Michigan’s Secret Marriage Law and Overcoming its Genealogical Hurdles

Post contributed by Marilyn Creswell, MLIS

Dorothy Shepard was a single woman in her parents’ household in the Spring of 1926. By January 1927, she was married to Thomas Creswell. What’s abnormal about this situation is that there is no marriage record.

No one in my family had heard of an anniversary for my great-grandparents, Thomas and Dorothy. They were both long-time residents of the same county, but a search of the county clerk records turned up empty, as did a follow-up question to the probate courts and the Michigan Vital Records Department.

Since 1897, the state of Michigan has allowed for what is called a “secret marriage,” or more formally, a “marriage license without publicity.”[1] According to MCL 551.203, only the parties to a secret marriage can access or unseal a secret marriage record. Unfortunately for me, the two people involved have been dead since 1942 and 1984, respectively, so the potential record is inaccessible in perpetuity.

What I did for my (now approved) application to the General Society of the Mayflower Descendants is what I’d advise any librarian helping patrons with family history research to do. I built as strong of a case that I could, spelled out the information I had, and left it up to the registrar. I provided:

  1. The 1920 censuses showing each individual,
  2. Subsequent censuses showing their relationship as husband and wife (especially in the decades that record the number of years married or age at marriage), and
  3. Obituaries.

Secret marriages happen for all sorts of reasons. In some jurisdictions, secret marriages were more common in rural populations because the official channels were harder to access. Celebrities might want to maintain some degree of personal privacy. Underage marriages and other scandals sometimes can legally go under the radar with secret marriages. My great-grand were not celebrities, Dorothy was already 26, and the couple wouldn’t have a child for another year. I suspect it was a matter of convenience for my family: Thomas’s father was a justice of the peace who could perform a secret marriage, and after the marriage, all of them lived together.

Compiling all of this proof paid off: the General Society of Mayflower Descendants did not complain about the lack of marriage proof when they approved my application. Nonetheless, it was burdensome to conduct this family history research and were I not an archivist, it might have been a frustrating dead-end. People invested in making vital records public may want to advocate for the release of old secret marriage documents in Michigan or similar documentation for California’s confidential marriages. Until then, archivists can help patrons track down as much circumstantial proof as possible.

[1]     Issuance of Marriage License Without Publicity (excerpt) Act 180 of 1897, http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(0mkoyevy00rwhmfyuhxclcj5))/mileg.aspx?page=GetObject&objectname=mcl-551-201.

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