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The Show Me State and divorce

Yeah, actually, The Legal Genealogist really was poking around in old statute books again last night.

MO.divToday is the official kickoff of the 2015 Annual Conference of the Missouri State Genealogical Association (MoSGA) — a two-day conference entitled “Liars, Laws and Brick Walls.”

So, of course, I had to look and see what Missouri law used to say about liars — and particularly those who promised lifelong love and fidelity… and lied.

Those whose marriages ended — or who wanted them to end — in divorce.

And all I have to say is … I’m awfully glad I was born in the second half of the 20th century.

It would have been a whole lot harder to deal with an erring spouse — or even a plain old ordinary unwanted spouse — under early statutes.

Here’s what Missouri law said were the grounds for divorce in 1845:

When a marriage hath been or shall be solemnized between two persons, and either party at the time of the contract was, and still is, impotent, or had a wife or husband living at the time of the marriage, or has committed adultery subsequently to the marriage, or wilfully deserts and absents himself or herself, without a reasonable cause, for the space of two years, or shall be convicted of felony or infamous crime, or addicted to habitual drunkenness for the space of two years, or shall be guilty of such cruel and barbarous treatment as to endanger the life of the other, or shall offer such indignities to the person of the other as shall render his or her condition intolerable, or when the husband shall be guilty of such conduct as to constitute him a vagrant, … the innocent and injured party may obtain a divorce from the bonds of matrimony…1

Not exactly the no-fault provisions we have today, are they?

And it was risky to lie to get a divorce. The person asking for the divorce had to swear that “the complaint is not made out of levity or by collusion, fear or restraint, between the complainant and defendant, for the mere purpose of being separated from each other, but in sincerity and truth…”2

And, the statute went on: “If it shall appear to the court that the adultery, or other injury or offence, complained of, shall have been occasioned by the collusion of the parties, or done with an intention to procure a divorce, or that the complainant was consenting thereto, or that both parties have been guilty of adultery, then no divorce shall be decreed.”3

Read the last phrase of that paragraph again.

If the husband was fooling around, the wife could get a divorce.

If the wife was fooling around, the husband could get a divorce.

But if both the husband and the wife were fooling around, they were stuck. No divorce for them!

And oh… if just one of them was fooling around? Just one of them lying about the “faithful until death do us part” bit?

That guilty party, the statute provided, “shall forfeit all rights and claims, under and by virtue of the marriage ; nor shall the guilty party be allowed to marry again (within) five years after such divorce… ”4

The things you learn when researching “Liars, Laws and Brick Walls.”


  1. §1, Chapter 53, “Divorce and Alimony,” in The Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri (St. Louis: State Printer, 1845), 426; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Aug 2015).
  2. Ibid., §2, at 427.
  3. Ibid., §7.
  4. Ibid., §8.
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