It was almost like Romeo and Juliet, fifteen-year-old Jennie Thomson of Duarte thought as she eloped with twenty-four year-old Homer Norman. Her father thought her too young for romance and did not mince words when telling her so, but she was in love and wanted to spend her life with Homer. The elopement had been well planned. Homer had taken off with Jenny in one carriage and, accompanied by four young friends in another, headed to Long Beach. Long Beach, they thought, would be the perfect seaside town to take a ship out to sea and get married. Besides, the town’s telephone system shut down at 9 p.m. every evening and Jennie’s father couldn’t trace them there.
The Thomsons discovered their daughter missing around 8:30 p.m., Sunday, August 2, 1897. They found a note explaining that she had lived at home as long as she cared to and that she had decided to spend the remainder of her life with Homer. The police were immediately notified and several search parties started toward the beach, but it was too late. Jenny, Homer and their escorts had already boarded Captain Pearson’s ship the J. Willey and were heading out to sea and the nine-mile limit where Pearson could legally marry the young lovers.
Jenny’s father was livid, her mother prostrated with grief. Their daughter was not of legal age to marry without her parent’s consent and Alexander C. Thomson was definitely not going to give it. The determined father found his daughter in Long Beach and hurried to the seaside town demanding that Jenny come home with him. Homer Norman told his now father-in-law he no longer had a say so in the matter. Thomson disagreed.
The tangled court case that resulted would come to define the legality of marriages at sea. If Pearson’s marriage of the couple was legal it meant that any man could take any underage child to sea, defy the wishes of her parents and have his way with her.
On August 15, 1897, Judge M.T. Allen rendered his decision: marriages on the high seas were legal only when neither of the contracting parties was violating the laws of the State or country in which they lived when contracting such marriage. Since Jennie was underage she was still under her father’s custody. The marriage was not legal and a hysterical Jennie was returned to her family home.
Jennie claimed she still loved Norman and vowed she would run away with him again, at the first opportunity. Alexander Thomson told the press he would rather have a dog for a son-in-law than Norman and that he would have the young man arrested on a charge of rape unless Norman stopped harassing his daughter. The threat must have done the trick. Though no further stories appear, a look at the 1900 U.S. Census finds Homer Norman living with his parents along with his British born wife, Beatrice, and their 3-month-old daughter. Jennie, eighteen-years-old in that same census, is still at home with her parents; finally of legal age to marry---but her Romeo had deserted her for another.
You can find more of Claudine Burnett's stories from the past HERE.