Here’s how it worked: When war would break out, gold-diggers, already long-accustomed to view short-term marriage (or oftentimes a series of such marriages) as sources of alimony would, across the nation, mobilize to take advantage of the wartime opportunity to grab some easy cash from the boys going off to war. These industrious girls sought a monthly government check — to which the servicemen’s wives were entitled — and, if the bride was fortunate, the husband, or husbands, would be killed off, gaining the lucky war widow an extra monetary benefit. When the young man survived, the “wife” would on his return promptly divorce him. The most ambitious of these marital scammers would marry several, insuring them a good income.
This is the first installment of several that will trace the history of this particular scam practiced by female predators. Later installments will feature the scam as practiced in World War II and the Korean War, when the predators came to be known under the monikers “Allotment Wives” or “Allotment Annies.”
Following are two historical articles describing the scam in general terms, plus an article on an ambitious young woman who managed to marry 16 victims.
FULL TEXT: Bigamy as a regular industry is one of the menaces that soldiers about to leave for the other side, and men in the army camps scattered all over the United States, have to face. There have been several cases of bigamy in Reading [Pennsylvania] only recently, but cases in which soldiers were the victims have not been recovered here. The object in these plurality of marriages is the soldiers allowances and pensions to wives. Because soldiers are susceptible and chivalrous the government of the United States is being robbed of thousands of dollars every month by unscrupulous women. Soldiers in Uncle Sam’s uniform who believe they are depriving themselves of part of their small wages to support a newly acquired wife are merely contributing to adventuresses who are deriving the same source of revenue from several soldier husbands. While the soldier is “carrying on” at the front with the picture of his newly acquired bride close over his heart, the bride is “carrying on” at home as the result of receiving as many allotments as her charms may enabled her to assemble soldier husbands.
~ Stamping out Vampires. ~
In an effort to stamp out this new vampire of war times the government of the United States is starting a nationwide search for the culprits and is meeting with considerable success. Every agency of the government is being brought to bear to ferret out the offenders.
The work of ferreting out fraud against the government in this and other respects is in charge of L. Merriwether Smith, of Harrisburg, Ky., formerly a member of the Kentucky State Senate and now associate council for the War Risk Bureau. More than 100 cases already are prepared for trial, and many women are facing prison sentences as a result of their activities. These case are but the beginning of the prosecutions, which are expected to mount into the thousands. The bureau has worked out a unique system by which soldiers’ allotments are checked up.
~ Victims Young Boys. ~
Most of the victims to this form of “vampiring,” it appears, according to the war risk bureau, are young boys from the country to reach the various camps with chivalrous ideas of women. There boys are attracted by the dashing “camp widows,” fall victim to the appearance of style, and end by marrying them and making an allotment of part of their soldier’s pay as required by law. A private is expected, when married, to make an allotment of $15 to his wife, and the government matches this allotment with an allowance of $15 more, so the wife receives $30 and the soldier goes to the war front with a wage of $15 a month. In some cases women who have participated in this form of depriving both soldiers and government have been drawing allotments and allowances from 12 different husbands. Each allowance calls for the assumption of a different name and the check has to be indorsed, subjecting the perpetrator to the charge of forgery and also that of bigamy. In order to obtain these allowances the women run the risk of having the 12 husbands, more or less, meet each other in the trenches “somewhere in France,” where a comparison of notes and of photographs of the wives left behind might cause embarrassing complications.
~ More from the Pacific. ~
The checks sent out by the treasury department are mailed in an envelope which renders the address and allowance number visable from the outside, so the mail carrier, post office employees and others may become aware of the person receiving them. In cases where suspicion is awakened the authorities are notified.
Singularly enough, the Pacific coast produces more of these cases than does the Atlantic. Mr. Smith, who has charge of the investigations, explains this on the ground that the women of the Pacific coast, especially of San Francisco, have had more experience in this form of fraud than the women of the East.
“These cases were especially prevalent during the time when soldiers were being sent to the Philippines,” said Mr. Smith, discussing the cases today.
~ Soldiers Party to Fraud. ~
While the great majority of fraud cases involve women who have deluded trusting young soldiers, there are also cases of soldiers who themselves have been party to fraud. In these instances they have alleged the existence of wives who were not their wives, and have made claims for allowances for children that did not exist. Under the law, an illegitimate child is entitled to allowance for support, and the government has cognizance of cases where soldiers have made claims to the parentage of illegitimate children who did not really exist.
The government has record of one case where a soldier claimed a man was his relative to whom he had contributed money for support. It developed the man was not related to the soldier in any way but explained the transaction by saying the soldier had stolen $50 from him at [the finish of sentence – the article’s last – is illegible].
[“Bigamy an Industry For Fake War Brides – U. S. Uncovers Thousands Of Cases Of Girls Marrying For Allowance and Insurance,” The Reading Eagle (Pa.), Nov. 3, 1918, p. 17]
FULL TEXT: San Francisco, Oct. 4.—The dollar vampire who schemed to mulct the American volunteer soldier in the great war under the guise of marriage, is cashing in through the divorce courts.
