The Historic Little Wedding Chapel in Elkton, Md. Photo by Erin Kinney.
This past Sunday was the 34th anniversary of the day I proposed to my wife, Linda.
That proposal came just five months after we met at the wedding of one of Linda’s college buddies, who happened to be a co-worker of mine at The Associated Press in Albany, New York. Timing is everything, as they say. Just five days before my colleague Cynthia’s wedding, the AP gave me a plum assignment in its Washington, D.C. bureau. It took a couple of months to train my Albany replacement and organize my move, so I was still in Albany to meet Linda at that wedding.
Linda lived and worked in New Jersey and our parents lived in New York City, so during our long-distance courtship it made sense on most weekends for me to drive up Interstate 95. To give me a break, Linda would occasionally fly pioneering discount airline People Express from Newark to Washington National Airport, for $19 (later boosted to $23) each way.
Regardless, this long-distance romance was a lot of work. The sensible thing to do was to move on, either toward marriage or toward something else. Let me correct that: The sensible thing to do was exactly what I did on October 23, 1982. No regrets; if that long-distance commute put me in a marrying frame of mind, it was a good thing.
Or maybe it was Elkton, Maryland, that put me in a marrying frame of mind. Elkton is the last place you pass on I-95 as you head toward Delaware. And, as I knew because I grew up reading stories about Babe Ruth, Elkton was also famous as the long-ago marriage capital of the Northeast. It was where people ran off to get hitched, long before Las Vegas had its first all-night wedding chapel (let alone its first Elvis impersonator). Years later, when Linda and I regularly drove that same route taking our kids on vacation to Florida, my daughters were surprised when I told them this little truck-stop town was famous for its weddings.
Not for much longer. Times change even in places like Elkton, and barring some major surprise, it looks like the town’s last wedding chapel will soon pass into history. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Historic Little Wedding Chapel, which has occupied Elkton’s Main Street since the 1920s, faces potential eviction due to its bank calling in a business loan. It is Elkton’s last commercial wedding chapel, down from more than 20 in the town’s heyday.
Babe Ruth didn’t actually get married in Elkton – some of the stuff I read about him when I was growing up was just wrong. He got married in Ellicott City, Maryland, a dozen miles farther up the road. Fellow baseball legend Willie Mays, however, did tie the knot in Elkton decades later.
To understand why Ruth, Mays and so many others headed to Maryland, and why Elkton had a corner on the wedding business, we have to start by realizing that nothing we hear today about sex trafficking is new. More than a century ago, during an anti-immigrant backlash in this country (again, nothing new), concern grew that foreign women were being lured into prostitution, drug addiction (yet again, nothing new) and sexual bondage. Congress passed legislation shortly after the 20th century began to make it illegal to transport any woman into the United States for “immoral purposes.”
At the same time, urban centers that tolerated red-light districts in much of the 19th century were turning sharply against prostitution, as America belatedly followed England in a rise of Victorian-inspired sensibilities. In 1913 Congress responded to this cultural shift with the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport a woman or girl across state boundaries for immoral purposes.
The main effect of the Mann Act in practice was to provide ample fodder for blackmail, revenge assaults and selective prosecution. A husband whose wife ran off with another man might seek his own justice, or he might – especially if he had powerful connections or spare cash – get a prosecutor to charge the wife’s paramour. The wife herself might have no choice but to go back to live with her husband, this being long before the era of no-fault divorce.
At around the same time the Mann Act was passed, many states were imposing significant waiting periods before a marriage license could be granted. This would prevent someone intent on seducing a presumed virgin girl from justifying the act under color of wedlock, or so the theory went.
But Maryland bucked the trend, and Maryland was much less remote than Nevada in the early 20th century. A couple could jump on a train in Philadelphia or New York and get off in Elkton just a short time later. Getting married was not an “immoral purpose,” so marriage offered a defense against Mann Act prosecution. Taxi drivers knew exactly where to take such couples for a late-night wedding and a readily available honeymoon suite, such as it was. It wasn’t especially romantic, but in its own way the system was effective. Maryland did not get around to instituting a waiting period until 1938. Soon thereafter, many states waived the waiting period for servicemen who wanted to get hitched before going off to serve in World War II.
Times changed after the war. Not as many couples had reason to elope to Elkton, but the place hung on to a portion of its wedding business anyway, largely based on its prewar reputation. The New Jersey Turnpike, which opened in 1956, made getting to Elkton by car much easier than before. If you wanted a big wedding and a fancy reception, you stayed home. But if you wanted something quick, small, intimate and affordable, Elkton was perhaps a bit more romantic than City Hall. And so it has remained, in its own small way, right up to the present.
These days, many of the people who seek it out do so because of the town’s unique history. The town has marked “National Marriage Day” with mass weddings and vow renewals in recent years. And many of the couples who visit the Historic Little Wedding Chapel have a personal connection of some sort, such as a parent who got married there. But such business is a faint reminder of the once-booming wedding industry that made Elkton a destination for so many in the Northeast.
So as we drove to Florida, I used to tell our daughters about how people would run off to tiny Elkton to get married and how I used to drive that route all the time when I was courting their mom. But there was no Elkton wedding for Linda and me. We got married in a synagogue on Long Island, with all of our families and friends present – including Cynthia and her husband Richard, of course. And then we lived happily ever after.