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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

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Podcast #135 – The Child Bride

 

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.

Marriage license for Eunice Winstead and Charlie 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.

Eunice Winstead, Charlie Johns, and Reverend Walter Lamb reenacting the marriage ceremony for the press. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

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.”

The Reverend Walter Lamb. Image appeared on page 1 of the February 3, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

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.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.

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.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns receiving mail from postman George M. Williams. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

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.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns reading the Bible. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

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.”

Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 14 of the February 1, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

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.”

The Clinch Valley school where Eunice and Charlie began their romance. Image appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

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. 

Charlie and Eunice with their attorney, Taylor Drinnon of nearby Morristown, TN. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

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.”

9-year-old Eunice Johns and her younger sister, Dorothy Winstead, making bread for Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 2 of the February 16, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

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. 

Evelyn and John Henry Antrican shortly after their elopement. Image appeared on page 1 of the September 12, 1960 publication of The Knoxville Journal.

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. 

Marriage license for John Henry Antrican and Evelyn Johns. Note that Evelyn’s age is listed as 21.

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.”

The Reverend Walter Lamb in 1937. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.

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.”

1976 photograph of Eunice Winstead Johns with granddaughter Pamela Lynn Newman. Image appeared on page 21 of the July 21, 1976 publication of the Kingsport Times-News.

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:

Eunice holding her doll shortly after her marriage to Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 1 of the February 1, 1937 publication of The Johnson City Press.
Eunice and Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Eunice posing with the doll that Charlie Johns had given her prior to their marriage. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Eunice Winstead Johns with her parents and sisters at the family home. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
The Winstead home in Treadway, Tennessee. Image appeared on page 15 of the February 15, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
Captioned “A dutiful little wife performs a chore,” this image originally appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.
Newly married 9-year-old Eunice Winstead Johns making the bed. Image originally appeared on page 8 of the February 17, 1937 publication of The Knoxville Journal.
9-year-old Eunice Winstead Johns was the youngest bride in the United States when she married Charlie Johns. Image appeared on page 65 of the August 23, 1937 publication of Life magazine.
January 12, 1937 marriage license for Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns.
Cover of the marriage license between Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns.
This Application for Confidential Verification of the marriage between Eunice Winstead and Charlie Johns appears to be in error. It specifies Charlie’s age at 14 years. In reality, he was 24 when he married 9-year-old Eunice. It also indicates that the marriage took place between 1933 and 1936, when, in fact, it occurred in 1937.

The Missing Groom

 

Robert C. Buttolph and Leona Benell were scheduled to be married on March 8 of 1911 at 4 PM at St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Manhattan.

After a great evening with family, Robert agreed to meet Leona the next day, the morning of their wedding, at 10 AM. Robert didn’t show up and the family began a search for him. They were unable to locate him, so the police were called in.

Did he get cold feet and run away? Was Robert mugged or murdered? Did he jump off the nearby arch of the Riverside Drive viaduct?

It was none of these. At 2 PM that afternoon, Robert walked right into his parents’ apartment. It turns out that he had stopped off to visit a friend the previous night and fell asleep there. He was such an abnormally sound sleeper that he slept right through to that afternoon.

The couple was married at the church at 4 PM that day, just as scheduled.


The Coal Mountain Casanova

 

Back in 1952, a man named Jesse L. Garrett of Scott Depot, West Virginia, was watching Groucho Marx on television. The comedian was interviewing a woman who had previously appeared on his show and later married one of the men who had seen her on the air at the time. Garrett said, “I thought if a woman could do it, so could a man.” 

So, in June of 1952 he wrote to the editor of the Rockport Democrat in Indiana and expressed his interest in advertising in the newspaper for a wife. He was very particular in what he was looking for: he expressed a preference for a Midwestern woman, and one who would make for “an intellectual wife, companion and mother of my two sons.” He felt that “A woman from a rural community would be more like my way of thinking.”  

Jesse preferred “a farm woman of good standing… A woman with some financial backing so that life would not be uneven and our social standings would be about the same.” 

He added, “I prefer a woman about 135 pounds, a little more or less, and between the ages of 35 and 45.” He also insisted that she be a good cook. “No others need apply.” 

Garrett explained that he picked the Rockport newspaper for the advertisement because he had once lived there. He was a thin, balding, 49-year-old man who stood 6-feet, 2-inches tall (188 cm) and described himself as “not bad to look at, love any kind of fun, have a fair education and am at home in hogpen or in a mansion’s drawing room.” 

He had left Indiana years earlier. “I hitchhiked out of there one winter day with only 49-cents in my pocket, vowing that I might starve to death, but I wasn’t going to freeze. I headed south, and when I got to Belle and saw the DuPont plant there, I went in, told them I was broke, and they gave me a job.” 

