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The Mystery Of 'Elopement Epidemics'

Poking fun at elopement in a 1904 photo.
Poking fun at elopement in a 1904 photo.

Maybe it was in the spirit of rebellion against the strict rules of American society during the Victorian Era. Maybe it was a personal sense of freedom and expansion that mirrored the national movement westward. Or maybe it was a case of safety, and certainty, in numbers. But for some reason, the occurrences of two young people running off to get married or one older person leaving a marriage to marry someone else — both acts were called elopements in the Gilded Age — reached epidemic proportions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"It was a period in which young people were striving for independence from family, church and community, and marriage without parental sanction was a form of rebellion," says Howard Chudacoff, an American history professor at Brown University and author of The Age of the Bachelor: Creating An American Subculture.

But, in fact, Chudacoff says the solution to the mystery of why there were so many elopements reported in the press may be something else entirely. More on that in a minute. First, the evidence:

Runaway Buddies

In middle March of 1880, the Philadelphia Times related that a rash of elopements was "wrecking society" in Annapolis, Md. A well-to-do man named Payne ran off with a woman named Small, who left her husband and two children behind; another older man named Mockabee and Annie C., "a handsome brunette, 18 years of age," eloped; and Pastor Jacobs of a local African-American church left town with Mrs. Carroll, the wife of a church deacon.

The newly created Life magazine — in its fourth volume — proclaimed in 1884 that the "elopement epidemic ...has played havoc with so many hearts and homes."

Over the next couple of decades or so, elopement fever reportedly broke out at one time or another in many American communities, including New York City, where four couples cantered off in one week, and Scranton, Pa., where five couples eloped in 10 days. It became such a full-out phenomenon that newspapers across the land printed a Philadelphia Record story in the winter of 1884 about a man who allegedly kept statistics on the secret marriage mania.

It's a weirdly written article with suspicious stats — supposedly gleaned from far-flung reports. The story stated that more than 300 elopements had been reported in the country between September and December of 1884. Whether completely accurate or not, the fact that the article about a nationwide outbreak of elopements was reprinted in many cities shows that the writer may have been on to something. "Only 19," the statistician reported, "did the thing in real out-and-out style: ladder, moonlight and carriage waiting-at-the-garden gate business."

One Possible Solution

So what exactly was behind all of these elopements? "There was no systematic data collection, so empirical evidence is slim," says Chudacoff. "What I suspect — and this is pure speculation — is that rather than an elopement epidemic, there was an epidemic of reporting about elopements."

The late-19th century marked the rise of the penny press, Chudacoff says, "with publications in communities of all sizes competing with each other for readership by printing 'human interest' stories, some of which were of the sensational variety."

It is entirely possible, he says, "that in the Victorian Era once one newspaper latched on to some incidents of elopement, others followed suit, giving an impression that elopement was widespread and frequent."

More Tales

The impression was, well, impressive. By 1899, the country seemed to be divided. Elopements of youngsters were drawing the ire of editorial writers. On July 18, the Gaffney Ledger in South Carolina — joining in a chorus with another state newspaper — railed against "ministers, magistrates, notaries public and other officers [who] degrade their positions by joining mere children in the holy bonds of matrimony[;] there ought to be some remedy in the courts for such actions." Angry parents and guardians, the writer argued, should be able to sue.

On the other hand, there were stories of marital bliss emanating from elopements. In the small community of Claysville, Pa., for example, some 18 couples eloped and returned to live in harmony, the Canonsburg Weekly Notes noted on March 15, 1899.

Though the mania diminished as the 20th century began, occasionally there were tales of lovers hightailing it to get married — without the frippery and frills of a wedding. Sometimes the newlyweds had never been hitched. Other times, the elopers were leaving surprised spouses. Regardless, the elopement epidemic was considered by many to be a real malady.

Like the young man from Elk River, Idaho, who swore out a warrant for his wife's arrest because she had run off to Spokane with another man, as the Oakland Tribune recorded on Feb. 12, 1912. "My wife was a good woman," the abandoned husband told police, "but nine other men's wives had just run away from their husbands in Elk River and I am firmly convinced it was a sort of contagion in the air."


Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

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