Bigamy in the 19th century: how common?

I’m going to guess: not very common. And yet, it certainly did happen. I’ve actually come across very solid evidence of a bigamy case in the 1840s in the parish register for St. Philip’s RC Church in Richmond. No relations of mine, or I would certainly post about the case.

When you think about 19th-century parish registers, you probably think about names and dates and records. Well, that’s what I generally think about, because I most often consult the parish registers searching for names and dates in the records. But if you read through the parish registers very closely (which I sometimes do, and find myself engrossed in the perusal of records that don’t even mention my own ancestors; but I can’t stop reading, because here is a window into the world of my ancestors, even when they themselves are not cited), you will find traces, and sometimes more than traces, of human dramas and human sorrows; of misjudgments and miscalculations; of criminal violence and sexual exploitation; of the scandals that once blighted actual lives, and that once ruined the hopes and expectations of those who were once living, breathing, flesh-and-blood people.

Incest? Yes, I have seen one obvious 1 instance in an Ottawa Valley RC parish register: it was shocking to come across, even 150-or-so years later. “Illegitimate” (i.e., out-of-wedlock) births? I’ve seen too many instances to enumerate (though the vast majority of RC baptismal records that I’ve read, I should add, concern an infant who was “born of the lawful marriage of [name of father] and of [name of mother].” Bigamy? Yeah, I’ve seen evidence  of that, too; though, in the interests of accuracy, even it runs against an impulse toward sensationalism, I have to say that I can only think of one example (at St. Philip’s, Richmond, already mentioned above) of obvious bigamy.

I suspect that one of the brothers of one my 2x-great-grandmothers was guilty of bigamy. But I haven’t yet posted the details, because so far the evidence I’ve amassed is highly circumstantial, and I haven’t yet found the “smoking gun” that would prove him guilty of what I now just suspect. This is one of those cases where things just look a bit weird, and the details don’t seem to add up. Am I just letting my imagination run away with me? Perhaps. But there is definitely something a bit irregular here, something that doesn’t quite look right. I will post details if and when I find that crucial piece of documented evidence.

For the most part, my Ottawa Valley ancestors (and yours too, if you had ancestors who settled in the Ottawa Valley in the nineteenth century) lived in small, face-to-face communities, where bigamy was not at all a viable life strategy: too many eyes and ears, too many folks who knew exactly who you were, and where your parents came from, and what your father did. And the penalties for bigamy in 19th-century Britain and the British colonies were quite severe: up to seven years of penal servitude, after all, and by “hard labour,” they meant, “We will work you so hard, we will make you wish you had never been born.”

On the other hand, the boundaries between regions and provinces, and even between the British-run Canadian dominions and the newly-forged American republic, were in the nineteenth century highly porous and permeable, and easy enough to slip through. You could cross the border into America without a passport in the 1900s (which was decades before the establishment of a regular system of passport control); you could totally game the system (which was not yet a “system”). For those with the ambition, or perhaps with the law breathing down their necks, there was always the chance to cross over (into the States), to head out, to head west, to “light out for the Territory.”

The brother (of the 2x–great-grandmother) that I suspect of bigamy was raised in Lanark Co., Ontario (whether born in Lanark Co., Ontario, or perhaps in Ireland: this I do not know), and he died and was buried a couple of thousand miles away, in Washington State, in the US of A. Did he cross that border, and take that escape route, into a new life with a new wife?

Have you come across any evidence of bigamy in your own family tree? Not to reduce genealogical research to the status of a gossip mag or a scandal sheet, but ‘enquiring minds want to know!’

  1. Obvious, as in, the priest explicitly spelled out the relationship between the parents of the baptized children, which was that of an uncle and his niece. The priest could not hide his disapproval of the “unlawful” union of uncle and niece even as he baptized their innocent children, and who could blame him? Btw, in the 1851 census, the uncle and niece were recorded as a married couple, which they certainly were not.