were in one county in England and their second ones in other counties. They and others counted on the fact that counties did not check the legality of marriages in their county with the records of other counties

  4. Because Divorce was only allowed through an act of Parliament in the early 20th century, only wealthy folk could apply through their MP; at least that is my recollection. We called Ottawa regarding a grandmother who had left her first husband and children and we believed remarried in Ontario. She later married a third time in Michigan and on that marriage certificate stated she was single. Her first husband still lived at that time. The person we contacted in Ottawa indicated that remarriages were often bigamy and that perhaps we had a trigamist in our lineage. We will never really know.

  5. Definitely have bigamous marriages in my tree – my great-great-uncle and his wife each married other people when I’m pretty certain they were still married to each other. She then married a third time after her second husband was killed during WWII. I’ve no idea if #3 knew anything about #1.

    Meanwhile at some point he left wife #2, took up with woman #3 in a different province. When he died woman #3, signed as the informant using his surname, only for me to discover later that her husband was still very much alive. When wife #2 died, her obit stated she was his widow. Quite a tangle!

  6. I had one in Finland in the late 18th century. He was an officer in the Swedish army (in the dragoons) and so he could easily travel from place to place. He had at least three wives. Way to go, gramps!

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