While I wasn’t born there, I spent most of my youth in the small town of Thompsonville, NY, which is located in the southern portion of the so-called Catskill Mountains. I always joke that the town is so small that if you blinked while driving through it, you would miss it in its entirety. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the location of today’s story is probably not much different. In fact, I am quite certain that it is far more remote than where I grew up.
Nestled in the northeastern portion of Tennessee is the Central Appalachian county of Hancock, just a short distance from the southern border of Kentucky. According to the 2010 census, the population of the entire county was 6,819 in total. The median income there today is $19,760, making it the county with the lowest income in Tennessee and the twenty-seventh lowest in the United States.
On January 12, 1937, in Treadway, a small town in Hancock county, a young couple asked a local minister, 53-year-old Reverend Walter Lamb, to join the two in matrimony. He quickly looked over their marriage license and everything seemed to be in order. Issued six days earlier, that legal document allowed him to marry 18-year-old Eunice Blanche Winstead to 22-year-old Charlie Jess Johns.
And that was exactly what he did.
Standing at a curve in the roadway, the Reverend asked the two to join hands and performed what he later described as a “Baptist ceremony.” “And what God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” He then pronounced them man and wife and the brief ceremony was over. His fee was $1.00 (about $18.00 today.)
Soon after, the couple arrived at the home of Nick Johns, father of the groom, and Charlie announced, “Well, we’re married.” Neither family was surprised by their elopement and the parents from both families offered their approval and blessings to the newlyweds. Mrs. Winstead later stated, “Eunice had claimed Charlie for hers ever since we live here. Of course, we never had any idea they had a serious thought about each other, and they were married before we knew it.”
Back in 1937, Hancock county was in one of the most inaccessible locations in all of Tennessee. And Treadway was a town without telephone or telegraph lines, electric lights, and railway service. As a result, news of their marriage was slow to reach the outside world. And when it finally did ten days later, the marriage of Eunice and Charlie was thrust upon the front page of newspapers across the nation.
Why? Because the couple had lied on their marriage application. While Charlie was, in fact, twenty-two years old, Eunice was a prepubescent nine-year-old.
On the morning of their marriage, Eunice told her dad that she was headed up the road to her married sister’s house to get a doll that Charlie had given to her the previous Christmas. Instead, she met up with her fiancé and the two walked several miles to ask Reverend Lamb to marry them. After the ceremony was completed, Eunice stopped at her sister’s to pick up the doll and then went home.
When questioned by the press, Eunice’s dad, Lewis Winstead, stated, “All right with me – there’s nothing you can do about it now.”
Mrs. Winstead commented, “Eunice loves Charlie and Charlie loves Eunice, and’ taint nobody’s business but theirs. Never in all my borned days did I see such a commotion and flusteration about two people getting’ hitched. Maybe Eunice is a mite young, but what of it?”
She continued, “I guess I was married at 13, and a grandmother at 30, and there ain’t nothing wrong with me. I thank God my little girl’s got a good husband, and I pray they’ll live together and be happy. People shouldn’t orter pester ‘em so.”
When questioned as to why he had married the couple, Reverend Lamb stated, “If I hadn’t married them, someone else would.” Reflecting back on what had happened, he said, “I don’t think I would have, though, if I’d a-known the girl was quite so young. Nine’s a little early, but they had a license and Eunice didn’t seem so young.”
What is most shocking was that there was nothing that public officials could do about the marriage. It was totally legal. Lewis Rhea, Hancock County Clerk at the time, stated, “When I learned she was just a child, I investigated and found out her parents didn’t object. So far as I know, the present Tennessee law allows marriage at any age if the parents agree.”
He was correct. A Tennessee law enacted in 1927 required that girls under the age of 18 and boys under 21 give five days notice prior to the granting of a marriage license, unless they had their parents’ approval. The effect of this law was that many couples, including those of eligible age who misunderstood the regulation, simply went to another state to marry. This resulted in counties like Hancock losing up to half of their marriage license revenue, so the state legislature repealed that portion of the law in 1935. That made Tennessee the only state in the Union at the time to have no minimum age for marriage. This produced the desired result in that it allowed Hancock County to double its revenue from marriages, many of the couples coming from the nearby state of Virginia, which set its minimum age for marriage at twenty-one.
