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Remember This? Sault's first divorce case

Married at 13, divorced at 19, this week we learn the convoluted story of Annie, Frank and Annie's family as told by the Sault Star in 1930

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

Note: The following article contains content that may be disturbing to some readers, including sexual violence, familial violence, incest, suicide, and references to the KKK.

In late 1930, the dissolution of a marriage made the front page of the Sault Daily Star, with the headlines loudly proclaiming, “Divorce is first case tried in the Soo.” While relationships had certainly ended in prior years, this particular case marked the first divorce action that appeared before a local court.

Beginning with Confederation in 1867, the federal government was responsible for granting – or denying – requests for divorce. There was no overall act that enshrined the right to divorce or a standardized process. Instead, each individual case was addressed through an Act of Parliament.

According to a report from the Department of Trade and Commerce on divorces granted in Canada, which tallied numbers for 1913 through 1930, Canada saw yearly divorce numbers that spanned anywhere from 10 couples to 213, with the overall trend increasing each year.

On May 30, 1930, The Divorce Act received royal assent, which permitted the provincial government to grant divorces and annulments through the Supreme Court of Ontario. At that point, all divorce cases were heard in Toronto at the provincial legislature, meaning lengthy travel for anyone in the Sault Ste. Marie area.

Later in 1930, a new law passed, which allowed cases to be heard locally before a Supreme Court judge. By late November, the Sault Daily Star reported that the first local divorce was scheduled.

On December 9th and 10th, 1930, the Sault Daily Star ran articles detailing the case. The divorce involved Frank, a steelworker, and his wife Annie. The two had married in 1924; he was 21, and while her age on the marriage registration was listed as 16, she was actually 13 years of age.

Their marriage soon fell apart. Just over a week after their wedding, Annie left their home on Douglas Street to live with her parents. While she came back to Frank shortly after that, she left to live with her parents once again less than two weeks later. This time, she didn’t return.

She wanted to live with her parents, however, Frank “did not like the mother or the rest of the family.” While the reason for his dislike wasn’t reported, a criminal case from 1927 involving her father Henry may hold some answers.

News articles of the criminal case first emerged in February 1927. Henry, a Thessalon resident, was arrested upon request of his wife; she alleged non-support of his family. However, he was soon facing what police vaguely described as a “serious charge.” He had already been hospitalized at the time of his arrest and, when officers arrived to take him into custody, he went into the hospital bathroom and slit his own throat with a razor. He survived, and after a stay in the Plummer Memorial Hospital, was held in the District Jail.

More details emerged as the case progressed. Henry was charged with attempting to commit suicide; one charge of procuring Annie’s sister, a 12-year-old girl, to become a prostitute; and three charges of incest. Four additional men were arrested and charged with offenses against Annie’s sister.

Annie’s sister gave testimony of her and two of her sisters “going upstairs” with men at the instruction of their father. Their mother also corroborated this, claiming that she tried to stop him but was afraid he would have killed her. Their mother also referenced a cross being burned on her lawn, presumably by the Ku Klux Klan, and “felt unnecessary, uneasy and hurt” by this turn of events. She felt that treatment may have been undeserved, although she did admit “she didn’t go to church as regularly as she should.”

The papers also discussed the instability that the family had experienced. They moved frequently between Sault Ste. Marie and Thessalon and lived for a period of time in a tent on the prairies. Henry had been “mixed up in” an altercation that led to a man’s death the year earlier: he got into a fist fight with a man who died of blood poisoning, likely as a result of the injuries he sustained. Henry was also charged that same year on accusations of stealing lumber.

All of this caused a fraught family dynamic that came to a head roughly six months prior to Henry’s 1927 arrest. Annie’s mother revealed that she had kicked Henry out of the house, saying, “He was going to shoot me…. I told him to go ahead and shoot me. I’ll die a hero. I’m not afraid to die a hero.”

As the trial progressed, another twist emerged. Annie’s sister, a key witness, recanted much of her testimony. She told the court that “Mother told me to tell it” and that she was promised a large doll and candy as a reward for her testimony.

Annie’s mother’s testimony, on the other hand, did not alter. She remained steadfast that her daughter’s initial testimony was accurate. The mother was charged with perjury; she broke down and cried incoherently as the charges were read.

The four additional men were exonerated since the claims that they were inappropriately involved with Annie’s sister had evaporated. However, all of Annie’s father’s charges held - multiple counts of incest, procuring, and attempting suicide.

In a statement to police, Annie’s father had admitted to assaulting his three daughters. The Sault Daily Star reported that he blamed it on having “trouble with his wife which drove him to drink and caused him to treat his own daughters badly” over the past decade. He was sentenced to 20 lashes and 12 years imprisonment in Kingston Penitentiary. According to the newspaper, “The judge stated that the charges to which [Henry] pleaded guilty were revolting and inhuman and [Henry’s] action was that of a cowardly animal, the only cure for which was physical pain.”

The case in 1927 horrified local residents and also likely provides some context for Frank and Annie’s brief marriage and subsequent divorce proceedings just three years later in 1930. The details of their divorce, as reported in the news, provided a timeline of the breakdown of their relationship.

Frank noted that while they were still married, he had witnessed Annie “[misbehave] herself before men outside the mother’s house.” This accusation of misbehaviour” was corroborated by a local grocer’s assistant, who witnessed “misconduct” between Annie and a taxi driver.

In 1927, when the couple had been married for six years but had barely lived together, Annie moved away, first to Thessalon and then to Toronto. It was not clear from the newspaper reports when exactly this occurred as compared to her father’s criminal case. Frank had contacted the Children’s Aid Society in Toronto, requested that they locate her, and had them inform her of his intent to divorce by mail. He was divorcing her on the grounds of adultery.

The justice granted a divorce, and it became absolute on June 25, 1931. Annie married a man from Thessalon later that year, and Frank would go on to remarry less than a year later. Future divorces were typically not subject to the same scrutiny as theirs, the first heard and granted locally.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provide SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more "Remember This?" columns here.

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