Many divorced women in the 19th and early 20th century found it easier to say they were widowed instead of saying they were divorced. This individual’s 1900 census enumeration indicated she was a widow when in fact she was divorced and her ex-husband was very much alive. Sometimes divorcees would refer to themselves as “grass widows,” but that term was not approved by the census department. wisad



16 Responses

  1. There may be more than one reason the women listed widow instead of divorced. Some, in fact, did not want to attract the stigma attached with being divorced. Others could have been abandoned and were unaware their husbands were still alive. My great-grandmother was left with four small children and an infant when her husband went further west to find work. He never returned. He re-married a younger woman that he met. Did my g-grandmother know he was still alive? Only she knew this as she never divulged anything. Her children never did re-connect with their father.

  2. I’ve seen this a number of times now — as recently as this week. We first saw it when my husband’s great-grandmother listed herself as widowed on the 1920 census. The family story was that her husband abandoned the family, and honestly we’ve never been able to find a record for him after the WWI DR 1917-18. He was working as military contractor in a different state than the family at that time. I’ve always wondered if he was lost in the flu epidemic. But once you see this pattern with the “widowed” listing and see (former) husband living elsewhere, it’s easy to recognize.

    • I have a guy whose wife actually divorced him at about the same time. This guy apparently had some “issues” and I’ve wondered if he either enlisted in the service under a different name or died somewhere as a John Doe during the flu epidemic.

  3. That ran in my family for 3 generations! After I figured it out the first time, I was more willing to believe the contradicting information the 2nd and 3rd times!

  4. Thanks for info, i’ve encountered the same problem. I found marriage, then her widowed status but never a record of his death, maybe i can get through a brick wall now. kaye

  5. Has anyone encountered a divorced woman listing herself as Married on the US Census? I have found this on my husband’s side. His great-grandfather’s first wife listed herself as married and used his last name from 1910 until 1940, the last census before her death. However, family history says they divorced before 1910 and he remarried; my husband’s grandmother was born to the second wife in 1911. Despite the second wife taking his name and being listed as his wife on her death certificate in 1915, I have found no marriage record for this union. Obviously, I’m suspicious great-granddad never divorced the first wife. However, your post about divorced women claiming widowhood brings up the thought that the first wife may have tried to avoid the stigma of divorce by claiming to still be married, even though her husband was not around.

  6. I had an even bigger problem to deal with when I was researching Lena Sisson Gilbert Burgess. Not only did she claim to be widowed when she was actually separated/divorced, but, according to a distant relative, she hated and despised her ex-husband William Gilbert so much that she changed her last name and the last name of her children back to her maiden name, Sisson. She later remarried to a William Burgess. Only by looking under her maiden name was I able to find her in the 1910 census.

  7. I had never heard of a “Grass Widow”, so I googled it, There were a number of definitions, but the one I like the best is…
    Early 16th century (denoting an unmarried woman with a child): from grass + widow, perhaps from the idea of the couple having lain on the grass instead of in bed. The current sense dates from the mid 19th cent; compare with Dutch grasweduwe and German Strohwitwe ‘straw widow’.

  8. Hi, this just happened to me too. Great auntie listed herself as widowed but hubby died much later. Buried with his sister!! So there is a story there I think. Thanks for the post.

  9. We found out that my dad and brothers were not from same father who died before last one 2years before he was born. My grandma kept all tthe surnames tho.her hubby fought first world war met another so we are not sure of all the facts whether he was running 2 families or not

  10. So helpful! I was entirely confused when my great grandmother was listed as a widow in 1930 with 7 kids, then in 1940 with more kids, and all have the same name as the man who appeared in the 1940 census….Since he can’t retroactively go back and apply his name to kids 10 years prior in the previous census, I was wondering if he was there, then disappeared (left her) than reappeared (came back) and appeared in 1940! So …MIND BLOWN here!

  11. Interesting. How about the other way around? My Great Grandad had down that he was a widow on his marriage certificate in 1921 (to my great nan) but the person I found to likely be his first wife died in 1951. Could this happen? Would someone be able to marry when they are already married?

    • Legally they couldn’t marry if they were still married. But if they moved away from where they married the first time and where the first spouse lived, it could easily have happened.

  12. You want a dozy, I saw were a woman married a man twenty years her junior,and later married a man “listed” as a boarder in the Same house a little later! In other words she married both!

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