He saved up his money and eventually had enough to open a grocery store on US Route 60 near St. Albans, West Virginia. The store was named after his ex-wife Georgie, who he had recently divorced on March 14, 1951 after 14-years of marriage.  Shortly after the divorce, the store was sold and Jesse Garrett officially became a retired man. 

But he was not without an income or assets. Rentals of houses that he owned provided Jesse with a steady income and he claimed to be worth in excess of $28,000, which would be more than a quarter of a million dollars today when adjusted for inflation. 

As he embarked on this journey to find Ms. Right, Jesse was certain to carry his divorce papers with him to prove to his prospective bride that he wasn’t to blame for the breakup of his first marriage. He insisted that his next wife would need the approval of his two sons, 10-year-old Jimmy and 11-year old Jesse, Jr., for whom he had been granted full custody. They were quoted in the press as stating, “We don’t want a fat mama.” 

Jessie Garrett looking at one his many replies with his sons James, Jr. (left) and Jimmie (right). Image appeared on page 7 of the June 18, 1952 publication of the Salisbury Daily Times.

This story of a hometown boy who made it good was soon making headlines from coast-to-coast. Responses began to pour in. “I received between 3,100 and 3,300 letters, phone calls, and telegrams. A few were from men who wanted me to help them find a wife, but all the rest were from women. I got letters from women in London, Mexico, Guadalcanal, Canada, and about every state in this country.”   

Jesse was shocked by how many lonely women there were. “I had no expectation I would get the response I did. I was dumbfounded and mortified to learn that there were so many women who want husbands.”  

The press caught up with the ex-Mrs. Garrett and she made it clear that Jesse was no bargain, even with all the money that he claimed to have. Georgie didn’t elaborate, but her warning message to all of the women out there was perfectly clear. She did state, “I’m not sure about his exact age.” Noting that he lacked a birth certificate, she added, “I know he was 49 for a year or two while he and I were married.” My calculations indicate that he was really a couple of months shy of his 54th birthday at the time. 

Just for the record, the former Georgie Garrett was 32-years-old, weighed 100 pounds (45 kg) and stood 59-1/2” (151 cm) tall. In other words, the boys didn’t have a fat mama.  

With thousands of women expressing interest in a possible marriage, Jesse began the process of selecting the bride-to-be. He did express disappointment that only one woman from Rockport had contacted him, but she was quickly knocked out of the running. 

“About 65 per cent of them are sincere and the rest are mercenary. I found six of them interesting and am arranging to interview them. I would like to be married in the next three or four days, and I see no reason why I won’t.” 

Many women went out of their way to catch Jesse’s interest. Some sent photographs of themselves in bathing suits, of their children, their homes, their cars, and more. He said that he wasn’t interested in women who sexually teased him or those from Canada who wrote in French. Even a woman worth $2,500,000 didn’t make the cut. 

Here is a sampling of some of the correspondence that he received: 

A woman in Indiana wrote, “I’m babbling like a little, old West Virginia Brook at the thought of marrying you.” Jesse’s sarcastic response was, “I bet she is – what does she know about a West Virginia Brook anyway?” 

“How about letting a Texas gal enter the competition? I assure you that I am no unattractive old hag. I weigh 130 but could reduce some, of course.” 

Another from Indianapolis said, “I was reared on a farm but am citified now. I am a good-looker and I don’t pat myself on the back either.” 

A telegram from Lubbock, Texas was short and to the point. “If decision not made, contact 128-pound vision of loveliness.”  

Then there was a 29-year-old Wisconsin woman who penned, “I know you want a woman who would be responsive to you, gentle yet warm and exciting. Someone who would welcome you with warm lips and arms. You sound like quite a man – six foot two – just right for me as I’m five foot eight. If you’re interested, I’ll come see you on my vacation, the first two weeks in July.” 

Clearly unhappy with some of Jesse’s female specifications, a lady from Minnesota wrote, “Don’t forget, you’re not buying a horse or cow. And listen, boy, you’re no spring chicken yourself. 

Dozens of others who were anxious to meet Jesse called a nearby store, one of the few places with a telephone. About one dozen showed up at the local post office, one woman said that she would be there soon. “I will look for you Saturday, June 28, at 8 p.m. at the O. Henry Inn on Triplett Street. I will be wearing a green dress. You wear a brown suit so I’ll know you.” 

Not all were serious inquiries.  For example, here is one from Cleveland that was “writ by hand” on a paper bag. “I love children if you keep them away from me. I just lost four teeth in front and one of my eyes is crossed, but I can hoe taters, man.” 

Jesse interviewed twenty-six applicants and decided that Mrs. Maxine Berry, a 30-year-old redhead, would make the perfect wife and mother to his children. Unfortunately, she got cold feet and removed her name from his list of possibilities. 

