One of the earliest divorces I found – one that would also impact my life – was that of my great-grandparents. Joseph Napolean Wilt and Martha Jane Stern were married in Delaware County, Indiana on September 10, 1890. Six children were born to this family – one son was either stillborn or died shortly thereafter. My grandmother, Vesta, was the fifth child (the fourth who lived) and first daughter. By the time she was ten – in 1908 – her parents had separated. I am unsure when the divorce actually took place but it was before December 1909. Martha had to send at least one of her sons, to her husband’s sister’s home for awhile as she didn’t have the income or money to support all of her children. On September 19, 1908 she appeared in Judge J.H. Leffler’s Delaware County Court to appeal for child support from her estranged husband. The judge granted her support for her three youngest children, Vesta, and her sister, Nellie, and brother, Clifford. The judge signed a bench warrant for the arrest of Joe Wilt for non-support of children under the age of 14. Family stories indicate that Joe really never did much to support his children and drifted from one place to another and one job to another. What is known is that my grandmother and her siblings went for a long time before ever seeing their father again.
Martha married her sister’s widower, William Frank Clawson, on December 31, 1909. Frank and (Margaret) Ellen Stern had six children – four dying as infants. Between Frank and Martha, they raised their combined families together. My grandmother used to call her step-siblings, “double-cousins”, which was a misnomer. They were first cousins who ended up becoming step-siblings due to Frank and Martha’s marriage.
Joe went on to marry Anna Park on July 3, 1912 in Clark County, Indiana. They spent most of their married life in Lexington, Scott County, Indiana as indicated by the 1920 and 1930 censuses. I have not found either Joe or Martha in any of the 1910 censuses of Indiana. Joe and Anna had one son, Albert, born in 1917. My grandmother did meet her half-brother once but he died in 1933 at the age of 16. Anna died about 1942. Joe went on to marry one last time to a lady named Susie (as referenced in his obituary).
When Joe Wilt died in early January 1944 he was alone. Susie had been staying in Kentucky and it was thought that Joe died from a heart attack. Even though he hadn’t had contact with his children for quite sometime, Vesta and possibly her brother Clarence (who also lived in Indiana) and other brother, Jesse (living in Ohio), were able to attend the funeral.
Many years later after my parents divorced, my grandmother was like a kindred spirit as she told me that she had gone through the same thing when her parents split up. She had experienced many of the same thoughts and emotions that I had. Witnessing first hand all the triumphs over the stigma of divorce that she had accomplished, I knew that my future would be okay. Without ever knowing my great-grandparents, their marriage and divorce, and the affect that had on their daughter, made a profound impact on my own life.
Picture 1: Martha and Joe Wilt, sons: John, Jesse (baby), Clarence
Picture 2: Frank and Martha Clawson
Picture 3: Joe and Anna Wilt