Tag Archives: divorce

A Goodly Bit of Romance

The newspaper headline must have brought a few chuckles: “OLD FOLKS HAVE ROMANCE.” The story continued, “Romance is not all reserved for young people, as the marriage of Isaac N. Holman, aged 70, of Decatur, Neb., to Mrs. Sarah E. Fenton, aged 51, of Springdale, in Sioux City, will testify. […] This is the third marriage for each of the contracting parties. Both are well along the avenue of life and to them the marriage represents good judgment as well as a goodly bit of romance. They have known each other a long time and the mutual admiration they have entertained has grown gradually until the marriage yesterday placed its happy seal upon their growing affection.” Following their marriage on 24 August 1908 at the home of the Reverend W. H. Montgomery of the Haddock Methodist Episcopal Church in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa, the couple was to visit Omaha. They would settle in Decatur, Burt County, Nebraska, where Holman, “said to be quite well to do,” made his home.1

That evening, their story appeared in another Sioux City newspaper: “LOOKING FOR LAND HE FINDS HELPMATE.” This version of the story was written with a level of flowery detail that, while entertaining, I don’t quite trust:

“I.N. Holman, a wealthy retired farmer of Decatur, Neb., came to Sioux City several months ago on a land deal. At the office of a real estate dealer he met a charming black-eyed widow, Mrs. Sarah E. Fenton, who had chanced in there on business. When they were introduced, he immediately lost all interest in Sioux City property or any property for that matter, and devoted all his time to the widow. Holman is 70 years old, and he pressed his suit with such ardor that before he returned to Decatur he had made a contract for something which he wouldn’t trade for all the farms in Iowa, namely the attractive widow. Today he returned to close the deal, which he says is the best he ever made. A license was issued this afternoon, the bride giving her age as 51. They will be married this evening and after a two weeks’ wedding trip will make their home at Decatur. “Maybe people think we’re foolish,” said the bride, blushing like a school girl, “but we don’t, we’re too happy.”2

This is far from the whole story. First, there are, in fact, two stories presented by these competing news articles. Did the couple meet at the land office, or had they been acquainted for years? This we may never know for sure; it seems unlikely, but not impossible, that the couple had crossed paths before meeting in Sioux City. Second, the “attractive widow” most likely did not have the black eyes of Bess the landlord’s daughter, charming as the description may be.3 And was she even a widow? Well, yes and no. Her first husband, George W. Fenton, died tragically in 1880 when accidentally shot by her brother-in-law.4 Her second husband, however, was still alive and well at the time of her third marriage; Sarah had divorced John Hoffman in 1902 citing his drunkenness and death threats.5 However, it would have been far from unusual for a woman to claim widowhood over divorce.


Sarah Ellen (Hall) Fenton Hoffman Holman Eklof, Iowa or Nebraska, ca. 1908; digital image 2001, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015.

Finally, would Isaac and Sarah live happily ever after? Unfortunately not. Isaac was granted a divorce from Sarah in 1914;6 a probate petition filed by his son the previous year, while suggesting that Isaac “indulged in intoxicating liquors to excess” and was “changeable, forgetful, and stubborn,” also stated that “the amount of money demanded from him by his current wife annoyed him considerable.”7 Oh dear. Isaac did not remarry before his death in 1922,8 but Sarah would marry – and divorce – once more.9 She resumed the use of the Holman name and at the time of her death in 1930, she was referenced as the widow of Isaac Newton Holman. Her short-lived marriage to this “wealthy landowner” was, perhaps, her one claim to local fame and financial stability.10

Lesson learned? Never assume. I had assumed that because this was the couple’s third marriage, and because they married in a community with a population greater than thirty thousand, that no mention would be made of their marriage in the local newspaper. In fact, I didn’t bother to check until their names turned up in the Findmypast database featuring a newspaper from across the state, and then learned that more than one version of the story existed. As it turns out, you never know what details of your ancestor’s experience might have made a compelling story deemed worthy of reprint!

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

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Drunkenness, Death Threats, and a Divorce Petition

On the 5th of February 1902, Sarah Ellen (Hall) Hoffman of Ashton, Osceola County, Iowa, who was then forty-four years old, signed her name to a petition that she sincerely hoped would grant her a divorce. John Hoffman was her second husband; her first husband had died of an accidental gunshot wound, and it was now eighteen years since she had remarried. As detailed in the statement of facts prepared for the court by her attorney, O. J. Clark, this marriage was now in shambles.1

It was established that the plaintiff and the defendant had lived together since the time of their marriage – except recently, as “the defendant has been away from home considerable.”2 It was added, “At times he will work and earn money, but will not use any of his earnings to or for the support of the family, but will stay at home most of the time helping to eat up what the plaintiff and children earn.”3 Then, the chilling details of their marriage spilled forth:

“That the plaintiff has always conducted herself toward the defendant as a loving and dutiful wife, but that the defendant, disregarding his duties towards your petitioner, has always been abusive and ugly towards her, and of late years has become brutally coarse, violent and vulgar towards your petitioner, often calling her the most vile names in the presence of her children and so does without any cause therefore, often striking, kicking and otherwise abusing your petitioner, without cause, often leaving black and blue marks on the person of your petitioner for weeks at a time as the result thereof. That at times the defendant, without cause, threatens to kill your petitioner, threatens to put a hole through your petitioner’s body, threatens to cut her heart out and to kill your petitioner with a knife. That on one occasion said defendant attempted to carry out his threat of killing your petitioner with a butcher knife, and attacked her therewith, when her daughter in attempting to prevent defendant’s harming your petitioner, received the blow with the knife herself on the hand, cutting the cord to one of her fingers off and otherwise injuring her hand, so that she has very little use of said finger, and thus, to that extent has made her a cripple for life. That the threats thus made, the kicking and striking are of very frequent occurrence when he is at home, that he sleeps with his clothes on, and at times in the night will begin his abuse of your petitioner without cause, and threaten to kill her with his knife, and will begin to open and shut his knife so that the plaintiff can hear it click and thus frighten her and worry her all night at a time.”4


Osceola County, Iowa, Circuit Court File 3036, Sarah E. Hoffman v. John Hoffman, for “Petition in Equity,” 20 March 1902; Clerk of District Court, Sibley. The surname Hoffman appeared in this text as Huffman, but in some instances the “u” was overwritten with an “o.” Thus, I have transcribed the name as Hoffman.

In recent years, the defendant had become “addicted to the use of intoxicating liquors, and is an habitual drunkard, which habit he has acquired since their said marriage.”5 The statement continued, “That the plaintiff’s health has become undermined and broken, and if this treatment continues her health will give out entirely and she fears she will die there from – if the defendant does not in fact kill her outright.”6 It’s truly appalling to think what my third great-grandmother must have endured, and it’s to her credit that she had the strength to initiate a divorce at this time.

It would be interesting to learn what grounds for divorce were required in Iowa in 1902; apparently, in this case, habitual drunkenness, horrific abuse, and failure to provide support were sufficient. The divorce was granted in March of that year, at which time Sarah received custody of the couple’s teenage son, possession of the kitchen and household furniture, a return to her former name, and, most importantly, a chance for a better life.7

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