In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to bring a bit of romance to Out of the Box, but when one spends her day working with historic court records, it’s rare to find evidence of a happy couple. In fact, I am convinced that there may never have been a sighting of connubial bliss in Virginia’s circuit court records. Divorce cases, however, are abundant, and this Petersburg couple never even made it to the altar before heading to the courthouse in 1916.
A recently widowed Permelia F. McKinney, born in Connecticut around 1880, met grocery store owner Frank Roberts while visiting friends in Petersburg. Little is known about their initial meeting, but after her return to Connecticut, the two commenced a courtship conducted entirely through letters, with correspondence dating from 4 January 1915 through 26 July 1916. During their year and a half courtship, one would hope for a steamy love affair conducted in the written word, but the couple’s correspondence was tame, with most letters filled with longing to see each other while making plans for Permelia to head south. On 7 March 1915, Frank wrote, “I for one would like to see you here among us,” but first it was too cold for Permelia to travel, then too hot. It seemed that Permelia would never make her way back to Petersburg.
The couple marked the time waiting for Permelia’s trip by sending letters, postcards, and photographs. Frank refers to Permelia as “my dear girl” and worries on 21 March 1915 that “someone else might steal my darling away from me” and wonders if her desire to marry him is in earnest or if she is just “humbugging” him. In July 1915, Frank sends a dashing photo of himself and requests one in return: “…but I would rather have the original, which I hope I will before long as I can hug and kiss it as you did my photo.”
August arrives and Permelia still feels “our future is bright and going to come soon.” Still, she continues to postpone her visit: “How much better I would feel if my boy could be here with me to pack trunk and help me get ready for it makes a woman feel a little timid to travel alone. Don’t I wish it was so I could fly down there and clasp my darling in my arms in less than an hours [sic] time.”
Frustrations over their slow courtship become apparent in Frank’s letters mailed in September 1915: “My thoughts are like yours that we are both cut out for each other and I can think of no one but you…but as time has ripened why should we hesitate any longer for we haven’t got but one life to live why shouldn’t we enjoyed [sic] it while we are here.” While still dragging her feet over her travel plans, Permelia did appear happy to hear of Frank’s longing: “No tongue can tell how pleased I was… to hear my boy is so anxious to have me come. I love to hear it as I know then there is lots of love in his heart for me.”
As Christmas 1915 neared, Frank grew even more anxious for Permelia’s return to Petersburg: “I am not losing patience but longing to see you very much and soon… I wish that you were here now, for I go down to the depot real often thinking that you may come unexpectedly, but I have looked in vain.” During this time Permelia was working in New Canaan, Connecticut, as a governess or maid to two young girls, and the weather, combined with the girls’ ill health, kept Permelia from Frank.
The weather cleared and the girls’ health improved in May 1916, and Permelia finalized her travel plans to Virginia. Marriage for the couple finally seemed to be on the horizon. Frank describes his feelings about the upcoming reunion in a letter posted 20 May 1916: “…glad to hear that you are getting ready to come which you have wrote so many times but I have failed to see your sweet face so far… I long to clasp you in my arms and to bite those sweet loving lips.”
So, how does a couple go from “sending a sugar barrel full of kisses” to a breach of promise suit in a Petersburg, Virginia, court? In her final letter, dated 26 July 1916, Permelia addresses “Dear Sir” as opposed to her usual “My own Darling Frank” and claims that she has fully made up her mind now to never marry him. We don’t know what happened during her visit, but Permelia writes, “I would never be happy with you for the way I was treated… I feel very sorry I ever come [sic].”
The details of what doomed their relationship remain a mystery, but circumstances were apparently bad enough to prompt Permelia to bring a suit before the Petersburg Hustings Court against Frank for his failure to carry out his promise to marry her. The actual judgment documentation has yet to be uncovered (only the letters were found at the Petersburg courthouse), and we are left to piece together details from newspaper accounts and order books. In the 25 July 1916 edition of the Petersburg Daily Progress it is noted that breach of promise suits were “very, very rare” in Petersburg and that “it would probably tax the memory of the oldest inhabitants to state when there was such litigation before the local courts.” Permelia sued Frank for $10,000, and a jury returned a $2,000 verdict in her favor on 28 November 1916. The couple parted ways after the verdict. 1930 census records show Permelia McKinney living in Fairfield, Connecticut, as a servant to Walters and Antoinette Landis. Frank Roberts remained in Petersburg.
The Petersburg (Va.) Judgments, Permelia F. McKinney vs. Frank Roberts, Letters used as Exhibits, 1915-1916, are available for research at the Library of Virginia.
-Bari Helms, Local Records Archivist