I will reprise my presentation. “The Montana Gin Marriage Law of 1935” on October 9, 2013, at 3 p..m. at Aspen Point in Bozeman. Look for details under the Events button above.
My parents wedding may have been the only one in Montana in August of 1935. Certainly, it was one of very few. The reason was the Montana Gin Marriage law, which made it impossible to get a wedding license. The law, which went into effect on July 1, required couples to get a health certificate signed by a doctor, and wait three days to get a marriage license. When doctors refused to sign the certificates, Montanans discovered there was no legal way they could get married.
This Saturday, September 28, at 9:30 a.m., I will tell about efforts to circumvent the little-known law and get it repealed. The presentation at the Pioneer Museum of Bozeman is free and open to the public. It is the last of the Gallatin Historical Society Fall Lecture Series for this year.
My parents wanted to avoid the cost and hassle of a physical exam, so they bought their wedding license in June and held onto it until the August wedding date that they had been planning for several months. The way things worked back then, a couple could buy a marriage license from the County Clerk and then find a justice of the peace or a clergyman to perform their wedding ceremony whenever they liked. The marriage was official when the couple returned the signed license to the clerk. A few couples bought licenses in June for July weddings, but not many held them for two months like my parents did.
Many states passed Gin Marriage laws in the 1920s and 30s. But Montana went further than most with the physical exam. It was primarily a eugenics law designed to improve humankind by keeping people from having defective children.
The new law had teeth. If doctors signed the certificates without a proper physical, they would be guilty of a felony and could lose their medical licenses. Doctors said signing the certificates made them liable if the couple ever came down with any of the listed diseases, or had a defective child. Doctors refused to sign the certificates so County clerks couldn’t issue marriage licenses.
The law set off a long chain of events. As my mother put it, “There was a rush to the altar in June of 1935, and a rush to the delivery room nine months later.” Mom was right.
Examination of county records shows there were twice as many marriage licenses issued in June of 1935 as in the same month of 1934 or 1936. Mom said my Uncle Jim and Aunt Sally were typical of the young couples who rushed to get married. They had known each other less than a month on their wedding day.
The impact of the law on the birth rate was also dramatic. Nine months after the explosion in weddings, March 1936, Saint James Hospital in Butte recorded 177 births, twice as many as in March of the year before. One of those births was my cousin. When Mom went to visit Aunt Sally and her new baby boy at Saint James, expectant mothers lined the hallways on cots. They had to actually deliver their babies before they could get a room with a regular bed.
Shortly after the law took effect, newspapers began publishing stories about its impact. In Butte a young couple turned away from the county clerk’s office went from doctor to doctor trying to find one who would sign the required health certificate. An Idaho couple that requested a wedding license in Butte left the county clerk’s office in disgust and returned home where marriage laws remained more lax.
On July 19, William A. Patt, a retired judge in Dubois, Idaho, announced that he was willing to marry Montanans there. “It isn’t right, that system in Montana, that discourages marriage,” Judge Patt said. He offered to perform marriages “at any hour of the day or night.” An Idaho marriage license cost $3 and Judge Patt charged $5 to perform the ceremony. That was a tremendous profit for the kindly old judge.
By the end of July, a citizens’ group in Billings announced plans for a petition to put the Gin Marriage Law on the 1936 election ballot. The referendum effort, spearheaded by the Billings Commercial Club, was immediately joined by the Billings Federation of Women’s Clubs. They sought help from chambers of commerce, commercial clubs, and women’s’ club federations across the state.
The Montana Constitution provided that the law would be suspended as soon as at least 5 percent of the voters from at least 40 percent of the counties signed the petition. The signatures had to be collected within six months of the end of the session when the law was passed. That left just over a month to gather signatures, get county clerks to verify them, and submit the petitions to the Secretary of State.
The people trying to get rid of the law raced to gather signatures, and by September 4, 41 counties turned in its petitions with 21,648 signatures, more than the required number. The Secretary of State immediately announced that the law was suspended. The next day Montana’s began buying wedding licenses and getting married.
With couples able to marry without hassles, the gin marriage law quickly faded from memory. It did appear on the 1936 ballot, but generated little attention as the public focused on the presidential race that served as a referendum on the New Deal. Voters rejected Gin Marriage with 64 percent opposing it. The fluctuations in marriage and birth rates that are so obvious in monthly statistics cancel out in annual reports so they became invisible. Also, support for eugenics waned when people learned about its horrible applications by the Nazis in the aftermath of World War II. Today few people have even heard of Montana’s Gin Marriage law.
If you’d like to know more, come to my presentation on Saturday. I’d love to see you there.
— Photo courtesy of Fern Kirley, the bride’s sister.