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“I am fat, fair, and 48. 5 feet high. Am a No. 1 lady, well fixed with no encumbrance: am in business in city but want a partner who lives in the West. Want an energetic man that has some means, not under 40 years of age and weight no less than 180. Of good habits. A Christian gentleman preferred.”
Labeled as “Announcement #245” and dated January 7, 1857, this honest and detailed personal advertisement was one of thousands of that appeared in mail-order newspapers, magazines and catalogs distributed across the United States beginning in the late 1850s. The publications were designed to help single men and women find a spouse.
The promise of boundless acres of land in the West lured hundreds of men away from farms, businesses, and homes in the eastern states as tales of early explorers and fur trappers filtered back from the frontier. Thousands more headed for California after hearing the siren call of Gold! Tracts of timber in the Northwest and a farming paradise in the Willamette Valley of Oregon had even more people packing up and leaving home for the Promised Land.
The vast acres and the trees and the gold were all there, and men set about carving their place in the wilderness. By the early 1850s, western adventurers lifted their heads and looked around and realized one vital element was missing from the bountiful western territories: women.
According to the October 6, 1859, edition of the Daily Alta California newspaper, it was estimated that in all the territory west of the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean there was one woman to every two hundred men. At the close of the Civil War, the lack of men in the East was just as pronounced. Capitalizing on that need on both sides of the country were mail-order bride publications.
Matrimonial News was one of the most popular mail-order bride newspapers. It was established in England in 1870 and was published weekly in San Francisco, Kansas City, Missouri; and London. The paper’s editors proclaimed that the intent of the material was the happiness of their readers. The code of rules and regulations, posed in each edition of the paper, was strictly enforced. All advertisers were required to provide information on their personal appearance, height, weight, and their financial and social positions, along with a general description of the kind of persons with whom they desired correspondence. Gentlemen’s personals of forty words or under were published once for twenty-five cents. Ladies’ personals of forty words or under were published free of charge. Any advertisements over forty words, whether for ladies or gentlemen, were charged a rate of one cent for each word.
The personal ads were numbered, to avoid publishing names and addresses. Replies to personals were to be sent to the Matrimonial News office sealed in an envelope with the number of the ad on the outside.
Every edition of the Matrimonial News began with the same positive affirmation: “Women need a man’s strong arm to support her in life’s struggle, and men need a woman’s love.”
219 – Is there a gentleman from 30 to 45 years of age, weighing 170 to 200 pounds, measuring 5 feet and 10 inches up, honorable and intelligent that desires a good wife and housekeeper. Let them answer this number. I can give particulars, photo and best of references if required. Christian preferred.
282 – A widower, merchant and stockman, lives in Kansas, 46 years old, height 6 feet, weight 210 pounds, brunette, black hair and eyes, wishes to correspond with ladies of same age, without encumbrances and with means, must move in the best society and be fully qualified to help make a happy home: object, matrimony.
257 – Wanted someone to love, who will be true and sweet, and not only a darling dove, but truly a wise helpmate. She must be of noble birth, who’s worth could not be told, as misers count that sordid worth, of stocks and bonds and gold.
268 – Two good looking young men in a Missouri town, having money at their disposal would be pleased to correspond with two jolly young ladies. Object a quality time and its results.
233 – Answer to 82 – There is a lad in Missouri with a foot that’s flat, with seeds in his pocket and a brick in his hat, with an eye that is blue and a No. 10 shoe – he’s the “Bull of the Woods” and the boy for you.
266 – I want to know some pretty girl of 17 to 20 years. I am 29, 5 feet 9 inches tall, a blonde: I can laugh for fifteen minutes and I want some pretty girl to laugh with me.
252 – I move in the best society, am 28 years of age, weight 168 pounds, height 5 feet 8 inches, light complexion, heavy mustache, and would like to correspond with some young lady, object matrimony.
214 – Respectable young man, with good position in city, 20 years old, desires the acquaintance of a modest young lady, between the ages of 17 and 21, with home nearby. Object: to attend operas and church; perhaps more.
Churches also helped to match lonely miners and homesteaders with spinsters and widows longing to be married. Such was the case with missionary Elkanah Walker.
“You ought by all means, to have a good, healthy, patient, well-informed devotedly pious wife. There is Mary Richardson of Baldwin, Maine, who has offered herself to the [Missionary] Board, but we cannot send her single. From her testimony, I should think her a good girl. If you have nobody in view, you might inquire about her.”
American Missions Board Secretary William Armstrong to Elkanah Walker-March 20, 1837
Mary Richardson was introduced to Elkanah Walker in April 1837. Their meeting was precipitated by a written request to a friend and missionary student from Elkanah explaining that he was searching for a wife. According to the Mary’s journal, on hand at the Washington State University Library, Elkanah was described to Mary as a “fine man…who must be known in order to be justly appreciated.”
