Thursday, May 04, 2006

License To Thrive

In this morning's PG, Ruth Ann Dailey provides us with an amusing and informative behind-the-scenes look at "the happiest room in county government, the marriage license department of the Register of Wills office" of Allegheny County in downtown Pittsburgh. I used to go there quite often to do genealogical research. It's one of the few places where you can view (and copy) the actual signatures of your ancestors who lived over 100 years ago.

Procedures have changed quite a bit since the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began requiring civil marriage recording in 1885. The oldest application forms were very simple; the parties had to testify that they were unrelated by blood in any way, and if one or both parties were under age 21, a parent or guardian had to sign a separate form endorsing the union. Exact birthdates were a requirement as well, along with profession of the groom, since most women were homemakers in those days. And if one of the parties had been married previously, they had to give the exact date of divorce or spouse's death.

A few years later, the form was extended to include thing like "Are they drunk?", and replaced the birthdate with a simple age in years, which is a letdown for genealogists looking for every last detail of a person's life. Names and birthplaces of the couple's parents were now included. Also added was a requirement that the man be financially and/or physically able to support a family. The homeless and disabled need not apply!

Missing from Ruth Ann Dailey's column is any mention of the fact that you literally have to give blood to get married here. Or do you? It turns out that the old blood test is no longer a prerequisite to getting married in this jurisdiction. When I married over ten years ago, my bride and I each donated a vial of blood to prove that we were serious about getting married. Why else would you need to relinquish a few CCs of precious bodily fluids for a marriage license? We found out why when the County mailed us the test results.

The government was checking us for syphillis.

Now, I can see why there would be concern over giving state sanction to the legal union of people who are (presumably) going to be having sex (if they haven't already been doing so) after they have contracted some nasty venereal disease. But why limit it to syphillis? Because that was the prevailing form of nastiness when the blood test requirement was made law. If such a law had been passed in, say, 1990, it might have been an AIDS test. I'm just glad the blood test is a thing of the past, and I wish it had been so eleven years ago.

My other exposure to old marriage records goes all the way back to the old country. When Napoleon extended the boundaries of his empire to the Rhein, the part of Germany where most of my ancestors lived came within the jurisdiction of the Empire of the French. The Code Napoleon had rather strict requirements for recording major life events such as birth, death and marriage. Up to that time, there was no civil record of life events in that part of the world; you have to rely on church books for baptism, burial and wedding data. In addition to the usual birth and family data, the civil marriage record included signed testimony from four witnesses as well as "present and consenting" parents.

After the fall of Napoleon, the Rhenish districts continued to maintain civil records (now in German rather than French) for life events in the Napoleonic style. Military service was now mandatory for young men within this jurisdiction, since the government wanted to have a defense force ready in the event of another Napoleonic type invasion. So strict was the military service requirement that a man could not marry unless he had served his time in the army.

These old German marriage records were recorded on forms, not unlike the forms we use here, but with less pre-printed text. 80% of the form had to be hand written. After getting through the language recording the recent family history of both parties, the recorder then had to compose an essay detailing the groom's military service. This is nice for today's genealogists as it includes dates of service, which division the groom served in, and the location of the office that issued the discharge. It was quite a lot to write, but much of the information was standard, so the recorder was basically composing the same text over and over, altering only the details pertaining to the bride and groom.

As you can see, those records contain quite a bit of information beyond what is required today. Considering the amount of ink spilled, the number of people involved in signing the document, and the military requirement, I suppose I shouldn't complain about being made to shed a little blood for a syphillis test eleven years ago.

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