HEADLINE: Odd End of the Reid Sisters’ Mail-Order Bride Marriage Racket
Only Simple Country Girls, but They Fished So Skillfully in the “Lonely Hearts” Columns of the Matrimonial Magazines the Wise Judge Sentenced Them to Five Years of Seclusion on the Farm
FULL TEXT: “MAYBE we were just a little bit guilty but this punishment is awful. I don’t know how we are going to be able to stand it for five years.”
Miss Ella Izelle Reid said this as she viewed with alarm the Court’s five year plan of extreme goodness imposed on three pretty Alabama sisters. Without any vacation or even a day off from this unmitigated good behavior, they must stay in or near their lonely farmhouse home way off on R. F. D. route 2 out of Athens, Alabama. One little slip from grace and the fair culprit may be sent to serve her two-year suspended sentence in prison.
Tile offense for which Ella Izelle, 27 years old and her three sisters, Frances Reid, 18, Mrs. P. S. Reid Barley, 32, and Mary E. Reid. 21, were, “just a little, bit guilty,” consisted of using Uncle Sam’s mails to defraud lovesick men in various parts of the country for four years by means of fake marriage proposals. Mary escaped the fate of the other three by entering an insane asylum at Tuscaloosa before the trial. But one of the neighbors remarked:
“Maybe she was just a little bit that way before those G-men came pestering around and proved it on her.”
Her three sisters are afraid that they, too, will lose their minds, if they really have to be “so terrible good” as Judge John McDuffle at Huntsville, Alabama, said they must be for all those dreary years. Here are some of the discouraging restrictions which the young women must face.
Under no circumstances are they permitted to leave Limestone County, without written permission of the United States District Attorney. Ella Izelle promptly informed him that she had a nice job in Detroit but that assertion did not get her anything but a faint smile nor anywhere but back on the farm.
There is plenty of fun to be had in that county for such attractive girls but, living as they do, more than a mile from the nearest neighbor, they have to go out and get it and this, too, is forbidden. They must not appear in public, which means no dances and all three are “dance crazy.” They must not go to the movies because this is also construed as a public appearance and they are forbidden to have “dates.” However, young men may call at the farm, as long as they behave properly.
This is some consolation to the two single sisters but not very much. It is always a question what proportion of times a young man should take a girl out to dance, movies or dinner, to the times he visits her house at no expense to himself. In this case there is no question. The lucky boys get a five-year moratorium on their part of the obligation and everyone knows what follows moratoriums.
The chief advantage of dances, corn-husking parties and such things is that now men will see the girls all dressed up and their eyes afire with excitement and ask to be introduced, thus causing desirable competition for swains who might otherwise not appreciate their value. Necessity being as usual, the mother of invention, the girls, in desperation. Have already thought of something which offers a ray of hope, one day a week. Why not go to church? True this would be a public appearance but to curb such a desire for spiritual uplift, would be interfering with one’s right to worship, and probably unconstitutional.
The stay-at home edict falls most heavily on Frances who is only 18, just entering the five gayest, most irresponsible runabout years of a woman’s life. Frances must spend them sewing, knitting, hoeing potatoes, tending the geese, chickens and cows.
“What a life!” laments the girl, pointing at their humble, frame house.
“We don’t know whether to call it the convent or the reformatory. I’ll be an old maid of 23, if I live through it.”
Girls of tender age are supposed to obtain their parents’ consent before marrying. In this case Frances and even Ella who is not so tender, will probably have to get the consent of the District Attorney. Suppose the young man who wants to marry one of them lives in another county or State and wishes to take his bride where he cams his living. Will the court permit her to escape from its jurisdiction or will the husband only have a chance to visit his wife week-ends for the first five years of their wedded life? Of course some shiftless husbands would be only too glad to live that long in the wife’s home.
Even worse seems to be the predicament in which the oldest sister, Mrs. Barley finds herself. She already had a husband on the place and could not have married any of the lovelorn men she bamboozled, without committing bigamy. One would think that she would be guiltier than Frances who started in on the racket when not quite 14, hut all the sisters agreed that they were equally to blame so the court gave them all the same medicine. Mr. Barley presumably did not know of his wife’s correspondence flirtations or he too would he under five year sentence to stay home and behave himself.
Since he is an innocent party there is some question of his constitutional rights as a husband. It is quite possible that if Mr. Barley could move into another State, get himself a nice job and demand that the wife of his bosom come to his home there, the United States Supreme Court would rule that no man, even a lower court judge has the power to keep them apart.
However, Mr. Barley has not taken any noticeable steps in that direction. When asked what he thinks of the situation he usually replies:
“It will be hard to bear, but. The judge knows best.”
Some of Mr. Barley’s friends are mean enough to suggest that it is not hard for him to bear, in fact they make out that he is getting the best break a husband possibly could have. What other man with a pretty healthy wife, only 32 years old, can go about his business, serenely knowing just where his wife is? He knows she must be at home attending to it and to his child because she hasn’t anything more interesting to do, instead of running around, heaven knows where and with whom. Mr. Barley hasn’t any business at the moment but he goes around serenely, just the same.