Elkanah stood at six-foot-four and was quite self-conscious of his height. He was painfully shy and unassuming, so much so his friends said it was hard for him to even say amen at the end of his prayers. He was born on August 7, 1805, in North Yarmouth, Maine. He grew up on a farm, attended church regularly, and was the sixth child in a family of ten. From an early age he aspired to be a pastor. He entered the ministry shortly after he turned seventeen.
Elkanah and Mary shared a zeal for serving the Lord. Born on April 1, 1811, Mary knew by the age of ten that she would become a missionary. Like Elkanah, she also came from a large family; she had eleven brothers and sisters. After excelling in all her subjects at school and graduating with high marks, she went on to attend seminary. Once her formal training in missions was complete, she applied to the American Missions Board for a position in the West, but because she was single, her request was denied.
“I saw nothing particularly interesting or disagreeable in the man,” she noted in her journal on April 22, 1837, “tho I pretty much made up my mind that he was not a missionary, but rather an ordinary kind of unaspiring man who was anxious to be looking up a settlement.”
In spite of the uncomfortable first meeting, Elkanah dared to return to the Richardson home later that same evening with Reverend Noah Emerson, pastor of the local Congregational Church. The men were to attend a missions meeting in the area and stay over at the Richardson’s home. The following morning, Mary and Elkanah had occasion to sit and talk about their desire to be missionaries to the “heathens.” After their discussion Elkanah made his intentions known to Mary. The opportunity to serve the Lord as a missionary was appealing, but she questioned the wisdom of becoming engaged to a mere stranger.
“The conflict was rather severe. The hand of Providence appeared so plain that I could not but feel that there was something like duty about it, and yet how to go to work to feel satisfied and love him, I hardly know,” Mary wrote in her journal on April 23, 1837. “But I concluded the path of duty must prove the path of peace. I could discover a good foundation for true friendship.”
Mary and Elkanah were not married right away. Elkanah had to complete his seminary training first. The couple wed on March 5, 1838 and left for Oregon on March 20, 1838. The Walkers served as missionaries to the Pacific Northwest Indians for close to ten years and the pair had seven children. They left the area after natives attacked the mission and killed many of the missionaries living there. The couple relocated to Forest Grove, where Elkanah took a position as pastor for a local church. He later helped found the Tualatin Academy, which later became Pacific University.
Elkanah died in 1877, Mary missed her husband terribly and recorded thoughts about her loss in the journal she had started five years prior to their marriage. “It seems as though I can’t live without my husband. “I feel so lonely. I think of so many things I want to tell Mr. Walker,” Mary sadly recalled. “I realize more and more how much more I loved him than anyone else.”
Mary passed away twenty years after her beloved Elkanah. The relationship, which had begun in writing, endured for close to four decades.
Not everyone who was prompted by a church to correspond with an eligible bachelor or who answered mail-order bride advertisements enjoyed happy-ever-after endings. In the case of the schoolmarm and the scoundrel, the couple never made it to the honeymoon.
In the spring of 1873, Eleanor Berry responded to a personal ad that ran in the April 12, 1873 edition of the San Francisco Magazine. “Lonesome miner wants wife to share stake and prospects,” the advertisement began. “Please respond to Louis Dreibelbis in Grass Valley, California.” According to an article in the March/April 1987 edition of The California Historical Magazine, Eleanor was a twenty-two-year-old teacher living in Gilroy, California when she wrote Louis about his post in the magazine. He quickly wrote her back and the two exchange letters for three months before Louis asked Eleanor to marry him.
Louis described himself in his correspondence as a wealthy,
average looking man eager to settle down. Eleanor was quite taken with his candor and his praise for her desire to work with children. “Such a woman will make a fine mother,” he wrote. Louis found Eleanor’s letter to be “intelligent and sincere in tone.” The couple settled on a wedding date of July 27, 1873.
After resigning her position as Gilroy’s schoolmistress, Eleanor packed her trunk and boarded an east-bound train to meet Louis for the first time and marry him. Once the train reached Colfax, California the bride-to-be and her belongings were transferred to a six-horse stagecoach. Of the thirteen passengers on board, Eleanor was the only woman.
The stage driver promised Eleanor and the other passengers a safe trip and tried to assure them that they would not be overtaken by highwaymen. Given the cargo, the driver no doubt needed to reassure himself of that notion as well. Nestled between the trunks and the suitcases was a safe containing $7,000 in gold that was to be deposited in a Grass Valley, California bank.
The trip was relatively uneventful for the first leg of the journey. According to one newspaper account, the passengers passed the time on the eight-hour journey swapping stories about the places they had lived or visited. The conversation came to an abrupt halt when the coach made a sudden stop, tossing Eleanor on the floor of the vehicle.