Basically, Eunice and Charlie were legally married and there was nothing that anyone could do about it. And while both families were in approval of this union, the outside world was not as supportive. Here is a sampling of what others had to say:
Mrs. Urban Neas, president of the Central Parent-Teacher Council, stated, “I can’t imagine such a thing happening in a Christian nation. If there is anything the P-T A. can do to prevent its recurrence, we certainly hope to do it.”
Mrs. Graeme Canning, president of the Ossoli Circle women’s club expressed support for returning to the five-day marriage rule: “If we had such a law now, that marriage could not have happened. As it is, it’s a poor commentary on our civilization and on East Tennessee.”
The Rev. Walter A. Smith, pastor at the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church in Knoxville, and then president of the Ministerial Association, offered up the following comment: “I think the preacher who married that couple made a very great mistake. But the people who issued the license for the marriage made just as big a mistake. I don’t know what can be done about the marriage now. It’s a tragedy, a very great tragedy. It should never be allowed to happen again. If there isn’t a law, there should be one.”
Mrs. Louise Bussart, also of Knoxville, stated “I sincerely believe some restriction should be put on the marriage of young girls. Children nine years old certainly do not know their own minds, and they may get married just because the idea sounded glamorous.”
Another resident, Wallace Wright, stated, “The present laws are all right, but there is no use in the people making fools of themselves and the laws to.”
Even Tennessee Governor Gordon Browning was asked for his opinion. “The girl’s parents sanctioned the marriage and that makes it legal.” He added, “Of course a marriage like that is a shame, but what can I do about it? And besides, I’ve got other more important matters to worry about at the moment.”
Three days after this story first broke in the news, two bills were introduced to the Tennessee Senate. The first would make marriage involving anyone under the age of fourteen “null and void,” even if the parents approved. The second would make a county court clerk guilty of a misdemeanor if he or she knowingly issued a marriage license to anyone under the age of sixteen. And should someone under sixteen wish to marry, the clerk would be required to call for a hearing before a judge. Two days later, without a single dissenting vote, the Senate passed a bill preventing any marriage in which either member of the party was under the age of fourteen. It was now up to the Tennessee House to review and approve.
Upon hearing the news of the Senate approval, Charlie told the press, “I ain’t payin’ no mind to what they’re doin’ down to the legislature, nor what folks is saying. Ain’t no new law goin’ to change things now. Me’n Eunice is married for keeps and I reckon I can look after her [with] ‘thout no help from nobody.”
The public uproar over the marriage continued to swell, forcing the young couple to take refuge in the home of Charlie’s parents. With the help of neighbors who blocked the road and stood guard outside, everything seemingly possible was done to insulate nine-year-old Eunice from the prying eyes of the curious press.
Charlie told reporters, “Let Eunice alone, don’t scare her.”
Her dad chimed in, “This thing has got to stop. The girl’ll lose her mind if strangers don’t stop coming to see her.”
Yet, no one was more vocal in supporting the marriage that Eunice’s mom:
“Let them alone. If they want to live together and be happy, then people should leave them alone.” She added, “Eunice can’t sleep, she’s so nervous. She’ll lose her mind if this keeps up.”
“The Bible says not to disturb those peacefully getting along, and I don’t believe in going against the Bible. If they love one another, then getting married is the thing to do. If they want to live together and be happy, then people should leave them alone. Charlie is a good boy. He’s a hard worker. He bought forty acres a few days ago so that they could have a home. Of course, understand I haven’t brought my children up to marry what men has got, but to marry for love.”
“She married too young but it’s too late to talk about it. After all, every girl has a right to get married, and if Eunice wants to marry Charlie, it’s her own life.”
You may be questioning just how common child marriages were back then. Nationwide,it was estimated that there were 5,000 child brides under the age of fifteen back in 1937. If one includes those who were fifteen, that number skyrockets to 20,000 young girls. About one-quarter of those baby brides were concentrated in the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
The press ran stories of similar child brides, but none were as young as Eunice. For example:
- 12-year-old Leona Elizabeth Roshia had married 18-year-old Stanley F. Backus of Watertown, New York.
