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The Itinerant Passions of Protestant Pastors: Ministerial Elopement Scandals in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era Press

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2019

Suzanna Krivulskaya*
California State University San Marcos
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


Between 1870 and 1914, at least 266 Protestant ministers abandoned their posts, left their homes and families, and eloped with women who were not their wives. As critics of religion used these elopement scandals to discredit American Protestantism, those sympathetic to religion's hold on American morality attempted to dissuade the press from indulging in the sensational. Though initially hesitant to report on Protestant pastors' immoralities in this period, the press eventually came to an almost universal acceptance of scandal as a legitimate journalistic genre. As the public wondered what the proliferation of sex scandals among the Protestant elites might mean for religion in America, the press used the genre of ministerial elopement as an entrée into larger cultural debates about religion, marriage, and romantic love in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2019

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1 “The Rev. Alfred Thompson,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 19, 1877.

2 Billings, M. E., The Crimes of Preachers in the United States and Canada, 10th ed. (New York: The Truth Seeker, 1914)Google Scholar.

3 Although Gilded Age and Progressive Era newspapers frequently used the terms “scandal” and “sensation” interchangeably, the two should not be read synonymously. In the history of journalism, the label “sensationalism” has been applied to a variety of news stories that are meant to evoke a strong emotional response and, as Frank Luther Mott puts it, appeal to “fundamental and primitive human desires.” Historian George Juergens provides a helpful definition when he writes that sensational newspapers “expanded the meaning of the human interest story to report what had hitherto been regarded as private, the gossip and scandal about individuals, and discovered a rich source of news in crime and everyday tragedy.” Sensationalism, then, can broadly be defined as a genre that is meant to appeal to the emotions and curiosity of readers by exposing the surprising, the shocking, the scandalous, and the grotesque. Scandal is a narrower category. While often revealed through sensational reporting, scandal has to do with public figures' private transgressions that become sensationalized and generate significant public interest. See Mott, Frank Luther, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States through 250 Years, 1690–1940 (New York: Macmillan, 1941), 119Google Scholar; Juergens, George, Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), viiiixGoogle Scholar; Lull, James and Hinerman, Stephen, “The Search for Scandal” in Media Scandals: Morality and Desire in the Popular Culture Marketplace, eds. Lull, James and Hinerman, Stephen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 7Google Scholar. See also Stevens, John D., Sensationalism and the New York Press (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 39Google Scholar.

4 In addition to the 121 cases found in the Crimes of Preachers, digitized newspaper searches (performed through ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Chronicling America, and databases) supplied an additional 145 instances, for a total of 266 Protestant elopement cases between 1870 and 1914. Although Protestant ministers were not the only denominational group who were reported to have eloped, they were the most representative, with Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis making up a small minority of clerical elopers.

5 M. E. Billings, editor of the Crimes of Preachers, provocatively asked whether it might “be possible that the most orthodox are the most criminal, and vice versa” and set out to show that such a correlation existed in his sample. A closer look at the numbers in both Billings's larger project and in the elopers cohort in particular show no such connection. Nineteenth-century church membership and ministerial statistics are notoriously unreliable, but comparing the data found in the 1890 census and the numbers of elopers by denomination shows that the distribution of ministers by denomination was proportional to their numbers as percentage of American clergy. For example, Methodist elopers represent 33 percent of the sample and account for 33 percent of clergy in the census. The second most represented denomination, the Baptists, make up 21 percent of elopers and 28 percent of clergy overall. The same pattern of close correlation applies to the other represented denominations: for example, Presbyterians represent 6 percent of elopers and 11 percent of the census, Congregationalists 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively, etc. See Billings, The Crimes of Preachers, 58; United States Census Office, Abstract of the Eleventh Census: 1890 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896), 258–63.

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14 See Wilmer, Our Press Gang, for sustained criticism of the unprecedented power the press had acquired by the late 1860s.

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16 The reliability of late nineteenth-century newspaper reporting is difficult to quantify, yet it is telling that even Godkin, a contemporary concerned with good taste in reporting, was not castigating colleagues for falsifying sensational reports, but for engaging with that type of material. Indeed, while several high-profile newspapers (most notably the New York Sun and the New York World) were discovered to have published false reports on matters not pertaining to pastoral crimes, historians of journalism have found little evidence of falsification of scandal. To be sure, newspapers were known to reprint each other's stories, occasionally embellishing their details and supplying flowery descriptions of sensational subjects not found in the original, but no evidence of outright fabrication exists. While copyright was not a concern, libel suits were common, so newspapers were likely cautious to publish unsubstantiated reports for fear of litigation. With regard to Protestant pastors in particular, many elopement stories can further be confirmed using census records and denominational conference proceedings that list ministers removed from their posts in the preceding years. On journalistic practices and ethics, see Dicken-Garcia, Hazel, Journalistic Standards in Nineteenth-Century America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989)Google Scholar; Haveman, Heather A., Magazines and the Making of America: Modernization, Community, and Print Culture, 1741–1860 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 55105CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mott, Frank Luther, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690–1940 (New York: Macmillan, 1941)Google Scholar.

