A few weeks ago, I visited Decatur City Cemetery for the first time. It is probably one of the oldest cemeteries of its size in Atlanta, even older than Oakland Cemetery.
I stopped by the office to find the location of a few graves and met Wilbur, who was more than happy to help me. He and his co-worker, Demetrius, were a welcome surprise to a hopper like me. The reception I get at cemetery offices is not always friendly. When the computer database didn’t yield what I was looking for, Wilbur went through the old paper card files. Still no luck.
That’s when he got out the old cemetery books from the 1800s. I carefully handled the worn pages, scanning the faded handwritten names and dates from another age. Together, we found the information. After thanking them both, I was on my way. If you are ever looking for a grave, visit Wilbur and Demetrius. They are top notch fellows who will go the extra mile to help you.
It didn’t take long to find the graves. While meandering through what is referred to as the Old Section, I came upon the monument for the family of the Rev. William Henry Clarke. His name was on one side of the base, his wife, Alice, on another, and their teenage son was on another. Rev. Clarke was born in 1804 and died in 1872. I didn’t think much of it until I got home and started digging into his past.
The Three Wives of the Rev. William Clarke
Alice was the second of the three wives of Rev. Clarke. What was especially unusual about Rev. Clarke’s wives is that they were all sisters. He married the oldest sister, Melinda Kirby, on Nov. 21, 1828 in Morgan County. She was 19 at the time. Their son, the Rev. Elijah Henry Clark, served with distinction in the Confederate Army in the Civil War, and was a representative for DeKalb County in the Georgia House of Representatives.
After Melinda died on February 23, 1837, Rev. Clarke married the next oldest Kirby sister, Alice, a mere two months later on April 29, 1837. Alice died in August 1863. Rev. Clarke waited a little longer to marry younger sister, Julia Anne Kirby, in March 1865. He died seven years later, but Julia Anne is recorded to have died in 1905.
One of my friends commented that Rev. Clarke must have had a good relationship with his in-laws.
A widower marrying not just one but two of his first wife’s sisters is rare. But one sister-in-law? Not so much. In an era when healthcare was just emerging from the Dark Ages, women died much earlier than they do now, often in childbirth. As a result, a man might be left with several young children and no one to help him care for them.
The 1850 U.S. Census lists Alice and Rev. Clarke as having four children ranging in age from an infant to 14-year-old Elijah. Julia Ann was living with them at the time. Unmarried, she probably helped Alice care for the children and was well acquainted with her brother-in-law.
Today, one might look at such marriages with a raised eyebrow, thinking perhaps some adulterous affair was brewing before the death of the wife. But most of the time, it was a matter of practicality, not romance. A man with several children to look after might turn to the nearest single female he knew he could trust with rearing them and running his household: his sister-in-law.
Whe I first wrote this piece, I assumed that because Rev. Clarke was probably not a wealthy man due to his religious occupation, he might not have been able to pay for childcare. One of his descendants wrote me later to correct me. Rev. Clarke (whose nickname was “Big Henry”) was one of Decatur’s wealthier residents (and owned quite a bit of land) could well afford to hire a nanny for his children. But not every widower had that luxury.
When Alice died, there were still three children under the age of 16 in the house. It was only natural that Rev. Clarke might turn to Julia Anne to take their mother’s place.
Marrying Your Sister-In-Law
One example of this situation is the case of British author Jane Austen’s younger brother, Charles. In 1814, his first wife, Fanny, died in childbirth. Being a naval officer, he left his surviving three daughters in the care of his wife’s older sister, Harriet, and returned to sea.
In 1820, Charles and Harriet married and had three sons and a daughter. Charles’ career in the Navy does not appear to have faltered because of his marriage. He became a rear admiral in 1846, and was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the East India and China Station in 1850. The Austens were married for 32 years, until Charles died in 1852. Harriet died in 1869.
However, England’s Anglican Church was against most of these unions, considering it almost akin to incest. Reformer Felicia Skene’s novel, The Inheritance of Evil; Or, the Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife’s Sister (1849) addressed this topic in melodramatic fashion.
The prohibition against a man marrying his brother’s wife does have religious roots. It comes from an Old Testament text: “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” (Leviticus 20:21.) Genesis 2 states that husband and wife “became one flesh,” therefore a wife’s sister was really the husband’s own sister, so he shouldn’t marry her.
The Marriage Act of 1835 made marriages between widows or widowers and their siblings in-law illegal. Any such couple that wished to marry had to go to a country with more flexible marriage laws, such as Italy or Norway. The Act DID legalize all marriages within the prohibited degrees of affinity (i.e. with deceased wife’s sister) that had taken place before August 31, 1835, such as that of Charles Austen. It’s hinted that he and Harriet may have wed in France, indicating that even before the Act was passed, they feared public opinion might go against them.
As far as I know, such a law was not in place in the U.S., so the practice was much more accepted. In fact, it cropped up in my own husband’s family tree. One of Chris’ great-great-grandfathers, after the death of his first wife, married her younger sister.
In 1907, Parliament passed the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act, which repealed the section of the 1835 Marriage Act outlawing these marriages. However, it was still illegal for a man to marry his widowed sister-in-law after the death of his brother. That impediment was removed with passage of the Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act of 1921.
Going back to Rev. Clarke, I learned that Julia (although her name is not on the monument) is buried in the family plot with Alice and the Rev. The location of first wife Melinda’s grave remains unknown. I do wonder if the Kirby sisters (as young girls) ever imagined that each one of them would become the wife of a minister one day. Perhaps.
Just not to the same one.