The question of whether or not an underage person should be allowed to get married remains a subject of heated debate in the United States. Since 2018, only two states out of 50 ― Delaware and New Jersey ― prohibit any form of what is colloquially called “child marriage.”
The long history of such unions, however, is what stands in defense of still existing exceptions in laws that enable a person under 18 years of age to marry, provided the person has their parent’s consent.
Among the most famous of such cases is the story of Edward Browning, a real estate magnate based in New York, who married Frances Belle Heenan, a 15-year-old high-school girl, on April 10, 1926.
Due to Browning’s extensive wealth and his spouse’s youth, the couple became a number one target for tabloids of the time, who dubbed them “Daddy” and “Peaches.” Their every step was followed by the press, further polarizing the nation ― while some condemned the union as immoral and even abusive, others considered the young girl to be fully aware of the situation, even calling her a gold digger.
Browning had caught the attention of the press a few years earlier when he printed ads looking to adopt a 14-year-old girl. At the time it caused outrage, as many presumed his intentions were less than wholesome. The scandal broke out just after he divorced his first wife in 1923, with whom he had two adopted children.
The millionaire denied such allegations, claiming that he was only looking for someone to keep his adopted son company — the only one of his two adopted children who ended up in his custody. However, the label which the press gave him proved to be well-founded, as Browning continued to confirm his interest in underage girls by sponsoring a high school dance for a sorority, where he met his future wife ― the then-15-year-old Heenan.
Their controversial 1926 wedding made the front page of the New York Times. But in order to understand the fact that a 51-year-old man could legally marry a 15-year-old girl, we must address the changes that were happening rapidly within American society.
While child marriage was considered normal in the 19th century — with the U.S. adopting the norms inherited from British common law, which allowed girls to marry at 12 and boys at 14 — by the 1920s, marriage as a concept had changed significantly.
Once considered among certain social classes as a union for financial or political benefit, it had quickly gained the prerogative of love as its main reason. Meanwhile, a rise in child-protection organizations concerning child labor grew both in Europe and the U.S., begging the question ― was an underage person fit for marriage?
The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children went to great lengths at the time in their attempt to prevent the Brownings’ marriage by arguing that Edward and Francis’ mother were exploiting the 15-year-old.
This societal shift didn’t seem to affect Mr. Browning, who enjoyed the marriage with his underage wife as the couple’s life remained under the watchful eye of the tabloids.
According to Nicholas L. Syrett, author of the book American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States, the couple enjoyed celebrity status and while some condemned the union as inappropriate, others just saw it as a daily sideshow of the yellow press.
However, the marriage wasn’t really “till death do us part,” for as early as October 1926, less than seven months after their big day, Frances left her husband, but was unable to obtain a legal divorce.
The papers went wild with their coverage. The case soon became a nation-wide sensation and was immortalized by George Gershwin’s musical comedy Funny Face and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Love Boat, both dating from 1927.
The story of “Daddy” and “Peaches” ended up as a comedy act, but in 1937, when a certain 22-year-old man in Tennessee married a 9-year-old girl, the public’s reaction was much harsher.
An even bigger scandal occurred in 1958 when the music industry openly distanced itself from Jerry Lee Lewis when he married his 13-year-old cousin.
Though a far less common practice today, child marriages were documented in more than 200,000 cases in the period between 2000 and 2015, most of them involving an adult male and an underage female.
Despite the fact that during the 1950s the U.S. enforced stricter laws regarding general age minimums and documentation needed for marriages, exceptions such as pregnancy and parental consent still enable a fair number of such unions to be legalized.