One hundred years ago, one of the biggest Hollywood sex symbols of the day, Rudolph Valentino, suddenly showed up at the courthouse in Crown Point, Indiana, about 39 miles from Chicago.
With Valentino was the woman he loved, Winifred Hudnut, who went by the stage name Natacha Rambova. They had come from Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel to the Lake County Courthouse to get a marriage license. Once Rudolf and Winifred had the license, they walked across the street to be married in the office of Justice of the Peace Howard Kemp. Valentino then bought his bride a donut, and they drove back to Chicago.
The screen idol and his second wife were among the hundreds of couples who went from the Chicago area to Crown Point to get married that year. Although Chicago had 1,000 times the population of Crown Point, the Indiana city issued seven times as many marriage licenses, the Chicago Tribune reported in June 1915. By the mid-1930s, about 6,000 Chicago couples a year were driving over the state line to get married in Crown Point.
The reason for the high volume of newlyweds is because Indiana didn’t require a waiting time for a marriage license, and Crown Point is the first county seat over the state line from Chicago.
“We became kind of the Las Vegas of Indiana,” said Scott Hudnall, president of the Lake County Historical Society.
Impatience to get married seemed to be the motivation for many couples who made the trip. The newspapers of the era are full of articles about couples meeting at parties and deciding on a whim to go to Crown Point and get married. In the Prohibition Days, when gin was a popular drink among those ignoring the law, an impromptu wedding was called a “gin marriage.”
Those getting married first had to stop at the courthouse, an imposing red and white structure with three towers, dozens of painted roof brackets and rows of arched windows. The building is a classic Midwestern county courthouse.
The central portion, built in 1878, was designed by John C. Cochrane, a Chicago architect whose other monumental works include the state capitols in Illinois and Iowa, and Chicago’s recently refurbished Cook County Hospital.
The courthouse doesn’t house county offices anymore. Shops and restaurants are on the ground floor, and some other uses are upstairs.
On the main floor, Hudnall’s group occupies the old County Clerk office, which still has the long wooden counter where the Valentinos and thousands of other couples signed their marriage licenses before rushing out to get married at a justice of the peace. On their way out the courthouse door, they could see signs for at least six justice of the peace offices right across the street. They could also drive a few miles back toward Chicago and get married at a combination justice of the peace/gas station.
Among the many other people who got married in Crown Point were Louis Swift Jr. of the Chicago meatpacking dynasty; Red Grange, the legendary University of Illinois and Chicago Bears halfback; and Beulah Annan, the boyfriend killer who was the inspiration for the character Roxie Hart in the musical Chicago.
Some famous names who got their marriage licenses in Crown Point came simply because it was their county seat. Joe and Katherine Screws Jackson, the parents of Michael Jackson and the rest of that musical family, were East Chicago residents when they got married in 1949. And Muhammad Ali and his first wife, Sonji Roi of Gary, Indiana, got their license in Crown Point in 1964.
Those weddings took place years after the Indiana Supreme Court intentionally killed the Crown Point marriage mill. In January 1938, the court ruled that Indiana county clerks could not issue a marriage license to a woman who wasn’t a county resident, leaning on a law that had been on the books in the state since 1852.
A key reason: Many of the spontaneous marriages didn’t last. The Valentinos, married in 1923, got divorced in 1925. In 1936, a long expose in the Chicago Tribune claimed that a large proportion of the annulments and divorces in Cook County Courts were for people who got married in Crown Point.
Some had eloped to Crown Point because it was “exciting and different,” Tribune reporter Louise Bargelt wrote. But most were either “just drunk enough not to care what they are doing,” or “they are so drunk they don’t know what they are doing.”
Bargelt gave examples of couples who got married the same night they met at a party, and couples who were so drunk the night they got married, they didn’t even realize it had happened until somebody showed them the marriage license the next day.
Crown Point’s justices of the peace would marry people 24 hours a day. They weren’t supposed to do a ceremony for anyone inebriated, but Bargelt found they would often laugh off a bride who had to be held standing by her groom or her friends.
The county clerk and the justice of the peace might also close their eyes to a bride’s age. By Indiana law a bride had to be at least 18 years old, but Bargelt mentioned a 14-year-old girl who got married in Crown Point. In 1923, the Tribune reported that a 15-year-old girl had eloped to Crown Point. The newspaper didn’t mention the man’s age.
By 1938 Indiana state officials felt they had to shut down the “marriage mill” that had been operating in Crown Point for more than two decades. Valparaiso and Indiana border towns with Kentucky and Ohio also were “marriage mills.”
Crown Point’s proximity to Chicago made it the best known and probably the most used. In July 1937, 1,910 couples got married in Crown Point.
Hudnall, of the historical society, said the crackdown was “bound to happen,” but he says the history is “something people love to find out about.”
Right now, the historical society space is overwhelmed with artifacts and memorabilia people have donated, much of it having nothing to do with the marriage mill era. The clerk’s counter is piled high with material the society is slowly sifting through. Visitors can stop by May through October, Thursday to Saturday afternoons.
Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Dennis_Rodkin.