- Mrs. Ben Jacobs of Port Byron, Illinois gave birth to her first son in 1933, nine days before she had turned twelve.
- Mrs. Ellen Walker of Panacea, Florida gave birth to a son before she had turned thirteen.
- Mrs. Russell Frazell of Moline, Illinois already had a son when she was fourteen.
- And, on January 29th, the day before Eunice and Charlie’s marriage was revealed to the press, 13-year-old Eula Green married 17-year-old Charles Newberry of North Carolina.
There were many more stories just like these, but I was struck by what Mrs. Jean Darnell, another Tennessee child bride, had to say. “When I’m around the hill people I brag that I was married at 13, and a grandmother at 30. But that’s just brag. If I had things to go over again, I’d do them differently.
“My husband’s in the state penitentiary. I have to make a living for myself and my children. I managed to get enough education to do it, but it’s hard to have to pay all your life for a mistake at 13.
“A girl of 12 or 13 or even 14 has no idea of love or marriage. She ought to be protected. And if this case has stirred up enough excitement to bring about a new marriage law for Tennessee, then it has served its purpose.
“I feel sorry for little Eunice – but it took something like this to wake people up. She doesn’t realize it, but she has saved other girls from becoming wives and perhaps widows before they are grown up. I think Tennessee owes a vote of thanks to its 9-year-old bride.”
On February 26, 1937, Governor Browning signed into law a measure that set the minimum age to marry at sixteen. Should the girl be under eighteen years of age, the new law required a three day waiting period before a license could be issued. Lastly, should either of the party be under sixteen, a court could annul the marriage should a complaint be filed “by such person or any interested person acting on his or her behalf.”
Yet, this did not bring a halt to child marriages in Tennessee. Here are three examples:
On March 13th of that year, 14-year-old Dollie Livesay married 23-year-old James Brewer. They simply slipped across the border into Kentucky to get married, which many other young couples also opted to do. A March 23, 1937 Knoxville Journal article stated that, “Unlike Mrs. Eunice Johns, whose marriage at nine precipitated the new state law, Mrs. Brewer has begun to mature towards womanhood and has been versed in the housekeeping arts.”
13-year-old Mildred and 17-year-old Robert Pack of Knoxville eloped to Marshall, North Carolina on September 1, 1937, where a justice of the peace performed the ceremony. Robert stated, “Well, I guess we put one over on the old folks. And on the new state law, too. We sure got around that.”
Finally, on March 29, 1937, 12-year-old Geneva Hamby married 32-year-old Homer Peels in Madisonville, Tennessee. She gave her age as eighteen when they applied for their marriage license. On April 21st, her mother filed to have the marriage annulled, stating “Homer Peels’ too old for her – she is too young to marry anybody.” Shockingly, the court refused to annul the marriage. It turns out that Geneva had been placed in an orphanage two years prior and had little contact with her mother since. Chancellor A. T. Stewart agreed that there had been a violation of the 16-year age minimum, but wrote that an annulment would only serve to put “Geneva out of house and home with no place to go.”
In early August, it was time for Eunice to go back to school, which she had stopped attending after her January marriage. When teacher Wade Ferguson gave her a switching for supposed “general mischievousness,” her husband decided to withdraw her from school. When he told Ferguson that he couldn’t whip another man’s wife, Ferguson told Charlie, “Oh, yes, I can whip another man’s wife if another man sends his wife to school to me.” Tennessee law at the time did require anyone under sixteen to attend school, but Education Commissioner W.A. Bass stated, “We will not take any action to compel a married child to attend school.” Eunice would never return. With just a third grade education, she would never learn to read.
Meanwhile, offers for Eunice and Charlie to appear in both Vaudeville and movies poured in. Some were as much as $500 (approximately $9,000 today), but they were nearly all turned down. They did appear on stage for the first time on October 30, 1937 as part of a show in Kingsport, Tennessee. After the couple was introduced by the announcer, they stood there silently on the stage for two minutes. They made a total of six appearances that day. There was talk of making the couple the feature attraction of a traveling show, but that never materialized.
