The Grass Widow Scandal

I know, I know. This is a bit of a downer story. But take a moment to read through this article, won’t you? Because I wanna talk about it.

The Dayton Herald, May 19 1885

Ok, first of all. OMG.

A horrific tale of a child possibly murdered by his own mother. But you know, this also is sensational journalism at its worst. To be honest here, this is heresay.

We are ready to believe this woman’s story, yet the only name identified is Coroner (W. P.) Treon. The informant, the accused, and even child are unnamed. I wonder if the correspondent came across this story by stopping in at the coroner’s office to ask “So hey, Bill, what’s new?”

Of course, the undercurrent of it all reflects the difficult life of an unmarried woman in 1885. The only thing we know about the anonymous informant is that she’s traveled ten miles to reach downtown Dayton from Taylorsburg, which at the time was a small community located in what is now the City of Trotwood. The township mentioned in the text below is Randolph.

History of the City of Dayton and Montgomery County, Ohio, Volume 1, Page 921, Augustus Waldo Drury. S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1909 – Dayton (Ohio)

We don’t know if she traveled alone, but it’s obvious she was at least uncomfortable, if not actually afraid, to connect her name to the story. She came to the coroner to request somebody of authority to check into the suspicious death of a child. And with a wave of a hand, was dismissed as a gossip monger.

And what are we to believe about the the grass widow who wanted to marry a man who had no interest in raising a child that wasn’t his. Unfortunately, we’ve heard this story in our modern times as well, haven’t we? We’ve all read too many news stories about women who make that nefarious choice.

It’s not really fair to make the assumption about our grass widow, though. Of course, an unmarried woman in 1885 would have it hard, especially with raising a child. She wouldn’t own the land she was living on, so likely had to make a living as a seamstress, laundress, or have a low paying factory job. Getting married would be a quality of life improvement, even if the guy was a straight up ratbag. But still, that’s quite a leap to say she murdered her child.

Perhaps instead, the community could have chosen to be sympathetic to a woman who lost her only child and rally around her with casseroles, good wishes, and maybe a dollar or two. But as a grass widow, respect was hard to come by.

When I first saw this story, which was shared by the Randolph Township Historical Society’s Facebook page, I was confused by the term Grass Widow. You too? I did some reading on this and found that the meaning has changed over the years, from respectful to naughty and eventually to an accepted term.

It seems the original meaning began as an English term for women whose husbands were away at length, whether at war, conducting business in another country, or have otherwise made a temporary “widow” of their wives. As the the usage became more common in the United States, the meaning began to change.

National Banner and Nashville Whig, Jan 10 1829, Page 1

Consider this article from 1829 written by a gentleman from Woodville, Mississippi who just wanted to share information on his fine community with anyone interested. This is from his letter to the editor of a Nashville newspaper.

A grass widow in 1829’s Mississippi may have shared the same connotation as the British usage. But we might have started to shift over to referring to women who are married, but are separated from their husbands with no expectations of living together again. The term is also attached to women who’ve had a child outside of marriage.

This little snippet of info from 1858 reflects when Grass Widow started to be used for a divorced woman. Apparently, Wabash, Indiana was the place to go to make this happen. A woman merely needs to board there for ten days, then can lawyer up. You may be as surprised as I was to see the term bewitching vixens in a Victorian era newspaper story. Because obviously, if you’re a single woman with experience, let’s turn it into something rather naughty.

By the way, this story was written by a Dayton reporter and was shared in newspapers across our great nation. Of course it was.

The Advocate, Buffalo, New York, Jul 8 1858, Page 3

But not so fast there, Wabash.

South Bend, Indiana, says hold my tar and feathers and watch this.

Brooklyn Evening Star, Aug 16 1859, Page 2

Speaking of lack of respect, there’s always been this. I give you 1890. And props to Boston for their use of creative adjectives. We’re just missing vixen here.

The Boston Globe, Apr 6 1890, Page 11

Not really surprising is how Congress made a mess of things when they enacted the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 outlawing polygamy as practiced by the followers of the Church of Latter Day Saints. By declaring plural marriages illegal, our government created their very own version of grass widows. Splitting these Mormon families resulted in countless women pushed out from their homes. They can no longer live with their husbands, who in the meantime are having their own problems with persecution. For lack of a better idea of what to do with these surplus wives, those in political power had a large hotel built in Salt Lake City to house them together.

“Look, single ladies,” they said. “Stay here so we can keep an eye on you, ok?” With only one registrant upon opening the hotel, the building was eventually sold for other purposes. In the meantime, tales were being shared in the Midwest that if a man were desperate to find a wife, go to Salt Lake City and you can pick one out.

As we move out of the Victorian Era and into the twentieth century, we do see Grass Widow still in use and still with the watch-your-husbands mistrust of these woman with life experience.

Photo by Lukáš Dlutko from Pexels

By the time we reach the 1960’s, Grass Widow is nearly always referring to a divorced woman. And by the 80’s, the term is considered well out of date and is treated as a curiosity.

Today we given this old-fashioned term a new life as a name for a lovely purple flower, the Grass Widow (Olsynium douglasii).

I’m curious though, who was already familiar with Grass Widows? Share your story in the comments!

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