by Cynthia

While searching The Genealogy Center’s catalog for basic information on Michigan, I discovered “It Happened in Michigan: Remarkable Events That Shaped History” by Colleen Burcar (GC 977.4 B892IT). The table of contents of this book included the chapter “Thousands Vowing ‘I Do’,” which seemed intriguing. What did this mean? The author noted that beginning at the end of the 17th century through a change in law in 1925, thousands of people from neighboring states went to Michigan to marry because there was no waiting period. In 1897, Michigan adopted a secret marriage law (Act 180 of 1897) that allowed the issuance of marriage licenses without publicity. 
 
Issuance of Marriage License Without Publicity (Section 551.202  - excerpt of Act 180) stated that if a couple wanted anyone other than the judge of probate to perform a marriage, the judge of probate could issue a permit, as long as the official was legally competent to perform marriages in the state. However, only the probate judge could make a record of the marriage. The law also stated that the judge’s records and the copy that was filed in the State of Michigan’s Public Health Department were permanently sealed and could not be opened unless one of the couple produced legal identification to get a copy of their marriage record.

The cost of a “secret” marriage was three dollars. Two dollars were for the judge’s service and one dollar was forwarded to the state register to be added to the state general fund (Section 551.202). 

St. Joseph, Michigan, was a well-known wedding site of choice for individuals from other states. Thousands took advantage of the no waiting period. The majority of the marriages performed there were for residents of Chicago. On April 30, 1925, Michigan Governor Alexander Grosbeck took a huge step toward discouraging people from other states from coming to Michigan to be married. His new statute required a five-day waiting period after the license application.

While researching what was meant by secret marriages, I found that only two states have passed legislation on secret marriages; Michigan and California. If you are having trouble finding a public record of a marriage in Michigan for an ancestor or a collateral relative, he or she may have had a secret marriage. 

A circulating copy of Burcar’s book is in Readers’ Services (REA 977.4 B89I).