Too much married: Bigamy and the Australian military

In this blog, Alana Piper explores what the history of bigamy in the Australian military reveals about shifting experiences of marriage, gender and sexuality in twentieth-century Australia.

I was at a Christmas party over the recent holiday period when I met a man from the Royal Australian Navy. He told me about an upcoming deployment to the United States. He and his mates had been teasing their commanding officer about the hi-jinks they planned to get up to in Vegas. Chief among these was claiming that they all planned to get married, even the already married ones, because ‘everyone knew that Vegas marriages don’t count’.

While my acquaintance was joking (I’m pretty sure), he unknowingly touched on a phenomenon that I have been researching: the connections between the military, war and bigamy, the crime of being married to more than one person at once.

The Second World War saw a steep rise in bigamy prosecutions in Australia (see Figure 1). A variety of factors contributed to this phenomenon, from the whirlwind nature of romances contracted during wartime to increased detection resulting from investigations into military spousal support. In a recent article for the Journal of Family History, I explored the links between bigamy prosecutions, war and military enlistment through archival records and media coverage of 159 cases committed for trial in Victoria between 1914 and 1945 that involved active or returned servicemen as either bigamy defendants or victims of bigamous spouses.

Figure 1. Bigamy prosecutions across Australia, 1900-1960. Source: Prosecution Project data supplemented with NSW annual police reports for that state jurisdiction.

The types of narratives that defendants used to explain their bigamies were similar across both world wars. Almost all had some excuse to offer for committing bigamy, many citing multiple justifications.

Unhappy marriages were the most common theme. War contributed to some of these marital breakdowns. Marriages hastily contracted in wartime on short acquaintances broke down once incompatibilities were revealed. English women who married Australian soldiers could not always adjust to life in their new country. Marriages that had been stable prior to the war collapsed when soldiers returned home changed men.

Simultaneously, military service led to the blossoming of new romances, with several defendants bigamously marrying women who nursed them after being wounded or whom they met at military social functions. The threat of death encouraged both recklessness and a sense of entitlement to romantic fulfilment, with one 1941 defendant explaining that after years in an unhappy marriage he ‘wanted some happiness before going overseas, as I may not have come back’.

Young ladies farewelling RAAF recruits at the railway station, Brisbane, Queensland, 2 April 1940. Image courtesy of the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Most defendants attributed the failure of their first marriages to their spouse’s behaviour. Among male defendants, this typically involved allegations that their first wife was adulterous. Men’s absence on military service increased opportunities for infidelity, with several defendants revealing they returned home from war to discover their wives living with or pregnant by other men.

Conversely, nearly a quarter of female defendants mentioned violent first husbands. While it might be supposed that such domestic violence was a response to war trauma, in over half the cases where female defendants alleged their first husbands had been violent, it was their second husbands who were in the military. In many bigamy cases, desertion, adultery or violence provided clear grounds for divorce. Cost was likely the preventing factor with one bigamous soldier admitting he had wanted to divorce but could not afford it.

Pregnancy was another common reason for bigamy. One in five male defendants and one in ten female defendants claimed their actions were to protect a child from illegitimacy. Female defendants were possibly under-represented due to the greater stigmatisation they faced in admitting to pre-marital sex. For male defendants, marrying a pregnant woman, even bigamously, was often asserted to be the ‘honourable’ thing to do. For some, though, it was literally all they were prepared to do, with one navy man impregnating then marrying two teenage girls before quickly abandoning them, likely in an effort to avoid carnal knowledge charges.

Other pregnancy-induced marriages were not to the father of the child at all. Another former navy man claimed he bigamously married his teenage foster daughter in 1941 to protect her reputation after she told him she was pregnant to a married man in the Air Force. The marriage was kept secret from his wife whom he continued living with, setting his foster daughter up in her own apartment. By the time his bigamy was discovered in 1945, the girl had perished in childbirth, so was not available to contradict his story if there were a darker reason for their marriage.

Another frequent justification for bigamy was that the defendant believed they were free to remarry, either because they assumed their spouse was dead, had divorced them, or that the first marriage was invalid. War contributed to such misapprehensions – or at least the believability with which defendants could claim such misapprehensions. For women, the war created reasonable uncertainty about whether their first husband was alive. For men, the time constraints imposed by military service led several men to rush to remarry before checking their divorces had been properly finalised.

Other defendants claimed that they were not responsible for their actions due to intoxication, insanity or a combination of both. A number of male defendants blamed war service as the root cause of these conditions. In 1918, a Gallipoli veteran claimed he had no recollection of having married the sister of his still-living wife, his lawyer blaming this temporary amnesia on his client’s ‘fearful experiences at the front’, exacerbated by the drugs to which he ‘had recourse to ease his shocking sufferings’. That same year, another man stated that he was not only drunk when he bigamously married a woman who nursed him after he was wounded in action, but was mentally worn down from months of heavy drinking to relieve ongoing pain. Other men from both the First and Second World War blamed bigamy on memory lapses produced by shell shock, but such explanations were usually treated with incredulity by judges and juries.

Parade of RAAF recruits through Queen Street, Brisbane, Queensland, 8 August 1940. Image courtesy of the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Another factor to rising prosecutions during the Second World War was increased detection. Bigamy was an offence that even into the mid-twentieth century could go undetected for years, even decades. Investigation of military spousal support led to the disclosure of bigamies contracted long before the war. One soldier who had been married bigamously for six years and had four children with his second wife, had his offence discovered in 1940 when his first wife, whom he had separated from in 1930, filed a claim against his pay. By 1942, the regularity of such discrepancies led the military to create a special form for notifying the police of bigamy cases. The military seldom took any action to punish the offenders themselves, as bigamy was only subject to court-marital if it occurred in a jurisdiction outside of Australian law.  

After the end of the Second World War, bigamy prosecutions started to fall back down across the 1950s and 1960s as divorce rates rose, with such prosecutions becoming rare since the introduction of no-fault divorce in 1975. While incidence of the offence may have declined, understanding the history of the offence remains relevant to understanding how gender has impacted Australian society.

There was not enough room above to explore all these insights, such as how gendered conflicts about family fertility were often cited by bigamists as contributing to marital breakdowns or how the law’s conception of marriage primarily as an economic bargain resulted in more convictions and much harsher sentences for men compared to women charged with bigamy.

For more insights into what bigamy reveals around the impacts of war and gender on people’s intimate lives in the twentieth century, please read my full article.

Dr Alana Piper is Lecturer at the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. A leading historian on the history of crime and criminal justice in Australia, she is currently an investigator on the ARC Discovery project ‘Sex and the Australian Military, 1914-2020’ (2021-2023).

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