17 Quoted in “Sensation in New York,” Stark County (Ohio) Democrat, Jan. 19, 1870.

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19 “The Clerical Eloper,” Pittsburgh Gazette, Jan. 12, 1870.

20 “The Rev. Mr. Cooke in the World Office,” Buffalo Commercial, Jan. 13, 1870.

21 “Mr. Cooke Interviewed,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan. 14, 1870.

22 “A Priestly Scandal,” New York World, Jan. 11, 1870.

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25 Mary Cortona Phelan, “Manton Marble of the New York World” (PhD diss., The Catholic University of America, 1957), 9.

26 Manton Marble's letter to Rev. H. C. Graves (n.d.), quoted in Phelan, “Manton Marble of the New York World,” 10.

27 On Marble's agnosticism, see Phelan, “Manton Marble of the New York World,” 9–23.

28 Quoted in the Bolivar (Tennessee) Bulletin, Feb. 12, 1870.

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36 Chicago Tribune, Aug. 21, 1881.

37 “The Janesville Sinners,” St. Paul Daily Globe, Sept. 25, 1887.

38 “A Naughty Parson,” Bismarck (North Dakota) Weekly Tribune, Aug. 12, 1887.

39 Alton Evening Telegraph, Aug. 12, 1887.

40 The Wichita Beacon, Oct. 18, 1887.

41 “Sensational Journalism,” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1883.

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45 “Current Opinions,” Boston Investigator, Aug. 16, 1893.

46 “How He Was Converted,” Kansas City Gazette, Feb. 23, 1893; “For Men Only,” Daily World (Pittsburg), Jan. 16, 1893.

47 “A Bad Egg,” Wichita Daily Eagle, June 23, 1893.

48 “Leigh Vernon Located,” Daily World (Pittsburg), June 26, 1893.

49 “Claims She Was Hypnotized,” Pittsburgh Press, July 11, 1893.

50 “Jumped from Car—Rev. Leigh Vernon Attempts Suicide,” Emporia Gazette, July 17, 1893.

51 “Elopers at Toronto,” Morning News (Delaware), June 2, 1904.

52 “Preacher Tells Why He Eloped,” Evening World (New York), July 13, 1904.

53 “Cordova Leads New Life, Says Wife,” Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick), Nov. 8, 1904.

54 “Divorce Me,—Cordova,” Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick), Mar. 9, 1905.

55 “'Rev.' Cordova Will Stand Trial on Two Charges,” Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick), Mar. 8, 1905.

56 Willrich, Michael, “Home Slackers: Men, the State, and Welfare in Modern America,” The Journal of American History 87:2 (2000): 460CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

57 Riley, Glenda, Divorce: An American Tradition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 87Google Scholar.

58 Igra, Anna R., Wives without Husbands: Marriage, Desertion, and Welfare in New York, 1900–1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

59 On changing ideas about love and marriage, see D'Emilio, John and Freedman, Estelle, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988)Google Scholar; Coontz, Stephanie, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin Books, 2006)Google Scholar.

60 George D. Herron, quoted in “Wages Warfare on Marriage System,” Ness County (Kansas) News, Oct. 21, 1905.

61 “Cordova Dropped by M. E. Conference,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 9, 1905.

62 “Eloping Minister Is Unfrocked Speedily: Even His Clerical Advocate Votes Against Cordova,” Saint Paul Globe, Mar. 9, 1905.

63 “Preacher Sentenced,” East Oregonian, Mar. 18, 1905.

64 The Morning Astorian (Oregon), Mar. 19, 1905.

65 “The Old, Old Story,” Blue-grass Blade (Lexington, KY), Feb. 24, 1907.

66 “Search for a Pastor Who Abandoned Family Dropped for Fear of Scandal,” Sedalia Weekly Democrat, Dec. 30, 1909.

67 On the panic around sensational reports of “white slavery,” see Soderlund, Gretchen, Sex Trafficking, Scandal, and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

68 “The Minister Went Astray,” Independence Daily Reporter (Kansas), Sept. 2, 1910.

69 “Pretty Choir Girl Lured by Minister,” The Star Press (Muncie, IN), Nov. 5, 1912.

70 “Accuse Minister as White Slaver,” Quad-City Times (Davenport, IA), Jan. 17, 1913.

71 “Pastor Violates Mann Law,” Carroll County Democrat (Huntington, TN), May 18, 1917.

72 “Erring Preacher and Girl Arrested,” Great Falls (Montana) Tribune, Dec. 31, 1907.

73 “Husband's Cowardly Words Turn Wife's Clinging Love to Hate,” Inter Ocean (Chicago), Jan. 19, 1908.

74 “Cooke's Wife Frees Him for Boys' Sake,” Washington Post, Apr. 17, 1913.

75 See, for instance, Wichita Beacon, May 10, 1913, 8.

76 “Floretta Whaley and Cooke Marry After Six Years,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 10, 1913.