On June 23rd, twelve days after Jesse’s story broke in the national news, date #25 announced that she had accepted Jesse’s proposal of marriage.  She was 33-year-old Mrs. Etta R. Crosbie, who worked in the classified ad department of the Elkhart Truth newspaper.  Mrs. Crosbie said that she had answered Garrett on a dare.   

Mrs. Etta R. Crosbie of Elkhart, Indiana with her daughter Karin on the left and son Quin on the right. Image appeared on page 12 of the June 26, 1952 issue of the Mount Vernon Register News.

Mrs. Crosbie said, “I know how to write a letter. I work on a newspaper and I know you’ve got to sell yourself. I even tore my picture in two. Anything to arouse interest.” She mentioned in the letter that this “is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever done.” 

Jesse told the press that prettier women were willing to marry him, “However, she is one of the sweetest and most sincere ladies I’ve ever met. She’ll be a real mother, and that’s what counts.” 

A brunette with hazel eyes, Mrs. Crosbie described herself as “thin, a sort of athletic build, 5 feet 7-½ inches tall, a 27-inch waist, quite good size bust, and small hips.” 

Etta had married her first husband, Rollo M. Crosbie in 1938. Sadly, he passed away on October 6, 1947 at the young age of 33.  She was alone to raise her two children, Quin and Karin, who were aged ten and five, respectively, at the time that she accepted Jesse Garrett’s proposal. 

She said, “The children think it’s fun and trust their mother’s judgment. Those who know me as a serious person cannot understand how I could do a thing like this, but I know it’s right.” 

And, yes, the two Garrett boys had a hand in choosing their soon-to-be stepmother.  “The boys were along when Mr. Garrett visited me a few days ago. I believe they decided I was O.K.”  In other words, Etta wasn’t going to be a fat mama. 

Jesse was quoted as stating, “She’s good looking and smart. She is a good mother, an efficient housewife, and competent in business affairs. She has held a good job as a newspaper ad-taker for eight years. She isn’t mercenary and is not a social climber. She is charming and gracious. She is an all-around good woman, a fine woman for any man to have around the house.” 

Etta R. Crosbie and Jesse L. Garrett with their children: Karin Crosbie (lower Right) and Jimmy Garrett, Quin Crosbie, and Jesse Garrett, Jr. (left to right in the back row). Image from the June 26, 1952 issue of the Cedar Rapids Gazette on page 30.

The plan was for the two to wed as soon as possible. Garrett said that they had an offer from WFMB, at the time the only television station in Indianapolis, to wed on the air. At first Mrs. Crosbie was game to the televised nuptials, but quickly cooled to the idea. 

The couple arrived at Garrett’s West Virginia home on Wednesday, June 25th. Etta stayed at Jesse’s house that evening while he stayed with friends. 

The issue as to where the couple would ultimately settle popped up quite a bit in the press.  Etta preferred to live in Indiana, stating, “The mountains make me think I’m smothering.” Jesse was initially a bit more open minded, “I could be happy with her no matter where we were,” but seemed to be leaning toward residing in West Virginia. 

On Friday the couple made their way to the Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston, West Virginia to get their obligatory blood tests.  After that, they headed to the county courthouse to obtain a marriage license, but several legal difficulties prevented them from doing so. First, Etta was not a resident of the state.  Second, they were told that they would have to wait three days before they could wed. And, finally, they wished to be married by a justice of the peace, which was not permitted under West Virginia law. 

They were thinking of heading to Kentucky to marry, but for some unknown reason that plan fell through.   

Jesse said, “I’m determined to marry that woman if I have to go to the ends of the world.” 

By Tuesday the couple was back in Indiana, attempting to obtain a marriage license in Jeffersonville.  That didn’t work out, so the next day they were back in Rockport, but the county clerk there would not accept their West Virginia blood tests.  

The couple’s next stop was the nearby small town of English. The Justice of the Peace there, George Megenity, was willing to perform the ceremony, mainly because the deputy county clerk had failed to notice that their blood test was from out of state. 

Finally, on Wednesday, July 2, 1952 at 12:45 PM the couple became Mr. and Mrs. Jesse L. Garrett.  The wedding took place at the law office of Henry Mock with Mr. Mock and reporter John M. Flanigan acting as witnesses.  

The bride wore a yellow dress with a floral pattern on it and a white hat, gloves, and shoes. Due to the extreme heat of the day, the groom opted not to wear a jacket, but did put on a tie for the occasion. A five-diamond wedding band sealed the deal as all of the couple’s children looked on. 

From there, the newlyweds and their children left for a short honeymoon in Elkhart. After that, the plan was for them all to head back to the Garrett home in West Virginia.  

