Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Myth of Historical Moral Purity 5/6/09

Napoleon once said, “History is a lie, agreed upon.”
A decade ago, while researching my book Stardust, set in the 1890s, I repeatedly came across stories and data that contradicted the claims of long-gone moral purity I’d heard from the elderly while growing up. Even the Noblesville family, the Tuckers, whom I researched and then fictionalized in my book, found themselves connected to many such contradictions.
“Divorce didn’t happen back then. It was unheard of.”
How many times were you told that?
The legendary Middletown study done in Muncie, Indiana in the 1920s, pegged Muncie’s divorce rate during the 1890s at around 7%.
If that figure is representative of Indiana as a whole, that means one of every 14 marriages ended in divorce. In that era, in a town like Noblesville, everybody knew at least 14 married couples, in fact, there were likely 2 or 3 times that many married couples in their church alone. In other words, everybody knew people who were divorced.
In 1893 one of the three sons in the Tucker family divorced his wife.
Also common in that era were stories about men who simply packed up and left wives, never to be seen again, but never divorced.
How about pre-marital or extra-marital sex?
“Well, it just didn’t happen back then!”
French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled America in the 1830s commented with surprise that American parents allowed their daughters to go off on walks and to dances with boys, “un-chaperoned.” This social reality is echoed in countless period novels and memoirs running right up to and beyond the turn of the 20th Century, and no doubt often led to the rather common outcome of human nature and romance.
One of the most interesting things I encountered in my research was the, “false promise” lawsuit. In the late 1800s such suits were near routine. It worked like this: A woman filed suit against a former boyfriend, asserting, “He claimed he loved me and would marry me, so I gave him my virtue. Then he didn’t marry me. He should be punished.”
While unimaginable today, why would a woman publicly admit to having pre-marital sex in a culture where it came with a socially damaging stigma, especially considering these cases were reported widely in Noblesville’s daily papers? I can think of only one answer. Her affair was already an item of gossip. And so, how do you retrieve a fragment of your honor? Go public and claim you did it only for high-minded reasons, but ended up victimized, diverting attention to your supposed abuser.
So what about the young couples who had pre-marital sex and remained silent or got married? Considering the social costs, my guess is they far out numbered the public scandals. False promise suites were likely the tip of the iceberg – the ones that went bad.
What’s more, I came across a study that compared the marriage and childbirth dates for women in several small New England villages in the 1820s and ‘30s. It found that over one third of the women in those villages were likely pregnant on their wedding day . . . or, 180 years ago babies only needed 5-7 months to gestate.
Also in the summer of 1893, the father of my research family, Dr. Albert R. Tucker, testified in a court case. It regarded a women from Carmel who had come to Noblesville and charged Noblesville’s state senator with “bastardy.” She claimed he had fathered her child. Both she and Boyd were married – to other people.
In war, the cruelty of our modern world seems to have reached horrific heights. Stories from recent conflicts in Bosnia, Haiti and the Sudan tell of rape used as a weapon of war. But when I found letters written home from World War I by Dr. Fred Tucker, the youngest son of the Tucker family, he mentioned encountering French refugees escaping battles around their villages. They told how their young women had been systematically abducted by German soldiers for “immoral purposes.”
A hard look at history provides even more reasons to believe that much of what is held up as proof of the decline of traditional morality is to some degree simply evidence of a more open and honest society.
In 1892, a young man named Charlie Queer (I’m not making this up) was arrested on Noblesville’s courthouse square dressed as a woman and claimed to police he was trying to make himself more attractive for the man he loved. In the summer of 1893, Charlie committed suicide. One can only imagine the torment of being gay in Victorian-era Indiana.
A few years later, Noblesville was scandalized by public revelations of a love affair between two women. Again, one must wonder how many such relationships simply remained private?
What’s this world come to when children have to fear sexual predators?”
Even that notion crumbles when you scratch the surface of history. In recent years the Catholic Church became embroiled in a sex scandal as adults began coming forward with stories of being molested by priests in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. And then even older people, whose abusers were long dead, related stories of being molested by priests in the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
Have we experienced a loosening of moral norms in recent decades? Certainly. But also, where pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and child abuse where hidden before, now they’ve been drawn out into the open and discussed.
As my friend Pat said recently, “Maybe it doesn’t happen that much more often, it just has better press.”

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