The historians on the University of Arkansas's history listserv shared a couple of great stories about unconventional Arkansas marriages. One of the listserv subscribers, Joe Wasson of Fort Smith, reminded readers that same-sex marriage in Arkansas dated to 1888. Not only was the union same-sex, it was interracial. He provided an article from the Fort Smith Elevator, July 13, 1888, transcribed here, and the image of the marriage license:
"A White Man Duly Married to a Negro Man
On Sunday night last, Constable Frizzell arrested a man named James Chesser at the shanty of a mulatto named George Burton, who has for years been known here as a hermaphrodite. The arrest was made on a charge of disorderly conduct. When he was asked what he was doing at the house of Burton, he replied that Burton was his wife. He was locked up until Monday morning, when he was taken before Esq. Edmondson, who fined him $10 and costs. He was still held however in order that the matter of marriage between him and the negro could be investigated. An examination of the clerk's records disclosed the fact that on the 10th of May last James Chesser had procured a license to marry George Ann Holly, who was no other person than the negro Burton by a preacher named Campbell. This rather stumped the officers, as they could find nothing in the law books concerning the case. However, a physician was summoned, and after an examination it was found that George was not what he pretended to be but a natural man. Upon this discovery being made, both of them were lodged in jail to answer to a charge of sodomy. The case attracted much attention and is probably the only instance on record where one man married another, and is all the more revolting because of one being a negro and the other a white man."
Then there is the case of J.B. "Benny" Slatton and Donna Slatton, married June 22, 1943, in Lawrence County, and divorced 11 days later. Lisa Perry, the archival manager of the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives, says court records include a document in which Benny Slatton told the court, "Well, everybody makes mistakes." When the divorce was finalized, Benny and Donna celebrated — by getting drunk in Pocahontas and getting married again. When they decided the next morning they'd made another mistake, they decided to apply for annulment. Then they lived together for a couple of weeks. There is no record that they ever divorced. Maybe they stayed together. Maybe they stayed drunk.
Abby Burnett of Kingston, author of "Gone to the Grave: Burial Customs of the Arkansas Ozarks, 1850-1950," had poisonous marriage tales to tell, both unions having to do with lonely hearts columns:
In 1948, Lonnie Robbins of Scotland (Van Buren County) poisoned his new bride, Sadie Sue Robbins, on New Year's Eve, just hours after they arrived at his home from their Christmas Eve wedding in Texas. He, his mother and a hired hand were charged in the death. Robbins reportedly hid some of his bride's money in his underwear. Charges were dropped against the mother and hired hand; Burnett thinks Orval Faubus may have pardoned Robbins. In 2000, the Van Buren County Historical Society wrote up the incident, titled "The 'Mail-Order Bride' Murder Mystery."
In 1955, Nannie Hazle Braggs Harrelson Lanning Morton poisoned her new husband, Samuel Doss of Berryville, whom she'd met through a lonely hearts club. Morton, who'd been married five times and had killed other spouses and family, died in jail in Oklahoma. Burnett adds: "A macabre twist: Doss' first wife and their six children were killed by a tornado in 1945; he was later buried beside them." Burnett wrote up the story for the March 2005 edition of the Carroll County Historical Quarterly.