Tennessee enacts law to combat child marriages in 1937

New law targets child marriage in Tennessee, historical challenges remain

The landscape of matrimonial law in Tennessee underwent a significant shift when, on February 26, 1937, Governor Browning enacted a statute setting the minimum marital age at sixteen. This legislative action was a move to curtail the practice of child marriages, which had been a contentious issue. Nevertheless, the new law did not immediately eradicate such unions, and instances continued to surface that challenged the intent of this reform.

One of the most controversial unions of the time was that of Geneva Hamby and Homer Peel. Geneva, merely twelve years of age, wed thirty-two-year-old Homer Peel in Madisonville, Tennessee, on March 29, 1937. When the couple sought a marriage licence, Geneva falsely stated her age as eighteen, a claim that went unchecked at the time.

The marriage soon encountered legal scrutiny when Geneva’s mother sought to annul the union on April 21st, highlighting the stark age disparity. The annulment plea, however, was denied by the court, which pointed to Geneva’s status as an orphan and her estranged relationship with her mother as contributing factors to its decision.

Amid speculation and media interest in the durability of their marriage, Homer and Geneva defied expectations by remaining together through their first year of marriage, despite societal misgivings about their age difference. As they marked their second year as husband and wife, the couple was in the midst of planning for their future, including the construction of a new home, with a decided intention of remaining childless. Despite these plans, their family grew with the birth of their first child, Evelyn, on December 18, 1942, when Geneva was fourteen.

Against the backdrop of conjecture, Homer and Geneva’s marriage proved resilient. By the time of their twentieth anniversary, they were parents to seven children, and Homer had found success as a farmer. The sale of mineral rights had further enhanced their financial stability, allowing them to lead a comfortable life.

The family once more attracted public attention in 1960 when their daughter, Evelyn, at seventeen, eloped, flying in the face of her father’s wishes. Despite initial disapproval and ensuing legal complications, Evelyn’s marriage was enduring, lasting forty-six years.

The death of Charlie Jess Johns on February 13, 1997, marked the end of a marriage that spanned six decades. His wife, Eunice Blanche Winstead Johns, survived him for nine additional years, passing away on August 29, 2006.

Reflecting on her life in a 1976 interview, Eunice conveyed no remorse over her early marriage, despite the personal sacrifices, such as her discontinued education. What had once been a source of societal consternation transformed into a testament to the couple’s lasting bond.

This remarkable narrative holds one final twist. A close examination of historical archives uncovered a discrepancy in the couple’s story—Charlie Johns was not twenty-two at the time of his marriage, as widely reported, but twenty-four. This revelation adds yet another layer to the extraordinary tale of Homer and Geneva Peel, as their story exemplifies the complex nature of human relationships and their potential to endure beyond societal expectations and time itself.

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