Rumors began to circulate in the press that the couple’s marriage was falling apart, but when their first anniversary came around, they were still together and living with Charlie’s parents. When questioned about their marriage, Charlie commented, “Of course, we fuss now and then but it don’t amount to nothing. We’ve managed fine this last year and we’d be a lot happier if folks would just leave us alone.” He added, “I’ve got to where I don’t trust many people anymore. Too many of ‘em are out to slick a feller. I’ve made some money, but it’s not in a bank – I’ve got it hid away.”
Eunice had little to say, but boastfully stated, “I like to milk.” It was noted by the reporter that she was learning how to cook, to which Charlie added, “She already knows how to make biscuits.”
On the eve of their second anniversary, it didn’t seem like much had changed. “She’s pretty good at milking and washing, but she ain’t learned much about cooking yet.” Charlie said that they were planning to build a small house because “we ain’t goin’ to have no young ‘uns.”
As they say, never say never. On December 18, 1942, fourteen-year-old Eunice gave birth to the couple’s first child, Evelyn. And she wouldn’t be their last.
As their twentieth anniversary rolled around, Evelyn was the proud mother of seven children. Charlie had inherited his parents’ 150-acre hillside farm and had become a prosperous farmer. After selling off the mineral rights to a zinc company for $75/acre, the couple was financially set for the remainder of their lives.
The couple would once again make headlines in September 1960 after their 17-year-old daughter Evelyn eloped with her boyfriend, 20-year-old John Henry Antrican. The couple had been dating for about one-year, but Charlie never approved of the relationship.
John Henry described how he whisked Evelyn out from under her father’s guard: “Charlie was working in his tobacco patch when I went and got her. He took out after me but he never got close.” He then exchanged cars with a friend. “I went every whichaway I could think of to throw him off the track. I took Evelyn to Morristown where she spent the night with a Negro woman who used to live close by her. Then I come home and spend the night (Thursday) here.” The next day, Friday, he picked Evelyn up and they drove to Rutledge, Tennessee, where they were married.
Papa Charlie was furious. On the day of the wedding, he had John Henry arrested and charged with abduction. He was released on a $1,000 bond. The next day, both John Henry and his mother Eliza were arrested and charged with falsifying Evelyn’s age at 21 when they obtained the marriage license.
Evelyn told the press that she couldn’t understand how her father could be upset with the marriage. “After all, Papa married Mama when she was only 9 years old.”
John Henry told the press that Charlie did not approve of the marriage because he wanted Evelyn to marry “another boy who was better off financially.” He added that Charlie was “just plain hard to get along with.”
Reverend Lamb, the same minister who had married Eunice and Charlie twenty-three years prior, offered to step in and try to find an amicable solution to the problem. “If I could see him, I would.” He added, “They’d better be proud she married a good boy.” Charlie Johns didn’t take him up on the offer. Luckily, he came to his senses and dropped all of the charges. Evelyn and John Henry would remain married until Evelyn’s death forty-six years later.
Which brings us to the conclusion of this unusual story. When the press interviewed Eunice in 1976, she said that she had no regrets over marrying so young. When asked about the worst part of doing so, she noted that it had brought an end to her education. “I never could learn too easy, and I didn’t learn much when my children were in school.”
Charlie Jess Johns died on February 13, 1997 at the age of eighty-four. After all of the criticism from the naysayers had long faded away, the couple had a successful marriage that lasted sixty years. Together they had nine children; three girls and six boys with a nineteen year age gap between the youngest and the oldest. Sadly, their youngest daughter had died from pneumonia at twenty months of age just one-week before their twenty-fifth anniversary.
Eunice Blanche Winstead Johns would live another nine years without her husband. By then a great-grandmother, she passed away on August 29, 2006, less than a month shy of her 79th birthday.
Which leaves me with one last little surprise. After I finished writing this story, I started gathering the documents and images to post on my website. Then it hit me: Every single story ever written about the couple had made the same error and I was about to repeat it. After a little math and double-checking, Charlie Johns was not twenty-two when he married Eunice. He was twenty-four.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Here are some additional photographs from various sources: