The Criminal Genealogist

S1E7: May Hendricks Johnson - Bigamy in the Midwest

October 19, 2021 Host Michelle Bates Season 1 Episode 7
The Criminal Genealogist
S1E7: May Hendricks Johnson - Bigamy in the Midwest
Show Notes Transcript

This case is about May Hendricks and Clarence Johnson whose marriage  fell apart when May decided she loved another man and eloped to another state but forgetting one thing. She was still married! 

Thank you for your support of this podcast. You can follow us on our social media platforms below.
Twitter @TheCriminalGene -
Facebook -
Show notes available on Website -

All the sources for this episode will be uploaded to the website within 24 hours of the episode going live. Enjoy! 

Support the show

Josiah Schmidt submitted today’s case about his 3x great-grandmother Mary “May” Leota Hendricks. Josiah is a Ph.D. candidate and professional genealogist out of St. Louis, Missouri. You can find him on Twitter @josiahschmidt or his website I’ll have his information in the show notes as well. 

Josiah said May left her husband, his 3x great-grandfather, and eloped across state lines. She married her new man in Wisconsin however she was still married to her first husband in Minnesota! Oy Vey! 

Mary “May” Leota Hendricks was born March 26, 1862, in Greenfield, Wabasha county, MN to parents Coleman Stone Hendricks and Clarissa Danforth Shurtleff (Shurd-leff (left with silent T)). This is probably the first time I have seen consistency in someone’s age from census to census so there was little doubt what year she was born. Her father Coleman was a farmer and was born in Virginia, Clarissa kept the home and was born in Massachusetts. In 1870, the family was living in Minnesota and Mary went by May/Mae in the majority of records I found for her. She was the baby of the family and had 8 older siblings, 5 brothers, and 3 sisters. The 6 oldest were born in Illinois and the 3 youngest, including May, were born in Minnesota. The oldest children were born in 1838 and May was born in 1862, a 24-year difference! There is a gap of time between May and the sibling born prior to her, 5 years, which is a good indicator that there may have been another child that was stillborn or died shortly after birth. 

Her father Coleman was born in 1812 in Halifax, VA and according to the History of Wabasha County, his early life was spent on a farm in Ohio which is where it is presumed he met his future wife Clarissa. They married in Ohio in 1836 and moved to Illinois prior to 1840 when their first child was born. In 1853 he was ordained a Deacon at Village Creek, Illinois by his father-in-law Rev J. M. Shurtleff. Needless to say, May and her siblings grew up in a religious home. 

May’s mother Clarissa was born October 14, 1818, in Charlemont, Massachusetts in Franklin County. She was 1 of 10 children born to James Shurtleff and Elisabeth Gleason and she was the oldest. The family is shown in Massachusetts, Virginia, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, back to Ohio before her parents moved to Illinois, where her 3 youngest siblings were born. Clarissa’s first children were born around the same times her youngest siblings were, a by-product of having a lot of children so not uncommon for the time. 

May’s father Coleman died in 1877 due to Neuralgia and Consumption. Neuralgia is a sharp, shocking pain that follows the path of a nerve and is due to irritation or damage to the nerve. Consumption is better known as Tuberculous, which is a disease caused by bacteria that usually attacks the lungs. It was said that for the last 6 months of his life, he was unable to lie down and suffered through the pain. May was 15 years old when he died. May’s mother died in 1900 in Wisconsin; she was 82 years old and May was 39. 

She married Clarence M Johnson on December 1, 1881, in Wabasha County, MN. Their marriage certificate has her name listed as May L Hendricks which is interesting as May seems like a nickname and not her formal name. Clearly, the standard of proof in 1881 is not what it is in 2021. 

Clarence was born in April of 1861 in Westfield, Wisconsin in Marquette County. His parents were Albert M Johnson and Sarah Ann Lackey. Clarence also grew up in a large family and was one of 8 children, 4 boys and 4 girls and he was a middle child. 

After marrying in 1881, Clarence and May welcomed their first child in 1882, Leroy. Another son Ansel was born in 1884 but sadly died 3 years later in November of 1887 of diphtheria.  1887 was a year of highs and lows for the family because they also welcomed a baby girl Emma that year, just a few months prior to Ansel passing away. I am sure the birth of a new child and then the death of another child within months of each other was bittersweet and could cause strain upon any family. Documents show the couple had another baby boy born in June of 1890 and is listed as dying the same year, likely a stillborn. This child would have shown up in the 1900 census had he not died at birth and neither Clarence nor May show a child of that age living with them. 

Shortly after the stillborn baby, in 1891, Clarence found that his wife had decided that she was in love with another man and moved across state lines to be with him in Wisconsin. There was an article in August of 1891 discussing their elopement. 


No marriage record was found in my research for Edward Murman and May Hendricks Johnson so not sure whether it was ever made official or the record was just not recorded. With limited time and resources, it is possible it occurred but no validation of if or when. It is inferred that they married/eloped in 1891 while she was still married to Clarence which is bigamy and illegal in Wisconsin/Minnesota then and now. Clarence did sue her for divorce but no criminal charges appear to have ever been brought against May. This goes to show us that our ancestors may be criminals and just never charged or caught! 

Edward and May had 6 children together, the first in 1893 which is the year her divorce from Clarence was granted. Not as taboo today but certainly so back in the 1890s. In March of 1893, Clarence was granted a divorce from May on the grounds of adultery. One article stated that he had proven to the satisfaction of the court that the defendant, May, had been false to him for some time and was at present keeping house with a man in Eau <oh> Claire, Wisconsin. 

May and Edward, whether officially married or not, the couple lived as such and are listed in the 1900 census as having been married for 9 years, which would take us back to 1891. Also, the article about their elopement stated that May left her children behind. This is not 100% factual as she did take her daughter Emma with her and Emma is shown in the 1900 census with her mom, Edward, and 3 half-siblings. She is likely with them as well in the 1895 state census for Wisconsin which shows for Edward Murman, there was 1 male and 4 females which would be May, Emma, and the 2 daughters Edward and May had by 1895. Leroy Johnson, the only living son of Clarence and May is found living with his dad. Leroy did die in 1904 at the age of 21 in Wisconsin so may have been living with his mom shortly after the 1900 census. 

Edward and May remained married until her death in 1934; he died in 1942. 

So what happened to Clarence after this humiliation? Well, he remarried in 1894 to a woman named Rose but that ended 3 years later in 1897. In June of 1900, he remarried again to Florence Stevens in Minnesota. After the death of his only living son, he and Florence moved to Washington state. It doesn’t appear they had any children and he died in 1916 while in Idaho. The informant on his death certificate wasn’t Florence but it did indicate he was married. His death certificate states he was 42 and born in 1873, which was not correct. He was 55 when he died from a Hemorrhage following a fall from a wagon, which occurred 26 days prior to his death. 

The things we find when researching our families can be very interesting and makes you wish you could time travel and be a fly on the wall. I’d love to know why May was never charged with adultery after it was proven to the court through the divorce court that she was guilty of such. She was likely pregnant at the time so maybe the attorney generals at the time decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Or there is a record somewhere that is still to be found! 

Until next time my criminal genies, remember, the records don’t lie but your ancestors might...