The Statistical and Moral Dilemma     

There was a lot of discussion about the Windsor-Essex County situation in the provincial annual reports of vital statistics. The concerns were both of a statistical and moral nature. During much of the 1890s these reports, usually authored by the Deputy Registrar General, made repeated mention of the high marriage rates in Windsor, Sandwich, and Essex County. They were characterized by adjectives such as “abnormal”, “excessive”, “anomalous”, “regrettable”, and eventually as a “monstrosity” in 1908. Provincial marriage rates had to continually be adjusted to account for the “extraordinary condition of affairs” (1908, p. 7)      

As the marriage rates in this region continued to climb, the criticism became more intense and more morally focused. The social fabric of Canadian society was under threat. In the 1902 report, the Deputy Registrar, Dr. Peter H. Bryce, wrote “that the City of Windsor is becoming a more than enlarged Gretna Green, where all persons of whatever quality can have the marriage ceremony performed celeriter et jucundissime is a fact repugnant to that sense of propriety which is supposed to mark the social qualities of the Canadian people.” (p. 7) In the 1905 report, authored by Bryce’s successor, Dr. Charles A. Hodgetts, there is an analysis of marriages in this region, with the following conclusions: “the foregoing figures clearly indicate the wholesale manner in which marriages are carried on, particularly at Sandwich and Windsor, and the great preponderance of marriages where both Bride and Groom are both residents of the United States is also most marked, the percentage being 83 in the former and 78 in the latter of all marriages registered in the respective municipalities. Of the American couples married in the latter municipality, of the males 35, and the females 45, were divorcees”. (p. 6)  Detroit was “famous for the number of its divorces” (1894, p. 8). These numbers would have seemed scandalous in a province that averaged 2 divorces per year from 1884-1893 (Facts of life by George Emery, p. 43)

Dr. Hodgetts then criticized both the
marriage license issuers and also the clergymen and their families, who often acted as witnesses. He recommended that the residency requirement for non-residents be strengthened and enforced as the then system of “hasty marriages is a blot on the good name of the province and a stigma to those trafficking therein” This recommendation for legislative change, like another bill introduced by Dr. Joseph Reaume (conservative MPP for Essex North) in 1904, came to nothing. Despite the moral issues, there was perhaps, politically and economically, too much of a good thing going on to change the rules. This type of commentary and criticism continued every year in the Vital Statistics reports, until the law was finally changed in 1913.

As well as the commentary in the provincial vital statistics reports, there was extensive coverage of the Gretna Green phenomenon in the local newspapers. The Windsor Evening Record and the Detroit Free Press were the two main players. During the early years of the twentieth century, the coverage by both papers tended to focus on the actual statistics along with some discussion of the economic benefits accruing to the clergy and marriage license issuers.

From about 1904 onwards, the Detroit Free Press, in particular, began to focus more on the perceived negative consequences of the marriage business. The stories became more critial, more morally focused, and increasingly advocated for change. The paper reported on a number of recommended, proposed, and even rumoured amendments to the Marriage Act, none of which came to fruition. These articles did, however, seem to have a temporary effect of somewhat reducing the numbers of Windsor and Essex County weddings from 1904-1906.

In one article, Dr. Joseph Rheaume (Conservative MPP for Essex North) is quoted as saying that the “traffic” in marriages gave the city “much unpleasant notoriety” (DFP: 1904: Mar. 20, p. 4). The paper, under headlines such as “Wed in Windsor, Repent Later” blamed Windsor and Essex County marriages for the increased divorce rates in Wayne County courts and the “demoralizing effect it [had] on the morals of the community” (DFP: 1904: Mar. 21, p. 4; DFP 1908: July 31, p. 3).

There were plentiful articles, almost a campaign, describing the “undesirable” kind of couples who were wedding in Windsor and the questionable way the marriage business was being conducted. See: Stories of the Happy Couples. They also published many stories about divorce cases involving couples married in Windsor, with sensationalist headlines such as: “Will the Windsor Marriers Defend this Case?” and “Circuit Judge Codd Arraigns Windsor Marriages as Cause of Divorce” (DFP: 1908: July 31, p. 3; DFP: 1910: Jan. 5, p. 4; DFP: 1911: Aug. 6, p. B5; DFP: 1912: Dec. 1, p. 5)

As the passage of the 1913 amendment to the Marriage Act became imminent, the Detroit Free Press published a final, pretty wholesale condemation of Windsor’s Gretna Green (DFP: 1913: Apr. 7, p.4; reprinted in the Windsor Evening Record: 1913: Apr. 8, p. 4) The first paragraph sets the tone: “In view of the circumstance that the Windsor marriage mill is a scandal to the whole Dominion, to say nothing of the fact that it is one of the serious obstacles Detroit has in the way of bettering social standards, the lukewarm attitude taken by the Windsor clergy toward the proposed marriage reform bill before the Ontario legislature is little less than disgraceful.”

The Windsor Evening Record did occasionally reprint critical articles from the other newspapers. It also sometimes published stories quoting or paraphasing concerned Detroiters. For example, one headline reads: “Windsor Marriage Mill produces grist for divorce courts. Detroit Pastor says that local Gretna Green is partially responsible for the loose home relations in Michigan” (WER: 1912: July 9, p. 1) There was, however, very little homegrown concern reported about the potential harm of the Gretna Green situation. For the most part, the Windsor Evening Record was more measured and neutral in its coverage.

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