Amazed at the cynical assurance with which many such “war brides” have brought their alimony pleas before him, Judge Thomas F. Graham, nationally known as the “Great Reconciler” for his mediation in domestic tangles, and deep student of the divorce problem, is seeking nation-wide co-operation of courts to thwart further victimization.
~ Up to Courts ~
“Not alone to assure justice in individual cases,” says Judge Graham, “but to support the marriage institution and to heck further growth of love cynicism among America’s youth, must courts be alert to see that disillusioned war veterans are not further bled in the marriage bunco game through undeserved alimony.
“Wherever possible, both parties should be compelled to appear in court. The woman’s story should not be sufficient, and diligent investigation of war marriages that smack ‘for alimony’ is particularly vital at this time.”
~ Hasty Marriages ~
Blame for wreck and mercenary salvage of war marriages is not placed entirely upon women by Judge Graham. The haste and indiscretion of many men marrying on the eve of overseas departure made the designing overtures of women of that kind all too easy.
But such unions are not proper alimony cases, and it is this feature that he is fighting with all the legitimate powers of the court.
Surprised by the unexpected return of soldiers whose allotments she sought, but whom she never again expected to see, the marriage profiteer is hastening to sever the matrimonial bond, but seeks to retain this financial tie.
~ Divorces Double ~
“The matrimonial profiteer,” says Judge Graham, “is a thousand times more dangerous than the economic profiteer who can more readily be reached by law.”
“Since the war began, divorces have increased 50 per cent in California, and I am sure it is the same over the nation.”
“Thousands of young men in the heat of war married women who lived with them perhaps two or three days, then put in claims for alimony. I know of one case in which a woman married five soldiers and for a long time collected allotments from each.
“Many married soldiers hoping they would be killed in France so that they could collect insurance.”
“Now that our soldiers have returned, many are finding how they have being victimized! They are too disgusted, too disillusioned to fight. The courts must do it for them.”
[Paul N. Wilson, “’Halt War-Marriage Vampire!’ – Noted Judge Fights Alimony Drive On Veterans,” syndicated (NEA), Oct. 19, 1920, p. 3]
FULL TEXT: Chicago, Dec. 2. – Mrs. Helen Ferguson Drexler, 22 years old, has confessed to having been married to sixteen men in the past three years. The young woman, who was arrested here today by Government agents, admitted having married the men, all of whom were either soldiers or sailors, for the sole reason of securing the allotment issued by the War Risk Bureau to a wife of a man in the service.
“You men try to make me admit the marriage of ten men,” she said. “Why, that is just more than half. I had sixteen of them during my career and was going to marry another in a few days if I had not been arrested.
“The first man to whom I was married was an auto salesman, in Boston, in 1918. After the wedding we lived together until he was called to France. Shortly afterward I got word of his death. I tried to forget, but being by myself I was soon forced to seek company, and finally married a man from New York. I was getting the allotment from the Government due me from my first husband at that time.”
“I lived with my second husband contentedly for several months. He joined the navy. I got an allotment from him. One day I met a woman who heard of the two allotments I was getting from the Government, amounting to $60 a month. She suggested that inasmuch as the money was easy I should keep it up and marry again. I could make hundreds of dollars a month by this scheme, if it worked.”
“I consented and married again, this time a soldier in the Brooklyn Navy Yard named John Kelly. He signed his allotment to me. I left him and went in search of another husband.”
“From then on life was just one husband after another. The income amounted to $500 a month. After two years I had married ten men. I can’t recall all the names. I went to Norfolk, Va., and married again. Each time I only stayed with my husband until I got the allotment signed to me and then left.
[“22-Year-Old Girl Married 16 Service Men; Collected $500 Monthly in Allotments,” New York Times (N.Y.), Dec. 3, 1921, p. 1]
FULL TEXT: Mrs. Helen Drexler Ferguson, 22 years old, was released yesterday from Geneva jail, twelve days before the expiration of her six month’s sentence for marrying a number of soldiers and sailors estimated at from fifteen to seventeen, in order to get their allotments.
She is to undergo an operation at Aurora hospital.
Following the operation Mrs. Ferguson will be given a ticket to Washington, where her parents reside, by the Salvation Army, which has taken an interest in her case.
Mrs. Ferguson says she has no other plans for the future than to go to some small city where she can find congenial employment.
[“Girl Who Married Soldiers For Pay Checks Released,” Aurora Daily Star (Il.), Jun. 21, 1922, p. 1]
[Photo from: “15 Husbands, All Yanks,” The Bisbee Daily Review (Az.), Jan. 15, 1922, p. 2]
World War I. US mobilization of 4,355,000. After declaration of war the US target for volunteer enlistment for the first 6 weeks was set at 1 million. Yet only 73,000 men volunteered. On May 18, 1917 the Selective Service Act was passed, with a minimum age of 21. Ultimately 4,355,000 were mobilized. During the war United States forces suffered 323,018 casualties.
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A recent essay discussing this subject: “Allotment Annies and Other Wayward Wives:. Wartime Concerns About Female Disloyalty and the Problem of the Returned Veteran,” in The United States and the Second World War Fordham University Press September 2010, pp. 99-128]