FULL TEXT: (EDITOR'S NOTE: This article does not refer to persons pictured on these pages, but is an actual experience.)
Perhaps you will recall reading in the newspapers recently of a man related to a family high in the political life of the nation whose estranged wife was hounding him for alimony arrears. He explained to reporters that he was broke, helplessly in debt, and possessed little more than the clothes on his back. His creditors were perfectly reasonable about it, he said, and wanted to give him a chance to get back on his feet financially. But the woman still pursued him!
Perhaps you even got a laugh out of that story—most people usually find something excruciatingly funny in the plight of these divorced wretches whose ex-wives throw them into the alimony jail.
But let me tell you there's nothing funny ahead for the man who is escorted to a county jail to serve three months or so just because he is unable to beg, borrow or steal enough money, to satisfy (temporarily, at least) some hysterical or vindictive woman who is his former spouse. If he has a job, he'll probably lose it; if he has a business, it will probably go to pieces in his absence. He can't earn any money while he is in jail, so when he is released three months later he will be broke" and jobless, and that Ol' Debbil Alimony will catch up with him so fast that it is almost a sure-thing bet that his ex-wife will have him back behind the bars in no time.
How do I know so much about it? Well, just as one gal to another. And I trust a lot of alimony-kept ex-wives are in the audience) my own husband is reclining uncomfortably in the jailhouse at this moment because neither he nor I can afford to support his first wife in the manner to which she has become accustomed. As a result of his incarceration he has lost the business we have struggled to build up (with my money) during the last few years; his chances of getting another job when he gets out appear to be practically nil; and at the moment he is suffering from spells of depression caused by his fear of a future that appears to hold nothing for him but repeated sentences to the alimony jail, or an existence as a sort of fugitive from justice in another state.
That, at any rate, is the sort of future that has been promised to him by his former wife.
"He'll pay up, or he'll go to jail," she said recently—when the last of my cash had given out. "And when he gets out, he'll pay regularly and promptly or back to jail he goes!"
“You-can't reason with a woman like that,” our attorney said. "You'll have to find the. $3.75 he owes her, or I'm afraid, that what is laughingly known as ‘justice’ will have to take its course.
This last time we simply couldn't raise the money, so Papa's in the jailhouse now. You see, we know the determination of this relentless woman, now; so when she threatens something we take her at her word.
Few people realize how easy it is to have a man thrown into jail for non-payment of money owed. A person who owes as little as $5 may be put behind the bars in New York City even before being tried and found guilty of not paying a debt.
The five county jails in
A surprising number of unfortunates are still the victims of that-medieval horror—the debtor's prison. There are clever lawyers who have made a close study of the methods of using deputy sheriffs as bill collectors. It's all very legal—and very hard on the poor debtor.
A recent check-up showed that the Alimony Club had 17 members in good standing. Members sleep in dormitories rather than cells. Usually there are about 25, but the number has gone as high as sixty.
Probably the most famous member of the Alimony Club, whose case was instrumental in bringing about a partial reform of New York's alimony laws not long ago, was Umberto Politano, who spent 33 months in the jail because he couldn't or wouldn't post a bond guaranteeing payment to his wife, Mary. His alimony was only $12, but he languished in prison until a sympathetic group took up his case.
That the alimony collecting business is no puny industry is-indicated by the fact that 1,800,000 men are estimated to have been alimony payers in the past, 10 years. The amount they handed over to their ex-wives was almost $10,000,000. Despite my experience, I understand
's alimony prisoners are slow to learn a lesson. Most of the visitors at the jail are women, and most of those who wait outside when a prisoner is released are comely young and – optimistic. New York
I hope I can state our case without seeming to be bitter or vindictive. (Heaven knows, I've learned how utterly inhuman a bitter and vindictive woman can be!) Besides there are many factors in this experience which seems to have sharpened my sense of humor. Even during these trying days I can manage to get a laugh out of it, and I only wish my husband could do the same.
Thirteen years ago this woman divorced him, and he has scarcely seen her since although he has, heard plenty from her. During those thirteen- years he has paid her over $40,000 in alimony—paid it willingly during the years when he could afford it, and paid it with great difficulty and by making real sacrifices during hard times. For most of the time since our marriage five years ago, I have paid it because I had a job and a little money, whereas the depression deprived him of both.
These regular alimony payments to the stern lady who was once his wife have meant that my husband and I had to be satisfied to live in a smaller apartment, that both of us had to reduce expenditures even for food and clothing, and that we had to exist on a scale of living much more modest than her own.
