top of page

An Unorthodox Marital History

Today, we decided to share a spotlight on a particularly interesting ancestor that we found in one of our clients' family tree. Unlike the previous spotlight, this one focuses on a figure who was not a particularly nice or kind person and in fact is remembered as being something of a philanderer.

Edward Rich South had a very well-documented life, such that what we know about him goes far beyond basic vital records. He was born in 1869 to a well-to-do family and grew to be a man of some prominence in his community. He appears to have been a rather attractive and charismatic man, who found it easy to attract others to him. The problems arose after he married his first wife, Mary Ann, with whom he had several children and with whom he apparently eventually became bored. After almost 20 years of marriage, he decided to take a second wife, Sarah. Neither Sarah or Mary Ann left any definitive records of whether or not they were very happy about their polygamous marriage, but it seems unlikely because Mary Ann divorced from Edward after this.

It was his third wife, to whom he was never legally married, who wrote a letter describing what exactly had happened between them.

Nancy Athena Porter, known as Athena by loved ones, was working in the office where South worked in 1908 when he started his pursuit of her. This was only three years after his marriage to his second wife, a fact which Athena was aware of, but not altogether comfortable with. He spent months making arguments and working to convince her at every turn that it would be the right thing to do to marry him. She wrote:

“Finding that my religion was standing in his way he made his attack from that point and the proof brought to my attention seemed so bona fide that it seemed impossible that it was not a righteous act and one continuously practiced by leading church members.”

The two were thus married, unofficially, and by 1916, they had a daughter together. It was at this point that Edward’s attention again waned and Athena found herself raising their daughter without support. Despite many requests that they marry legally, Athena could not convince South to marry her and was barely able to convince him to give her some financial aid to help her with their daughter. Instead, he lied and told her that his divorce from his previous wife was going slowly and that he would not be able to marry Athena because of that. In truth, his divorce from his first wife had already gone through and he was currently married to the second.

Athena was eventually able to “repent” her actions and “be freed in every way from Mr. South” in the eyes of the church. She later went on to marry another man who seems to have been supportive both emotionally and financially and proved to be a much better father as well.

As for Edward R. South, he also went on to marry again, taking on a fourth and final wife. Like his marriage with Athena, their marriage doesn’t seem to have been legal, but they stayed together until he died in 1946.

Do any of your ancestors have such unorthodox marital histories?

bottom of page