“Secret” Marriage in St. Joseph, Michigan in 1902

I love/hate mysteries, and this is probably one reason that I’ve been passionate about genealogy research for 30+ years. For a long time I focused on direct-line ancestors, but more recently I’ve been exploring all of the “side lines”–the brothers and sisters of my ancestors and their families. One benefit of this is that I’ve found several 2nd and 3rd cousins who have become good friends. 🙂

My most recent exploration involved one of my grandfather Barrett’s older sisters. She grew up in Pennsylvania, and her husband’s family was in Chicago before moving to Missouri, and yet in 1902 they were married in a small coastal town on the southeast side of Lake Michigan. How did they meet in the first place?!

As I found more records about their marriage, I noticed that they’d been married on a Wednesday. Was that unusual?? Wait, according to the documents I found, there were five other couples married on this Wednesday–in February, in Michigan–and two of those other couples were married by the same minister, W.P. French!

As I looked forwards and backwards in the online wedding registry, it seemed that there were multiple people marrying every day of the week in this small town, and most of them were from other parts of Michigan or from other states!

As I “Googled” to try to figure out what this was all about, I found a couple of articles that explained a lot:

According to the first article (https://www.michiganradio.org/post/100-years-ago-michigan-was-place-go-30-second-wedding), 100 years ago couples from Chicago could take a 4-hour boat ride across Lake Michigan and be married in St. Joseph, MI the same afternoon. The relaxed requirements for marriages in Michigan (including no wait time) made this town a hub for quickie weddings, and “the clerk was averaging a marriage every four minutes, with the fastest ceremony being just 30 seconds. “

The second article (http://absolutemichigan.com/michigan/michigan-history-st-joseph-wedding-capital-usa/) went further, saying that while we think of Las Vegas as America’s wedding capital, St. Joe was the undisputed wedding capital of the Midwest in the early twentieth century.

Well, who knew?! And as I searched for even more information, I found this:

I have absolutely NO idea what this is about. With so many people coming to St. Joseph, MI to get married, why did THIS particular couple make the newspaper? Did they do or say something that called attention to themselves? Was it a “secret” marriage because they eloped? Was that unusual for the “Marriage Capital of the Midwest”? And I’d say their marriage was hardly a “secret” after their names were published in the newspaper!

One of the things I’ve found fascinating AND …humbling… about genealogy research is that it gives the researcher such a broad–almost omniscient–view of an individual. We often know when someone was born, who their parents were, who they married, when they died…. We can see their life played out in documents, photographs, and headstones.

Despite these little “footprints” through time and space, however, I always find myself wanting to know more; really wanting to KNOW the people who came before me. I guess that explains why that even after 30 years of looking at census records, wills, deeds, faded pictures, and graves, I’m still engaged and interested…

As to this couple, after marrying in St. Joseph, Michigan in 1902, in 1910 they were making their home in Elgin, Illinois, west of Chicago. According to census records, Hamilton McKinley worked for the Elgin Watch Company as a “commercial traveler.” (In 1900 when he was unmarried and living with his parents in Mexico, Missouri, he had listed his occupation as “watch maker.” Prior to that, in 1898, he had served in the Spanish-American war.)

By 1915 the couple was living in Mexico, Missouri. Hamilton had taken over his father’s bakery business that had been established some 30 years before. He was still listed as the owner of the business (his brother, Alex, was the manager) in 1918.

Census records show the couple in the same town in Missouri in 1920, but by 1930 they were living in Los Angeles, California, renting an apartment on Crenshaw Boulevard. Hamilton listed his occupation as a jewelry salesman. They were still in California in 1935, but they spent some time that year in St. Petersburg, Florida.

At the age of 62, Hamilton Brown McKinley died in Glendale, California on April 10, 1938.

After a military funeral service, his body was placed in crypt #8252 at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. His widow, my great-aunt (or “grandaunt” as ancestry dot com calls it), was living in Los Angeles again in 1940 and owned this house (picture from Google Maps, street view):

But what happened over the next 20 years? Louella “Lulu” Barrett McKinley died in a nursing home in November 1960 in Cleveland, Ohio at the age of 81.

Why was she in Cleveland? She and her husband had no children and I don’t think that any of her siblings were in Ohio. Why was an autopsy performed? (The document says that it was “used for certification.”) Perhaps there was someone she knew there, or perhaps it was in her will (which I have not found) but somehow it was arranged for her body to be taken back to Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California to be interred in crypt #8252 beside her husband.

It’s possible that some of my Barrett cousins–descendants of my grandfather’s other siblings–know more of the story of this couple, so I’ll be checking with them. And also–like many other genealogists around the country–we’re all looking forward to the release of the 1950 census records in April 2022.

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