Five Signs Your Relationship is ImpawsibleOn July 24, 2019 by Elyse
Here at Second Glance History, we’ve come across our share of unusual divorces but never one with quite so much furor. (I’d apologize for the cat pun, but I’m just getting started.) Inspired by the release of the nightmare-inducing trailer for “Cats,” let’s look at someone else’s version of feline purrgatory—I promise there’s no singing or dancing involved.
In 1911, after a marriage even shorter than a Kardashian’s, 74-year-old Civil War veteran Samuel O’Dell filed for divorce from his 44-year-old wife, Sarah. Because no-fault divorces weren’t yet a thing, he placed the blame not on another person but on 35 cats and two dogs, “alleging that they had superseded him in his wife’s affections and ranked higher than he in the household.”
Many couples feel that way from time to time, but Samuel’s account of his marriage is downright clawful. He reportedly told his lawyer, “his experiences in Andersonville prison during the Civil War were pleasant. . . compared with the life which his wife’s pets lead him during the six weeks of their married life.”
For context, here’s another former prisoner of war’s description of Andersonville:
As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. . . In the center of the whole was a swamp. . . excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. . . how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then.
If that’s Samuel’s definition of pleasant, the litterboxes clearly weren’t the only things stinking in the O’Dell household. The relationship had soured, and faster than you can say “these [Puss in Boots] are made for walkin’,” Samuel had moved out.
Still, marriages rarely fail for one, two or even 35 reasons. Aside from the scapegoats, er, scapecats, what were the red flags, and what can they teach us about relationships that don’t last furever?
1. You don’t communicate.
We don’t know how long Samuel and Sarah courted after meeting at church, but when they walked down the aisle, they evidently hadn’t discussed issues that matter regardless of the era you live in:
When we were married I wanted her to go to my home at Pomeroy, Kas. She refused and insisted that I go to live at her home in Bethel. I didn’t know anything about the menagerie until I got there. Then I found why she wouldn’t leave. She had thirty-five cats and two dogs.– Samuel O’Dell, quoted in the Amarillo Daily News, December 23, 1911
Maybe the cats got their tongues.
2. You have different values.
According to Samuel:
She allowed [her pets] to eat, sleep, drink or do anything they wanted to in the house. She let the cats sleep in the beds and raise their kittens there. I couldn’t move without stepping on one or sit down without moving one or two off a chair.– Samuel O’Dell, quoted in the Amarillo Daily News, December 23, 1911
Today, Sarah would no doubt have a pet costume for every occasion.
I’m not condoning Sarah’s pet parenting, but in the 21st century, we’d file this under “irreconcilable differences.”
3. You don’t feel appreciated.
Samuel was meticulous in tracking household expenses—both his contributions and his benefits:
During the six weeks that I stayed there, she used 150 pounds of flour and 40 pounds of corn meal. Most of the food that was prepared was used to feed the cats. When I brought home fresh meat or when a meal was cooked, the cats had to be provided for first. I ate afterward if I could, but as a rule I couldn’t.– Samuel O’Dell, quoted in the Amarillo Daily News, December 23, 1911
4. You escalate your fights.
Samuel admittedly doesn’t tell us anything about the tone, but this doesn’t sound like a civil conversation:
When I complained of the excessive number of pets and wanted to get rid of part of them, she said they had been there before I came and were there to remain and if I didn’t like it I could get out.– Samuel O’Dell, quoted in the Amarillo Daily News, December 23, 1911
Ultimatums can be catastrophic for any kind of relationship.
5. You have different expectations.
Then she became cross and said she was sorry that she had married me, wouldn’t cook and refused to sweep for weeks at a time.– Samuel O’Dell, quoted in the Amarillo Daily News, December 23, 1911
Samuel seems more concerned about the state of the house than Sarah’s feelings. He appears to have believed he married a housekeeper rather than a partner. Likewise, although the newspaper doesn’t share Sarah’s side of the story, perhaps she expected to find a veterinary assistant who shared her passion for her panoply of pets.
Either way, the court agreed it was an unfurtunate pairing and granted Samuel his divorce.
I’ve been known to moan after a bad date about being single forever and turning into a crazy cat lady. However, if the O’Dells’ story has taught me anything, it’s that there are worse pawsibilities—including, but not limited to, two hours of watching humanoid cats dance and sing.
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.