Strangely enough, this never bothered me. When I married my husband five years ago he made me fully aware of the financial burden he would have to bear – presumably for the duration of his ex-wife's life or his – as a result of a mistake he had made some nine or ten years previously. I also knew something about the character of the woman we would have to contend with. I knew that every time he changed his job, she would telephone or write to his new employers and warn them that "this fellow C has a divorced wife to support, and if you don't see to it that he takes care of his obligations there'll be trouble!”
I also knew that this woman's irritable nature had cost my husband two good jobs, one of them during the depths of the depression when a good job for a man of his specialized experience was pretty difficult to find.
"I'm sorry to do this," the head of the concern told him on that occasion.
"You're a good man, and you've been doing a fine job here.
But Lord, man, you can't expect me to be saddled with your domestic troubles. That ex wife of yours treats me as though I were married to you now!"
The loss of that particular job was something of a blow, for it occurred in less than six months after our marriage. But still, I thought, we can take it. I had a job and a little money.
My husband had an idea of starting a business which, both of us were convinced, had a better than fair chance of succeeding in a big way. I decided to Invest my own money in it, so we went to work. We gave up our apartment, and moved into a small one-room-and-kitchenette affair. We trimmed the budget to the bone – but first making provision in that budget for its largest item; my husband's alimony payments to his first wife.
Now, here's a laugh! While we were living on my salary, trying to start a new business on my savings, and paying alimony to a woman who was living in circumstances much better than our own—the first wife was working at a job that was paying much bigger money than mine!
Indeed, she still has that job, and it's probably hers for life. She had it before my husband married her, and she's held it ever since. It has continued to pay her well all during his ups and downs and mine, too! Right now her income—without the alimony payments—is more than my husband's and mine combined. That fact was brought out in a half dozen or more affidavits which our attorney filed in an effort to save my husband from the rigors of the alimony jail But do you think that made any difference to the courts, or to this woman. It did not!
Well, for over four years we struggled along to establish his business. It got off to an auspicious start, and it promised to prosper. When it seemed safe enough in a place was made in the firm for me. I resigned my own job and entered the concern as an active partner.
In the meantime those monthly alimony checks had gone forth with painful regularity. Sometimes it meant that I went without new clothes, or that the seat of my husband’s trousers had to be fortified by one of' those marvelous weaving establishments in order to stand another season's wear. But this all-but-forgotten love of fifteen years ago continued to be supported in the style to which she had grown accustomed.
It was about five months ago that we headed towards the crisis. The business entered one of those periods that are all too common during these post-depression days. It had grown too rapidly with the upturn, and it needed additional capital.
“Nothing to worry about,” our financial advisors told us. “You'll have to reorganize and take in new financing. The creditors will have to be patient while these things are done. In the meantime, cut your overhead—pull in your belts a bit!"
We pulled in our belts, all right. And the creditors were all most understanding. All of them, that is, except my husband's ex-wife!
We soon found out that it is much easier to deal with a "soulless corporation" to whom you owe tens of thousands of dollars than to get an "extension of credit" from an embittered woman to whom you've been paying alimony for thirteen years.
The new financing was to be provided just as soon as we completed a reorganization of the business, and that meant weeks of long, hard work. But in the meantime our incomes had been so curtailed that the accursed alimony inevitably fell into arrears. Immediately The Lady of the First Part rallied the forces of the law to her support. Our own attorneys reminded us that the original alimony order had been issued by a court of law, and by failing to abide by it to the letter my husband would be in contempt of the court.
Finally, despite our pleas and struggles, the sheriff got us and my husband went to jail. Some fun, eh? But bear in mind that it's all very legal!
Do the courts realize the absurdity of these alimony laws they have sworn to enforce?
"Our alimony system," says one New York State Supreme Court Justice, "is an anachronism – a throw-back – a disgrace to our boasted civilization."
I am told that my husband's case is rather typical; that scores like him have met with the same fate. And while the courts shrug their judicial shoulders, while your attorneys try to explain to you that, after all, "it's the law," your best friends will probably try to console you by saying that it's a pity that such a legal weapon should be left lying around where "some women" can get it.
I've tried to say just as little as possible about my own poor husband's first wife. But you can draw your own conclusions.
[Miller, Lois Maddox, “I’m a Slave of His First Wife – Laments This Distracted Woman in a True-Life Drama that Bares One Side of New York’s ‘Alimony Racket,’ in Which Vengeful Wife No. 1 Can, and Often Does, Jail the Man She Loved, Until He is Down and Completely Out,” Billings Gazette Magazine (Montana), Jul. 25, 1937, Magazine Section]
For more revelations of this suppressed history, see The Alimony Racket: Checklist of Posts