On July 22, 1912, a short but not so sweet wedding announcement appeared in The New York Times: “There was a double wedding last evening in the Oneida County Jail at Rome. Jessie Hanson and Tony Lemma and Sam Marziali and Flora Granger were the bridal couples. The women are serving short sentences, and, as their time is still unexpired, will have to spend the first part of their honeymoon in jail. The husbands are not prisoners.”
We’ve all heard plenty of stories about women who marry male prisoners — wardens seduced by sweet-talking inmates, vulnerable housewives with multiple children who fall for convicted murderers they meet on special dating sites. Heck, even Charles Manson had a beautiful young bride-to-be (though reports said she was caught two-timing him with one of his disciples at a rock and gem show and had plans to display his corpse for profit after his death, so who knows where that’s at).
You don’t have to have a doctorate in psychology to understand the narratives that might persuade a woman to marry a felon — a history of abuse, a fear of abandonment or, simply, an internalized notion that getting married after 40 is about as likely as meeting a leprechaun at the Polo Lounge and having him buy you a shrimp cocktail. There are women desperately trying to hold their families together. Then there’s love, some ersatz kind of romance. But love is complex, love involves forgiveness, and so many women have been trained to forgive, again and again, until they don’t know what they’re forgiving anymore.
Women have also been trained to be good. I know that I spend an extraordinary amount of time every day trying to determine whether or not I am a “good person,” a concept I understand to be meaningless, or at least impossible to define, on some level. Getting the dogs out the door before they piss on the rug means I am beginning the day responsibly. Ignoring my mother’s calls in favor of perusing Instagram is poor behavior. Screwing up a friend’s coffee order puts me at a serious deficit. Being 15 minutes late to lunch, then not being able to resist talking about my own mundane yet horrible morning is, to me, a crime worthy of incarceration.
By the time I hit my pillow at night, I am organizing a litany of awards and complaints, all just for me, and setting the stage for either a peaceful sleep or the recurring nightmare of my friends all lining up outside my apartment building to ask me to move to Wyoming, sans cellphone.
My boyfriend (who, half a decade in, has still not proposed, by the way) does an impression of me that drives me freaking insane. In a mousy, obsequious voice, he asks: “Am I a good giiiirl? Is anyone maaad at me? Have I been a sweetie today?” It makes me ill, but only because of how closely it echoes my true internal monologue.
For someone interested in history’s bravest revolutionaries and the power of art to disrupt the status quo, I sure am eager to pay for everyone’s lunch. Check paid for you, check mark for me.
Which brings me back to Jessie and Tony and Sam and Flora and their double jail wedding. The article gives no indication as to what Jessie and Flora did. Steal candy? Punch members of a rival girl gang? Solicit sex? But Tony and Sam didn’t care. Despite, or maybe because of, their lovers’ indiscretions, they insisted on marrying them right there in what would be considered by many, especially in 1912, the most shameful place on earth. They didn’t need them to be good girls. They were their girls. Love is not merely the domain of those who get your latte order right. It’s for everyone, everywhere, imperfect as one may be. A honeymoon in a jail cell is still a honeymoon.
Lena Dunham is a writer living in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.