The Man Who Married His Mother-in-Law, 1904

From the Belfast Weekly News, 12 May 1904:

“The trial of James Thompson for having married his mother-in-law took place on 10th inst, in the Recorder’s Court, Dublin.  Mr Bushe KC, who prosecuted, stated the case for the Crown.  He said in 1896 the prisoner on 2nd June married a girl of the name of Tully.  She died in 1899, and he was once more free to marry.  But, of course, his wife being dead, he was not at liberty, under the law, to marry certain relations of hers who were surviving.  For instance, he could not marry his deceased wife’s daughter by a previous marriage, he could not marry his deceased wife’s sister, nor could he marry the mother of his deceased wife.  This man formed the intention of marrying his deceased wife’s mother.  He knew that such a marriage as that could not take place legally, or, if he did not, he should have known. Notwithstanding that he made a declaration and signed a document which set out that there was no impediment between him and the woman whom he desired to marry.

Mrs Jane Millar deposed to the marriage.  On cross-examination she said sailors make the very best of husbands.  Her own husband was a sailor.

Mr O’Mahony (for the defendant) – ‘They say sailors have a wife in every port.’

Mrs Millar – Don’t you believe a word of it.  Sailors are all right.

Mrs Tully, or, as she called herself, Mrs Thompson, was then examined.  Speaking in a strong Scotch accent, she said she saw nothing wrong in marrying Jim – not a bit of harm in that.  Jim was a ‘guid mon,’ a sober mon and a ‘keerect mon.’

‘What kind of husband did he turn out to be?’ asked Mr O’Mahony.  – ‘The very best of husbands. (Laughter).  He only stayed half an hour after we being married, and off he went to sea. (Roars of Laughter).

‘He didn’t even wait for a cup of tea?’ – ‘He did not even do that, then.’ (More laughter)

‘The kettle wasn’t boiling, I suppose?’ – Well now, there wasn’t even time to boil the kettle for a cup of tea.

The Recorder – He must have been in a terrible hurry to get away (Laughter).

Mr O’Mahony – He wanted to get out of hot water, my Lord (Renewed laughter).

Detective Ahern said Thompson seemed surprised when arrested.  He remarked, ‘Many a man is sent to jail for beating his mother-in-law, but this is the first time I ever heard of a man being arrested for marrying his mother-in-law’ (loud laughter) – and the sailor looked very happy with his new bride in their little home.

Mr O’Mahony addressed the jury on his client’s behalf.  He said the situation brought to mind the words of the poet –

‘Twas talk in the morning, at night it was jaw

All on account of my mother-in-law’ 

(Laughter.) James Thompson did what no other man would think of doing.  He did it with pride and in the best of good faith.  He was a sailor, and about to leave to undertake a long voyage.  Before going on that voyage, he married his mother in law, who was a Dundee woman, as he was a Dundee man.  He had some property, and if he were drowned at sea no one could get that property except his widow or children.  He had no children, and in taking his mother-in-law – for whom he had a strong affection – as his wife, he was doing what he thought would be a good thing for all concerned.  It was a sailor’s idea of how things ought to be done (Laughter.)  Unfortunately for himself, his voyage of matrimony was made rough for him by the squalls of legal authority.  His barque struck upon the hidden rocks of the legislature, and now he was stranded not in a hospitable shelter, but was tight bound in a dock awaiting to be discharged. (Laughter.)  

And the little mother-in-law, when she came up she told the jury she was perfectly contented with her good sailor husband. (Laughter.) But each was perplexed to know what were their relations to one another.  What relation was he to his deceased wife’s sister he had married his mother-in-law – (loud laughter) – and what relation was his deceased wife’s mother to his step-daughter now that he has made his mother-in-law his wife? (Roars of laughter.)

The Recorder – I give it up.  There’s one thing to be certain, you must have a wife before you can marry a mother-in-law.  (Laughter.)

The Recorder, summing up, said if the jury were satisfied that Thompson made the declaration and entered into the marriage without knowing that he was committing an offence, they ought to acquit him.

The jury found that the accused had made a false declaration, but that he did not believe there was any impediment to his marriage.   The Recorder said that was a verdict of acquittal, and he ordered Thompson to be discharged.”

According to another report, the happy couple left the court hand-in-hand. So unusual to read any case – never mind a criminal one – so joyous and happy throughout! Mr O’Mahony must have put a lot of work into his entertaining closing submissions! 

It sounds like Mr Thompson wanted to pass on the benefit of a life insurance policy.

The prohibition on marrying one’s deceased (or divorced) wife’s mother continues today, though hopefully the alternative practice of beating them is less prevalent today than in Edwardian times!

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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