A gruff voice outside the buggy demanded the passengers step out with their hands in the air. All did as they were told. Four armed men wearing gunnysack masks over their heads shouted at the passengers. The bandits eyed the victims carefully. When the driver lowered his arms a bit a highwayman with six-shooter pulled the hammer back on his gun. The driver’s arms shot back up.
“We’ll take your treasure box,” the man with the six-shooter reportedly demanded.
“It’s on the other stage,” the driver insisted.
“Then we’ll keep you here until the other stage comes around,” the bandit warned.
When the driver noticed that the feet of the highwaymen were encased in gunnysacks and tied at the ankle, a trick professional used so no visible footprints would be left for a posse to follow, he confessed there was no other stage. The bandits aimed their weapons at the victims and instructed them to move away from the stage.
After lining the travelers up against a nearby fence, the gunmen climbed on top of the stage and headed for the strongbox attached to the coach. Several attempts were made to break into the safe with a pick, but to no avail. The thieves decided to blow the lock with gunpowder. Afraid an explosion would destroy the passenger’s luggage, Eleanor yelled for the men to stop. “Gentlemen, my trousseau is in my trunk,” she reportedly told the bandits. “Won’t you take it down before you blow up the coach?”
The thief with the six-shooter backed away from the safe. “With pleasure, miss,” he replied. Eleanor walked over to the stage as the robber chief jumped off and motioned for the gunman near the safe to toss her trunk down. As he reached up to take hold of the trunk, Eleanor noticed a long, jagged scar on the back of the man’s hand. As soon as she was out of the way, the highwaymen went about their business.
Seconds after the robbers lit the fuse on the canister of gunpowder, a fierce explosion ripped through the stagecoach. The thieves wasted no time searching through the rubble to find the gold. After securing their ill-gotten gain in their saddlebags, the men leapt onto their rides and all four hurried off into the trees, disappearing from sight.
The shaken driver inspected the damage to the coach and determined that the frame of the stage and the running gear were still intact. The spooked horses were settled and readied to continue the journey to Grass Valley. The passengers found their place on the shattered coach and they were off.
Upon their arrival in Nevada City, California, the crime was quickly reported to authorities, and police officers immediately set out to apprehend the culprits. The stage then proceeded on to its appointed destinations, first depositing Eleanor at the cottage of her betrothed.
Louis Dreibelbis’s landlady greeted the exhausted bride-to-be and informed her that her fiancé had been called away on business but would return shortly. The kind woman escorted Eleanor into a room where she could prepare for the wedding. After washing away the dust and dirt from her travels with a bath the landlady drew for her, Eleanor dressed in her most elegant attire, pinned up her hair, and made up her face.
When everything was made ready for the ceremony in the parlor the landlady informed Eleanor. When she entered the room, she saw two men sitting off to one side, a minister and a witness. Opposite the pair, Louis stood dressed in his Sunday best. The pair sized each other up for the first time. He looked considerably older than she expected, but there was strength of character in his face that she always imagined her husband would have. Louis, on the other hand, seemed taken aback, almost as if he was surprised to see her.
The minister took his place in front of a fireplace and the bride and groom made their way toward him. The minister then opened his Bible and began the proceedings. As the couple recited their vows to one another, Eleanor paused between pledges to think. Louis’s voice sounded strangely familiar to her.
After the minister pronounced the two “man and wife” he escorted the newlyweds to a table to sign the marriage license. While Louis was signing his name Eleanor noticed a long, jagged scar on his hand. She knew in an instant where she had seen the mark before. She ran out of the parlor screaming and locked herself in one of the bedrooms of the house. The groom was stunned. He had recognized Eleanor as the young woman on the stage he had robbed, but he could not imagine that she had recognized him. He raced out of the home, mounted his horse, and rode off into the night, saying nothing to the landlady, minister, or witness when he departed.
The unfortunate bride left the bedroom the following morning the minister and landlady were there and greeted her with apologies and words of comfort. “Mr. Dreibelbis and I never married,” she told the compassionate pair. “I have no memory of a wedding, only a dream that in the night I was carried off by robbers.”
After packing her trunk and soliciting a ride to the stage stop from the minister, Eleanor was on her way back to her home in Gilroy.
Nevada County Sheriff’s deputies caught up with Louis Dreibelbis more than two months after the wedding. He confessed to his crime, testified against his fellow bandits, and was subsequently released without charge. The detective who initially located Louis bought him a one-way ticket to Louis’s hometown in Illinois and warned the robber against ever returning to California.
Eleanor slipped into Gilroy under the cover of darkness. She was too embarrassed and ashamed to admit to her friends and neighbors that she had married a thief. For anyone who dared ask what happened, she maintained that her mail-order groom had not been what she expected. Eventually, the truth of the ordeal became public knowledge and Eleanor was the topic of conversation. Humiliated beyond words, the young woman decided to commit suicide.
