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Often, FACT is stranger than FICTION.

Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride Scams, Part 1

This article is Part 1 of a new sequence of blog posts regarding historical facts. Facts surrounding a variety of scams regarding Victorian American marriage.

Mail-order brides, matrimonial agencies, long-distance marriage contracts, disreputable persons, and ‘friends’ seeking diversion. This series of blog articles covers it all.

Kristin Holt | 12-part series Mail-Order Bride Scams 19th Century

Here you are, at the beginning, ready to dive into the scandals behind the shiny veneer of mail-order brides.

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Sounds like Fiction

Interestingly enough, readers of Mail-Order Bride-themed Historical Romance aren’t likely to find much in the way of FACTS in the fiction we so love.

But that doesn’t mean the true history behind the popular niche isn’t fascinating to those of us who read and write it.

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WELL-KNOWN RISKS

My last post addressed the two-sided Public Opinion regarding the idea of seeking a life partner. Options included: through an agency, a personal advertisement, or some other assistance. That last post cited an article that shed a positive light on the process of a “Mail-Order Bride.”

On another note, that post also debunked the myth that Victorian-Americans actually called such arrangements by mail “Mail-Order Brides.” Thus we’ve agreed to refer to these marriages as such.

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Kristin Holt | Quote from Chicago Daily Tribune on December 28, 1884, "... a fact that all women who ever answered a matrimonial advertisement, or intended to ever answer one, should remember: No man who has the ability or means to support a wife in comfort needs to advertise for one."

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VOLUME

It’s evident, merely by the volume, frequency, and vehement tenor of the WARNINGS. Newspapers shouted “watch out” in every state and territory, and kept on shouting for long enough to call “decades.”

BEWARE: –of swindled fortunes, disappointed misses, and disappearing funds. Tales abounded; grooms sent train fare and expenses to their brides-to-be, throwing good money after bad.

As a result, one thing is painfully clear: Most everyone knew the risks.

Most everyone knew that public opinion ran contrary to “mail-order” love or matrimony.

Victorian Americans did not cotton to the notion of marriage through any sort of brokerage, company, or matrimonial ad placed independently. Yes, folks wrote them out of desperation and loneliness. And near everybody else laughed heartily at their foolishness.

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Kristin Holt | Quote from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, of Brooklyn NY on May 10, 1865: "... the Justice could not take it upon himself to find brains for the women who answers matrimonial advertisements or consciences for the men who write them."

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Kristin Holt | Quote from The San Francisco Call on May 24, 1891, "If the real truth about nine-tenths of the matrimonial advertisememnts and matrimonial agencies could be reached and written up, it would afford some highly interesting reading of the sensational type worthy of comparison with the best detective romances ever conceived and published..."

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It seems the possibility of finding love (or at least a companionable, legitimate marriage) through a matrimonial service or personal advertisement was slim to none. There must have been an occasional happy story or two because women kept answering advertisements (as did men) and someone (other than newspaper reporters and swindlers) kept writing them.

At the time of Fritz Podzius (editor and publisher of Matrimonial News)’s death in 1916, he’d claimed to have facilitated the marriages of 20,000 couples.

Kristin Holt | The York Daily, York, PA. 12 Jan 1916. Death notice of Fritz Podzius, and his claim of bringing about 20,000 marriages.

The York Daily, York, PA. 12 Jan 1916. Death notice of Fritz Podzius, and his claim of bringing about 20,000 marriages.

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Kristin Holt | Stylized image representing Victorian-era men and women communicating by letters.

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NEWSPAPER REPORTERS

Oh, yes. Newspaper reporters. Whether or not they felt they were exposing crime, shedding light on a growing problem, pointing out the fallacy of youthful hearts engaging in such faulty methods of finding love… their meddling no doubt broke more than one heart and caused more than one young miss serious embarrassment. In studying historic newspapers, I found dozens and dozens of similar articles wherein an investigative reporter (male and female alike) pose as spouse-seeking society-respected adults and enter into a contract with a matrimonial agency or simply post an advertisement in the classifieds, such as the example that follows.

The following example is a portion of an article printed in the Chicago Daily Tribune on Sunday, 28 December, 1884.