This alone would put him in a class of specially-privileged husbands, but that is not all. Most husbands must take their wives out reasonably often or be guilty of cruelty and liable to divorce and alimony. Mr. Barley is exempt because he cannot take his wife to any public place without exposing her to that two years in prison and perhaps himself he liable, to a charge of contempt of court. He is a law-abiding citizen and would not think of such a thing.
At the same time there are no restrictions against his going where he pleases and the fact that his wife cannot be with him to see what he is up to is her fault and misfortune, not his. Of course she might take a quick peck in the door of dance hall or movie just long enough to see if he is with someone she disapproves and not be guilty of a public appearance provided she does not make a public scene. However, there is nothing to prevent Mr. Barley when he steps out, from stepping into the next county where Mrs. Barley dares not follow. What other husband has a wife whose jurisdiction is limited
to just one county?
Her two younger sisters, being spinsters, have the privilege of entertaining such boy friends as may choose to call but Mrs. Barley has not. For a married woman, unchaperoned male callers, except the doctor and would not be respectable and anything not respectable is distinctly a violation of the probation. It might be construed as even going beyond that. If Mrs. Barley should neglect their child, a son of school age, or be cruel to any of the farm animals, she would hardly be the 100% good girl she is expected to be. Conceivably it might get her into trouble to be cruel to her own husband. Her only boy friends must be that husband and her son to whom she must be good for the next five years — or else. Therefore the future looks quite an black to her as to her younger sisters.
For nearly four years the postmaster at Athens wondered why four sisters who lived in a tumble down house on a neglected farm and never traveled, should have such a heavy mail from all parts of the country and even Europe. He did not know that the letters the girls sent contained photographs but their correspondents sent large ones sometimes — also packages of various sizes and money orders which were cashed at the Post Office. One day he mentioned the fact to a post office inspector who thought it queer enough to start the government detectives investigating.
They visited some of the correspondents and found each fondly cherishing the four girls and the delusion that he was going to marry her as soon as a few difficulties, mostly financial, were straightened out.
The poor girls invariably needed a new dress or shoes or a payment on the “flivver,” or bus fare before they could come to the arms of the waiting lover. The sum wheedled out of any one victim always was small, apparently never as much as $100. Therefore when, after the money was sent, there were delays due to sickness, parental opposition, etc., until finally the dupe gave up, he thought the girl had just changed her mind. Had she been a fraud, he felt sure she would have tried to get more. Having frankly told at the start that she was very poor the victim knew there was no chance of getting his money or other gifts back.
Though the four conspirators made no big killings there was a steady stream of small ones which paid better than farming and was much less laborious. Had it not been for the postmaster’s curiosity the girls might have kept on collecting their bachelor tax for the rest of their lives.
Getting names of “suckers” was the easiest part of it. In 1933 the girls received a free copy of a magazine called “Cupid’s International Messenger” which specializes in husband-and-wife-wanted advertisements. The girls saw such interesting offers as the following:
“Love-sick young man, age 20, height 5-9, healthy, good-looking art student, wishes to marry some rich girl or one with home and means who could help me in my art career...or else would like to meet a woman older than me, who, seeking companionship, would love and help me; am sincere.”
Or: “Here I am all alone, for someone to call me their own. Kind-hearted, affectionate and fond of home life. Don’t use tobacco or liquor. I want to hear from any lady that is true-hearted and has kind and loving disposition and is willing to make happiness in home for always...”
The girls answered the advertisements and though not very good spellers, their letters plus their pictures got the money. The following is a letter Mary Ellen Reid wrote (before she went to Tuscaloosa) to her picture boy friend Leo Derrick In Ohio.
“Dearest Leo: Today I got your sweet letter and you can imagine how proud I was to hear from you speak in the kind way of me being sick. I appreciate it dear I feel some better with my cold hut my back and side is bothering me this evening.
“I gave Mrs. Barley the money order and she said she hated to take it but Mr. Barley again layed off and they couldn’t get no cash now. And they would repay you when they get to Belllngham.
“Well you once made me mad as you spoke as If you doubted my word, but I have forgot it but don’t do it any more. Leo I could not give you up as I love you truly. I will close dear and He down. I’m sick. Will write more next time. Love Mary Ellen.”
Ella Izelle touched Mr. Winfield S. Dean of Alexandria, Virginia, for a pair of slippers and two dresses as follows:
“How’s my darling Winfield? Well Winfield. I think I had rather have a pair of white slippers. I wear 6 ½ D or a 7 in B width. I like a low Cuban heel, in a sports wear. I just look through a catalogue and saw two cheap everyday dresses. If you are not able to buy it, you can leave it off. Love Ella.”
The Government did not have to use its witnesses and letters because Mary retired to an institution and the other three sisters pleaded “Nolo Contendere.”
This means, “I don’t want to dispute the charge” and, though not precisely a confession, is only about a hair from it. The judge then gave them two year sentences, suspended during five years of behavior that must be almost angelic.
Such probation may seem harsh but Uncle Sam must be torn about two things, counterfeiting and fraudulent use of the mails. It is the only way to control those otherwise easy crimes.
[“Odd End of the Reid Sisters’ Mail-Order Bride Marriage Racket,” American Weekly (San Antonio Light magazine section) (Tx.), Jan. 23, 1938, p. 11]