I know, I know, I’m a day late with this. Blame it on the recent weather (that’s what I’m doing). And because it’s Thursday, that means Film Friday will be getting the axe again this week. Apologies.
Right, so there is absolutely zero basis for today’s post. None whatsoever. The other evening I was aimlessly flipping through microfilmed newspapers at Robertson Library, when across my eyes flashes the following story, which I shall quote in full because it’s…it’s…oh, how would I describe it? Perhaps Jerry Springer-meets-Divorce Court-meets-the American Wild West of the 1870s? Yeah, that works. It’s quite random, but then again, random has pretty much been my bread and butter on here. Anyway, check it out:
The Semi-Weekly Patriot — January 25, 1877
A P.E. Island Woman in the West
Three years ago a man named A. W. Dennis was living happily with his wife (a Prince Edward Island woman) and children in Iowa. A widow named Ward was taken into their house to attend Mrs. Dennis in her illness. Mrs. Ward won the affection of Mr. Dennis. Dennis told his wife that he had determined to move further west, and he sent her to her people in P.E. Island to remain there until he could get settled in a new home in the far west. Then he sold out his effects, took Mrs. Ward and moved west to St. Cloud, Minnesota, where the pair lived together as man and wife. Mrs. Dennis, in her Island home, heard of the doings of her husband and determined to bring him to justice. She travelled two thousand miles, reached St. Cloud a few days ago, and took legal proceedings to secure the arrest of the guilty parties. When Dennis was brought before the justice, his wife, who still seems to cherish an affection for him, offered to withdraw the complaint (which would have sent him to State prison) provided he would promise to return with her to his family. This he gladly consented to do. She was, however, highly incensed against the woman, who, she claimed, was wholly responsible for her wrongs, and insisted upon prosecuting Mrs. Ward. The County Attorney, believing that both were equally guilty, declined to prosecute unless both were proceeded against. Mrs. Dennis thereupon withdrew both complaints. Mrs. Ward and a daughter, who was living with her, left for parts unknown, while Mrs. Dennis, upon the urgent solicitation of her advisers, took up her abode with her husband.
Very much an innocuous headline for a tale anything but innocent.
Now, they say that if a story sounds too good to be true, odds are it is; of course, every rule has its exceptions. So is this adulterous anecdote the real deal? Or merely an apocryphal affair? Well, therein lies the rub. I did a thorough search of two American newspaper databases to which I subscribe, but failed to turn up any sort of coverage, odd given how scandalous divorce cases were at the time; but not a big hairy deal really, because based on a blitz of genealogical research, I can tell you a few things about the people involved, which at the same time actually helps to lend much credence to the account.
Alexander W. Dennis was born in August 1841 in Chatham, New Brunswick, and moved to the Island with his family in the first part of 1842. It was on the Island that he would meet his wife Matilda (surname unknown but an Islander by birth), and where their first of three sons was born in 1867. Sometime before 1870, the Dennis’ packed up and moved to Osceola in Franklin County, Iowa, where they would come into contact with the abovementioned Mrs. Ward around 1874. Born Jane Shields Barker in Girard, Pennsylvannia in March 1831, at the age of seventeen she’d married Joseph M. Ward of the same state. The two relocated to Marysville, Franklin County, Iowa in 1855 (a stone’s throw from Osceola), and in 1861 Joseph joined up with the 32nd Iowa Volunteers. Upon his death three years later, killed in action in 1864 at the Battle of Pleasant Hill (Louisiana), Jane became the widowed mother of a number of children (her obituary indicates as many as ten). How the next decade played out for her I can’t say, but fate would eventually lead her into the household of the Dennis family as a nurse of sorts to the ailing Matilda. And as a lover of Alexander’s, of course. Now, do you know what else my research uncovered? How the story ends. And it will throw you for a loop.
I think we can all agree that the marital situation in the Dennis household was no doubt one fraught with tension following Alexander and Matilda’s confrontational reunion in court in 1877. Well, things must have become a whole lot worse because, four years later, Alexander filed for divorce from Matilda in June 1881, as well as full custody of their three sons. What the bleedin’ heck had happened? Dunno. But the law took his side in November, and though it must have been the talk of the town, it’s what happened immediately on the heels of that victory that no doubt raised more than a few eyebrows once again. Just days after winning his case, Alexander and Jane, suddenly back in the picture (although, I suspect, never too far away), were united in holy matrimony – yes, marriage – under God and above board this time. I’m not making it up – I found a record of it, and the pair appear on US census records together as husband and wife through until 1910. They eventually found their way to Salem, Oregon, and it was here that Alexander ended his days (he actually passed away in Portland, where he gone for a surgical operation), a most respected citizen according to his obituary, in February 1915. Jane followed him three years later in October 1918. No children ever came of the union.
As for poor Matilda, she drops from the historical record after her divorce from Alexander in 1881, and what became of her remains a mystery. It’s tantalising to surmise that she was the same Matilda Dennis involved in a high-profile divorce case in San Francisco in the early 1900s, although that appears to be pure coincidence. No, I hope she went on to find peace and love somewhere, with someone else, and had her own happily-ever-after. And if you should happen to know anything about that, please do drop me a line.
See you next week!
PEI History Guy
P.S. – The featured image for today’s post is an 1869 ‘bird’s eye’ map of St. Cloud, Minnesota, produced by Albert Ruger (he published one of Charlottetown in 1878).