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Wild Women Of The West: Nellie Wallace

COWGIRL LIFE

Wild Women Of The West: Nellie Wallace

wild women nellie wallace cowgirl magazine

Deacon Joe Sleet’s correspondence with widow Nellie Wallace was full of promise for the future.  When they began writing one another in late 1925, Mrs. Wallace had hoped to find a man who would love and care for her as her deceased husband once had.  When she placed an ad in the “Get Acquainted” section of a western magazine and the deacon responded she believed he was the answer to her heart’s longing.  “I’m not a flapper,” her advertisement read, “but I would like to exchange letters with a man between the age of twenty-five and thirty-two.  I want a husband good and true, there is a chance it might be you,” the notice concluded.

Twenty-two year old Nellie Wallace lived in Tchula, Mississippi 1,500 miles from Joe Sleet’s home in El Paso, Texas.  Of all the letters she received in reply to her ad, Joe struck her fancy completely.  In a short time Nellie was writing Joe to the exclusion of anyone else.  Through his letters she learned that he was a deacon in the Baptist church and that he was a widower.  Nellie confided in him that she too was the victim of a sad romance, her husband having died some years ago.

The correspondence was hardly a month old before Joe had been granted permission to call his fair correspondent “Sweetheart.”  Another week and respective photographs were exchanged; still another and a row of x’s appeared at the bottom of their letters.  Another month passed and more letters were delivered at the Sleet home.  In one of those letters Nellie admitted there was a “spark of love aglow,” in her heart.

The fervor of the letters increased with their frequency.  Then came the inevitable exchange of locks of hair with Nellie giving an accurate description of herself.  She informed Joe she was five feet, eight inches tall, weighed 180 pounds but, being tall, did not look obese.  “And goodness knows,” the account concluded, “I like to eat.”  Her devotion to the truth did not quench the flame of Joe’s growing love for Nellie.  “Sweetheart,” he replied, “your age, weight, hair, eyes and everything is all right with me if you will only make some suggestion about the ‘yes’ part of it.  Say ‘yes’ now, Nellie.  Your loving Joe.”

Nellie’s letter back to Joe included the answer he had pleaded for and he was elated when he sent a note back to her telling of his joy.  In this ecstatic note Joe drew a picture of his heart with “love drops” falling from it.  “Now you can see,” was the accompanying comment, “that my heart belongs to you.”  He signed his letter “Your All-the-Time Valentine.”  

At a later date Joe sent another letter detailing what train Nellie needed to take to get to him and what was to happen once she arrived in Texas.  “We will be married at my home the night you arrive.  I live with my mother.  I am keeping our plans a secret from the pastor.  I will tell him on Sunday that I am going to call a deacon’s meeting at my home on Thursday night and that the three deacons and I want him to be present.  He will think it is just a regular business meeting until he finds out that one of his deacons wants him to officiate the happiest occasion of his life.”

It was that rosy promise and the anticipation of a joyous future that Nellie caught the next train for El Paso.  The ceremony came off on schedule and Nellie, happy to escape bachelor-girlhood, joyous in her new found love, thought that her life couldn’t get any happier.  Her happiness was short-lived however.

The first real problem between Nellie and Joe started with Joe’s mother.  She did not like Nellie and was not shy about showing it.  The two women could not agree on anything and were vocal about it.  Furthermore, the groom had been led to believe, because of Nellie’s acknowledged fondness of food, that she would be able to make lavish meals.  Joe was doomed to disappointment.  Within a month the disgruntled bridge groom, fed up with the bickering and lack of home cooked meals by his wife, quietly disappeared one day.  Joe’s mother broke the news to her daughter-in-law that her new spouse had moved to Chicago.  Nellie was humiliated and furious.  She moved to a neighbor’s house and began making plans to divorce Joe.  In the meantime she found a job as a caretaker for an elderly woman.  Joe beat Nellie in filing for a divorce citing as his reasons that his “mail-order bride,” had refused to cook his meals, fought with his mother, threatened his mother’s life and demanded that his mother leave.  Nellie quickly countersued on the grounds of desertion.  According to the October 5, 1926 edition of the El Paso Times, Nellie was, mortified by Joe’s accusation.  “I don’t want him anymore,” she told a Times reporter.  “And I wouldn’t live with him, but I am determined to go to court and to show him up.”

