Skip to content

The Creepy Stories Behind Tennessee’s Marriage Laws

The Creepy Stories Behind Tennessee’s Marriage Laws
By Bill Carey

There are 39 hardback books that comprise Tennessee Code Annotated – page after page of laws that were written, debated, passed by both chambers of the legislature and signed into law by whomever the governor was at the time.
There’s a story behind every law. Some are interesting; some boring; some make you mad; some make you laugh; and some make you feel uncomfortable.
This column will (hopefully) fall into the latter category, since it delves into the events that caused Tennessee, in 1937, to pass a law that set a minimum age to get married.
If you look through newspapers in the early 1900s, you’ll run across human-interest stories about child marriages all over the world. By the tone of the stories, we can assume there was an element of disrepute regarding the practice, but the stories didn’t cause condemnation unless there was a particular aspect of the marriage that made it especially unpleasant.
In February 1920, one such case occurred when 54-year-old Ben Zumbro of Nashville married 13-year-old Florence Lambert, in a ceremony that took place in a blacksmith shop. What made the marriage especially newsworthy were the terms under which the bride’s mother had allowed the marriage to take place.
“[Florence] is but a little child, wearing short dresses and with her hair bobbed,” the Nashville Banner reported a few weeks later. “She [said] she had met Zumbro but three or four times and didn’t want to marry him, but her mother made her do so. She said the mother told her [that] Zumbro had promised to take care of the whole family if Mrs. Lambert let her have the girl.”
Were it not for social workers (with was then called the Davidson Charities Commission), the Zumbro-Lambert marriage would have never made the news in the first place. However, it did, Davidson County Judge Litton Hickman called it “the most outrageous thing I’ve heard of since I have been in office,” and County Attorney Horace Osment intervened in the case.
Zumbro and Lambert were eventually divorced on multiple grounds, including the fact that the bride’s mother had lied about her daughter’s age (she claimed Florence was 16); the groom lied about his age (he claimed he was 36); and the man who performed the ceremony (W.S. Yarbrough) was not an actual minister.
In any case, the Zumbro-Lambert marriage did not result in any new laws. Nine years later, the state passed a five-day waiting period for marriages involving people under 16. But when that law was nullified in 1935, its nullification had the unintended consequence of getting rid of all minimum age marriage laws in Tennessee.
Then, in 1937, there was a marriage in Hancock County between 22-year-old Charlie Johns and nine-year-old Eunice Winstead. During the next few weeks, photos of Charlie and Eunice (holding a doll) were published in newspapers all over the United States.
“The Winstead family seems complacent over the future of the 9-year-old bride because Charlie, the bridegroom, owns 50 acres of mountain land, several mules and he’s a good farmer,” the Knoxville Journal reported. “Charlie’s family . . . took a sterner attitude. When Charlie brought his bride and her doll home 10 days ago and announced ‘we’re married,’ his mother could be heard at the other end of the hollow.”
The marriage between a grown man and a 9-year-old girl resulted in immediate calls for change in the laws. Less than a month later, Governor Gordon Browning signed into law a bill that fixed 16 as the minimum marriage age and called for a three-day waiting period before a license can be issued involving a girl under 18.
Like many laws, however, the 1937 Tennessee marriage law was complicated, and did allow for people under 16 to get married under certain circumstances. That’s why, in 2018, Sen. Jeff Yarbo and Rep. Darren Jarnigan successfully proposed a bill that revamped Tennessee’s marriage laws. Today, the minimum marriage age in Tennessee is 17, and Tennessee law specifically forbids someone under 18 from marrying a person four years or more older than him or her.
In any case, these are some of the stories behind Tennessee Code Annotated 36-3-105.
A footnote: Charlie Johns (1912-1997) and Eunice Winstead (1927-2006) remained married for life and had four children – the first of whom was born when Eunice was 15.

Leave a Comment