Kristin Holt | Portion of an article regarding the percentages of letter-writing frauds engaged in entertaining themselves through mail-order bride agencies. Printed in Chicago Daily Tribune on Sunday, 28 December, 1884. (Part 1)

Portion of an article printed in Chicago Daily Tribune on Sunday, 28 December, 1884. (Part 1)

Kristin Holt | Portion of an article printed in Chicago Daily Tribune on Sunday, 28 December, 1884. (Part 2) "Personal -- Wanted -- A Gentleman engaged in the cattle trade... desires correspondence from a Chicago lady with a view to matrimony. She must be between 18 and 25 years of age and well educated...."

Portion of an article printed in Chicago Daily Tribune on Sunday, 28 December, 1884. (Part 2)

Kristin Holt | Letter written in a woman to a potentially fraudulent man. Portion of an article printed in Chicago Daily Tribune on Sunday, 28 December, 1884. (Part 3)

Portion of an article printed in Chicago Daily Tribune on Sunday, 28 December, 1884. (Part 3)

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BOREDOM AND ENTERTAINMENT

Some men sought a bride to work beside them on farms and in raising families (little more than an unpaid worker), and some men (obviously bored and seeking entertainment) posted ads as jokes and simply for their own entertainment. Newspapers of the era are filled with anecdotes and stories (probably with a kernel of truth) about men seeking fun by corresponding with hopeful ladies when they had zero intention of offering marriage. An equal accounting of flirtatious women (most of them already wed) carried on correspondences with men they had no intention of meeting. They must have found it diverting. And fun. And perhaps a little naughty.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, 18 Oct 1869

Matrimonial Correspondence, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 18 Oct 1869

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PRACTICAL JOKES

Some men’s advertisements apparently originated by someone else entirely. The Matrimonial News found itself embroiled in scandal by not requiring identification or references when allowing men (and women) to provide their name and submit an advertisement, as “friends” often found themselves the brunt of a joke when they received correspondence from hopeful unknown parties. Frequently such practical jokes were played by one friend upon another and apparently never made it to court or involved the law. One such example follows.

Boston Post, Boston Massachusetts, 16 Feb 1891

Boston Post, Boston Massachusetts, 16 Feb 1891

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What about you?

If you were the brunt of a practical joke in matters of the heart, would you ever dare risk love again? I know I’d be leery. I can’t imagine (or perhaps I can) what became of the lonely hearts who risked responding to an advertisement only to learn the remarkable-sounding gentleman on the other end of the correspondence was actually a newspaper reporter. Or worse, a woman who didn’t like me and decided to do me harm. I’m interested, and I’m sure all readers are, too. What are your thoughts on this subject? Please respond in the fields provided, below.

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Up Next

Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 2, delving into money-making scams wherein the perpetrators fraudulently relieved the lonely of their hard-earned money. Unfortunately, there are more stories to explore and more methods of defrauding women (and men) to lighten their pocketbooks and poke holes in their dreams.

Kristin Holt | Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 2

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Related Articles

Kristin Holt | For Sale: Wife, Part 1 of 2

Kristin Holt | The Heiress A Chambermaid: Adventures of Two Lovesick Men in a Hunt for $85,000 Through a Matrimonial Agency (1900, The New York Times)

Kristin Holt | This Day in History: August 25, 1885 (Girls! Come West!)

Kristin Holt | BOOK REVIEW: Buying a Bride by Marcia A. Zug

Kristin Holt | Matrimonial Offer: Latest in New York Style, 1851

Kristin Holt | Matrimonial Fool and His Money Are Soon Separated

Kristin Holt | Charlotte Smith Demands National Legislation to Require Matrimony

Kristin Holt | Mail Order Brides in the 19th Century American West

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The Rest of the Series

 

 

Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 2 Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 3 Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 4 Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 5 Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 6 Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 7 Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 8 Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 9 Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 10 Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 11 Nineteenth Century Mail-Order Bride SCAMS, Part 12 NEWSPAPER Brides vs. Mail-Order Brides Mail-Order Catalogs: Timeline & Truth Mail Order Brides in the 19th Century American West Book Review: Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier, by Chris Enss Sweet Americana Sweethearts Blogspot: WANTED: Midwife Bride Brown’s Matrimonial Method (on Romancing The Genres)

Copyright © 2016 Kristin Holt LC
Rewritten and updated June 2019