Early in my research experience a relative informed me my paternal grandparents, Earl Bingaman and Naomi Fischer, had previous marriages before they married each other. Family dirt, I love it!
Since my ancestors lived in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and never moved, I immediately searched the county marriage indexes but did not find any entries for the first marriages of my paternal grandparents. The question then became, where did they marry their first spouses?
On a second trip to the courthouse I checked for information concerning the divorces from their first spouses. After I did some inquiring, a clerk lead me to a door that had “Sheriff” printed about eye level. When the door opened there was a spiral metal staircase that went down to a basement. I asked the clerk, “Do you keep the sheriff in the basement?” She replied that the original door became unusable and needed to be replaced. The sheriff door happened to be lying around and they used it as a replacement.
When I got to the bottom of the stairs, there was one light bulb hanging over a long table. Numerous dusty books were stacked on equally dusty shelves. The clerk pointed me to the proper book and left me alone. With little difficulty I found the divorce dates. Earl Bingaman and Ella Mitchell divorced on 4 October 1920. Naomi Fischer and William J. Reichard Jr. divorced on 6 September 1921. That was it, just the dates and names. Where did these couples marry? I was intrigued, but where they married was not high on my priority list and so I tucked the information away for another day.
As my research skills grew, I learned about divorce proceedings. Another trip to the courthouse and their archives revealed a past I probably did not need to know. The record for Earl and Ella was located and on 20-plus pages was testimony, by various individuals, that outlined the story of betrayal that resulted in the end of their marriage. Also, Earl and Ella went to Wilmington, Delaware, to marry. While I made copies I mentioned to the clerk that my grandmother divorced her first husband on grounds of cruelty but what exactly the cruelty was I did not know. At that moment he turned to me and said, “I know, but I’ll let you read for yourself.” The record of my grandmother’s divorce listed Elkton, Maryland, as their wedding place but it also detailed three years of physical and mental abuse. My sister later mentioned, “There are some things about your grandparents you should not know.”
While reading about the divorces was shocking, I understood why my grandmother was such an independent woman in her later years and why she cherished her faith. It was through her that generations of unhealthy lifestyles were broken, and four generations have benefited from her struggles. We can learn from the experiences and trials of our ancestors if we have the courage to know who they were.