Meanwhile, the deacon sadly thought over his broken dreams and put himself on record with the Times as being “through” with mail-order matrimony.  “I found out a month after the wedding,” he affirmed, “that our marriage was a mistake.” “I tried to get my wife to go back to her own mother.  She refused.  She wanted us to get a house to ourselves.  I could not afford to do that.  There was no use trying to reason with her.  I left El Paso for Alexandria, Louisiana, my old home, where I remained a week.  I did not leave her, as she claims, penniless.  There was a deposit of $75 in the State National Bank, which was available for a ticket to Tchula, Mississippi.”

The divorce case took time to prepare.  Meanwhile, the congregation of the church where Joe served was divided in their feelings and greatly concerned over the matter.  There were those that sided with the bride and those who declared themselves to be loyal supporters of the deacon.  

During a Sunday morning service directly following the announcement of the official breakup of the newlyweds, the atmosphere was electric with unvoiced opinion.  The bride and groom sat on opposite sides of the church and members of the congregation who had taken a side in the matter sat with the person they believed had the most legitimate case.

When the case finally came to trial thousands of El Paso residence flooded the courtroom to hear the outcome of the troubled marriage between the deacon and his mail-order bride.  The Sleet’s divorce was finalized on October 1, 1926.

Nellie and Joe Sleet’s mail-order marriage wasn’t the only correspondence romance that ended in bitter divorce.  In 1914, Leola McGover from Excelsior Springs, Missouri waited patiently to walk down the aisle of the Methodist church in Silver City, Idaho and exchange vows with Lawrence Woodring, a miner who was living in Silver City.  The couple had met via an advertisement Lawrence posted in the New Plan magazine.  He was searching for a wife and Leola answered the call.  They corresponded for more than two years before Lawrence proposed.  The date of June 14, 1914 was set the wedding.  The interesting outcome of the much anticipated event made the Town Talk section of the Coeur d’Alene Press.  According to the articled dated June 22, the wedding between Leola and Lawrence was to be an “elegant event.”  Among the bridesmaids was a cousin from Kansas City, Missouri.  The groom and the cousin got along very well and the bride-to-be was pleased.  Leola wanted her husband to like all the members of her family.  

On the day of the wedding the church was packed with relatives and friends of both families.  “The intended bride was beautiful in her marriage garb,” the Town Talk article read.  “She was as happy as any girl has a right to be.  Suddenly the blow fell.  It was a horrible blow.  It came from a note – a note from the man who was to have been her husband within the hour.”  

“Leola,” the note began.  “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing else that I can do.  Your cousin and I fell madly in love the moment we looked at each other.  Our happiness lies together.  And if I married you I would put a curse on both our lives.  Please do your best to forgive me.”

Leola was stunned by the revelation and fainted.  Lawrence and his former fiancé’s cousin traveled to Kansas City, Missouri where they were married shortly thereafter.  Leola left Idaho and settled in San Francisco.  

The five brides of George Stevens experienced similar shock and dismay when they learned the man they wed was married to several others.  From 1929 to 1932, sixty-three year old Stevens used the matrimonial agency the American Friendship Society to find a suitable partner to marry.  Stevens was a traveling shoe salesman for the Stride Rite Shoe Company based out of Cincinnati, Ohio.  

According to the May 21, 1932 edition of the Hutchinson, Kansas newspaper the Hutchinson News, Stevens told representatives at the five different American Friendship Society offices across the state that “he was lonely and needed a faithful wife.”  The Society was successful in being able to match Stevens with just such women.  After exchanging a few letters with Blanche Burch of Athens, Ohio, Lulu Burke of Plainwell, Cora Hamilton of Union City, Utha Liggett of Margurette Springs, and Mary Endres of Oberlin, he arranged to meet them.  Not long after their initial meetings he proposed and quickly married.  After each wedding he spent about a month with his brides then departed with whatever cash or jewelry of theirs he could make off with.

Lulu Burke was the first to report Stevens to Athens’ police.  He deserted her in October 1931 taking $11 in cash and her checkbook with him when he left.  It wasn’t until Utha Liggett came forward to report that her husband stole $800 from her that the authorities noticed a similarity in the crimes and the description of Stevens.  By reviewing teletypes exchanged between police forces statewide law enforcement was able to identify the accused as the same man.  Further investigation showed that Stevens was not only married to Burke and Liggett but three other women besides.  

Steven was arrested at a hotel room in Cincinnati, Ohio on May 2, 1932 and charged with bigamy and theft.              

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Chris Enss is a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West.

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