The distraught mail-order bride’s life was saved by the fast action of her guardian and local doctors. It is not known what became of Eleanor after she was revived and brought back to health. Historians speculate that her broken heart mended, and the true love eventually made her forget her first trip to the altar.
The New Plan Company based in Kansas City, Missouri, was a matrimonial club that claimed to have more than thirty-two thousand members during its existence from 1911 to 1917. According to The New Plan Company handbook, printed in the fall of 1910, “ladies especially, whose opportunities were somewhat limited as to forming acquaintances,” were encouraged to take advantage of all the catalog had to offer. Single individuals who wanted to join the club agreed to pay a five-dollar fee if their membership resulted in matrimony. “Upon the marriage of our member, our fee for our services becomes due,” the company rules stated.
Club organizers required a one-dollar fee to be paid when hopeful bachelors and bachelorettes applied for membership. That amount would be deducted from the five dollars due and payable at the time they married. “This small fee, which is hardly to be considered as a factor,” the catalog explained, “keeps away all frauds and curiosity seekers and is a guarantee to us that all persons joining the club are in earnest and not triflers, and this knowledge is certainly beneficial to all members.”
Once the initial fee was paid, members received a certificate good for twelve months. For an additional one dollar, member would then be sent a catalog containing the name and address of every man or woman seeking a spouse who had placed an ad in The New Plan Company catalog. Bachelors and bachelorettes were encouraged to be quick about sending in their application before someone else had an opportunity to engage the attention of the single of their choice. “If you know a good thing when you see it, you will lose no time in quickly taking advantage of their most liberal proposition,” editors of the publication warned.
I am a lonely, unencumbered widow; age 48; weight 165; height 5 feet 6 inches; big blue eyes; brown hair; fair complexion; American; religion, Methodist. I have property worth $30,000. A sunny disposition; considered very good looking. Would like to hear from some good businessman. Object, matrimony.
I do not pose as a beauty, but people tell me that I look well. Enjoy fun and social gatherings. Age, 27; weight 138; height, 64 inches; brown eyes; brown hair; fair complexion; American; very good disposition; plain dresser, but neat. Prefer country life. Income $20 per month. Matrimonially inclined.
A winsome miss of 22; very beautiful, jolly and entertaining; fond of home and children; from good family; American; Christian; blue eyes; golden hair; fair complexion; pleasant disposition; play piano. Will inherit $10,000. Also have means of $1,000. None but men of good education need to write from 20 to 38 years of age.
Society has no charms for me; prefer a quiet life. Am an American lady, with common school education; well thought of and respected; age, 25; height 5 feet 9 inches; weight, 155; blue eyes; light hair. Have means of $3,000. Wish correspondence with good natured, honest, industrious man.
Dear old men, here is your chance to get a true loving companion. I am a widow by death; age 69 years, but don’t look or feel or act over 40; always in good humor, very loving and kind; a good housekeeper, weight 104, height 5 feet 2 inches, blue eyes, brown hair, nationality German; would like to meet some congenial gentleman near my own age, with means enough to make a good home.
Boys, I am a lonesome little girl, alone in the world and earning my own living and am tired of doing so; my age is 20 years, weight 145, height 5 feet 3 inches, blue eyes, dark hair, good housekeeper, am considered good looking, have some means, also piano; common school education; prefer country life; will marry if suited; no Catholics need to write.
Here comes a sweet lady from the land of flowers and sunshine; age 35; weight 150, height 5 feet 8 inches; brown eyes, brown hair, rosy complexion; a musician, occupation, real estate. Have income also some means. Object matrimony.
Would like to correspond with a farmer about 30 to 35 years old. Am an American widow of 33; height, 5 feet 2 inches; weight, 200; brown eyes; brown hair; common school education. Personal property worth $1,500. Object matrimony. No flirts need write.
In spite of the occasional mismatch or short-lived union, historians at the National Archives Department in Washington believe that mail-order brides produced a high percentage of permanent marriages. The reason cited is that the advertisements were candid and direct in their explanations of exactly what was wanted and expected from a prospective spouse. And if requested, the parties involved sent accurate photos of themselves along with a page of background information. Often, when the pair met, the groom-to-be signed an agreement, witnessed by three upstanding members of the territory, not to abuse or mistreat the bride-to-be. The prospective bride then signed a paper (also witnessed) not to nag or try to change the intended.
Desperate bachelors and pining maidens were willing to consent to whatever terms were necessary in order to secure a spouse. The scarcity of females in the West and the rapidly changing times forced traditional thinking women and men to succumb to new ways of finding a mate. Mail-order couples wed in hopes that their mutually beneficial marriage would develop into love. History records that many times the result was, indeed, a happily-ever after life for both.