Where they were going to live permanently was still undecided.  Mrs. Garrett stated, “I am willing to do what is best for all concerned, but things are too indefinite now. I can’t say where we will live.”  Her new husband said that upon his return back home, “I will either dispose of my property or talk my wife into settling.” 

That was never to happen. One month later, on August 5th, it was revealed in the press that Etta never came back to West Virginia with Jesse. The total length of time that the two were married before they went their separate ways was two days and seven hours. Jesse blamed it on her refusal to move to West Virginia, but, while he never mentioned it, he clearly refused to live in Indiana. 

“I’ll probably divorce Etta. A lawyer friend told me I can go to Florida and get a divorce in six weeks. I might as well. You can’t keep a home going when your wife is 500 miles away.” 

Jesse obtained a lawyer and filed for divorce. Etta, in turn, filed a cross divorce complaint against him. The divorce was granted on March 22, 1953 and Jesse was ordered to pay Etta $40/month alimony.  That would be approximately $380/month today adjusted for inflation. 

From there, it appears that Jesse Garrett’s life seemed to spiral out of control. His supposed life savings seemed to vanish overnight. “The $28,000 just melted away… A whack here and a whack there.” He explained, “The money went quick. First, I spent what cash I had; then I spent what was set aside for my boys’ education; then I sold some notes I had; and I mortgaged my house. Now they’re foreclosing on me.” The reason his home was being foreclosed upon was that he had borrowed $3,500 from a Charleston loan company and was unable to repay the loan.  

On February 26, 1955, Domestic Relations Judge Herbert Richardson found Jesse to be in contempt of a court order by leaving the state without permission, disposing of personal property, and for refusing to make those mandatory $40/month alimony payments. 

As two process servers emerged from the courthouse, they spotted Jesse standing on a corner. Jesse refused to submit to arrest and snatched the handcuffs right out of the arresting officer’s hands. Next thing you know, a wrestling match broke out between the three men.  Two additional officers raced over from the courthouse and ended the scuffle.  As Jesse was being led off to jail, he blurted out, “Call the newspapers; call the newspapers!” 

It’s amazing what a few years can do.  Instead of boasting about what a great catch he was, he was now pointing out how poor and feeble he had become.  “My sister put me in business at Scott Depot. I get $20 a week and room and board for me and my two boys. That woman has an income of $420 a month. She’s 33 years old and I’m 52 and half blind. They want me to pay her $40 a month. I can’t and I won’t. Not a penny!”  

He added, “I guess I’ll just have to get me a couple of pistols and rob a bank somewhere.”   

Jesse stated, “I’ll stay in this jail until the bars rot off. I’m only making $20 a week and can’t afford to pay her.” 

Five days later, he posted bond and was released. His bondsman, Mark Wisman, must have had second thoughts and dropped his surety. Next thing you know, on Sunday March 13th, Jesse was right back in jail.  He was released the next day on a new surety. 

After that, Jesse vanished.  He was due back in court on March 21, 1955, but was a no show. In a registered letter that Jesse sent to the court from Nashville, he stated, “Please postpone my case for 30 days. There is serious illness here.” The judge wasn’t buying it and ordered Garrett’s arrest. Instead, the court was bombarded with letters and postcards that Jesse penned claiming everything from being framed to kidnapping to outright robbery. On September 25, 1955, Judge Richardson declared his bond forfeited and Jesse’s story was dropped from the headlines. I was unable to locate any further information on how this matter was resolved, so if anybody out there knows, please let me know. 

Birth certificate for Jesse Lee Garrett, Jr.

The next time that Jesse would be in the press again was on September 4, 1974, but it had nothing to do with his marriage to Etta Crosbie. This time, Jesse and his son Jesse, Jr. were arrested as part of a drug sting.  Basically, there were two men in Arizona who smuggled marijuana into the United States in 600-pound (272 kg) lots and once it was shipped to the East Coast, the Garretts and others would distribute it to West Virginia and Virginia. Jesse, Jr. was sentenced to five years in prison with just 270 days served and the remainder a combination of a suspended sentence and probation.  As for his dad, he told Judge K. K. Hall, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ll do whatever the district attorney tells me…”  Jesse, Sr. was sentenced to three years’ probation. 

Henrietta “Etta” Rems Crosbie passed away on January 8, 2008. She was 89-years-old. 

Jesse L. Garrett, Sr. passed away on July 15, 1980 at 81 years of age.  He is buried in the Sunset Hill Cemetery in Rockport, Indiana, the same city in which he was hoping to find Ms. Right. The epitaph on his tombstone reads, “We Miss You Dad, Jesse Jim.” 

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide. 

Image of Jesse L. Garrett’s tombstone in the Sunset Hill Cemetery in Rockport, Indiana. Image from Find-A-Grave.