A Mother's Angst
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
What does a mother do when the lives of her children are at stake? She'll even sacrifice her own reputation to make sure they're cared for. Read on...
Catherine Marie Kame Merriman was born before the dust of the Civil War had settled. In fact, her father had served in that war (see pension record below left). She grew up on a farm and could only complete her education through the 8th Grade before life intervened.
Although there is no solid proof, family lore had it that at the tender age of 16, Catherine fell in love with a wealthy merchant's son named Arthur A. Herbruck and they secretly married. When the merchant found out, however, he quickly had the marriage annulled.
(There is some corroborative evidence to support this story, at least in terms of the characters. A survey of city directories shows that Arthur's father, Augustus, was a "commission merchant and dealer in flour, feed, grain of all kinds, hay, straw, and field seeds of every variety." Augustus' entry is in large type, typical of individuals and businesses who had extra money to spend and reason to spend it. The directories also list two properties - further indication of prominence. Arthur is also approximately the same age as Catherine and both families hailed from Germany.)
After the annulment, Catherine married Robert William Merriman just after she turned 19, and the couple had two children, Nettie (1888) and George (1892), both pictured above.
As the story goes, Robert was a ne'er-do-well who eventually abandoned the family and headed west, but not before he sued his wife for divorce. (Evidently, he didn't want to be "encumbered" in his new life.) Back in those days, however, divorces weren't as easy to come by as they are today: you had to appear before a judge and plead some kind of 'good reason' for tearing asunder what God hath joined together, and Robert's case was no exception: He insisted that his wife was an adulteress.
Our family has insisted that this charge was absolutely unfounded, and when I looked into the possibility, I discovered that "adultery" was a common reason given in divorces because it swayed judges more convincingly than other charges, including spousal abuse and property issues. The problem with this was the person accused of adultery could bear serious social consequences should the charges be deemed valid by the community even if exonerated in court. In Catherine's case, adultery carried an additional stigma due to her baptism into Roman Catholicism: adultery could be grounds for the Church not granting a dispensation for divorce even if the state did, ruining Catherine's chances for a future husband.
There was an additional element in the divorce agreement: I learned that despite the stigma and risks of being accused of adultery, Catherine did not contest the divorce at all, but instead let it go and set her husband free. This made me most curious given the circumstances.
Evidently, Robert agreed to state for the record that he and Catherine were childless even though they had Nettie and George. I reasoned that Robert stated as much because there could be a risk that since he was the "aggrieved party" due to his wife's alleged adultery, the court would remand his children to his custody, putting the kibosh on his plans to head west.
However, I learned later that there was a much more important reason.
In many states at the time - including Ohio, single moms were frowned upon by the government, as it represented the wishes of the community. Ohio had a strict rule that said that in cases of impropriety - and sometimes even from the death of the husband, the state could seize custody of underage children, declare them wards of the state, and send them to orphanages until and unless they could be adopted. Furthermore, the children could never be adopted together - the idea was that they needed to "adapt" to their new families without the "burden" of previous family ties, including siblings.
Exceptions were made for single women running farms and some hardship cases involving urban widows, but not much more. It wasn't until 1920 that these draconian rules were abolished, about the time that women won their right to vote.
Thus, what Catherine had to face was contesting the divorce and try to rescue her reputation and risk having to testify about her children, or swallow her pride and not contest the charges.
What Catherine had to bear in those days cannot be appreciated fully by folks today: living at once with the stigma of being "officially" an adulteress while in fear of having her children taken away from her by the state.
Catherine's story had a happy ending, however. In 1896, Catherine married William Anthony Lothamer (pictured above, with Catherine's grand-daughter, Catherine) and he proved to be a kind and caring husband and father, eventually building the house that Nettie was to live in with her husband, John.