Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.
…or, The Killer Takes a Wife
62.1 Jerry Lee Lewis Marries Another Cousin! screamed the recent headlines. It happened on March 9, and and out trotted the predictable redneck “i-word” jokes…Meet my biological father-in-law, etc. Except it simply isn’t true. It wasn’t true the first time, and it isn’t true this time. Let’s see what is true…
62.2 Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Ferriday, Concordia Parish, in southern Louisiana, along the border with the state of Mississippi, that border of course being the Mississippi River. His father Elmo (some census records say “Elmore”) was the 10th of 11 siblings, 7 sisters and 4 brothers. According to him, the “Lee” came from Jerry Lee’s grandfather Leroy Lewis, called “Lee” by the family…altho Jerry’s mother Mamie claimed it was in honor of her sister Stella’s husband Lee Calhoun. As you can see in Chart 207, Elmo’s sister Jane named a Henry Brown, and one of their sons was J.W., called “Jay.” As far as I can tell, this was his legal name…the initials didn’t stand for anything.
62.3 J.W. played the bass, and migrated to Memphis, where he formed a band, along with his brother Otis, a fiddler. Eventually, 1st cousin Jerry Lee Lewis joined up on piano, and soon he was fronting the band and on his way to superstardom. At age 23, Jerry Lee married J.W.’s daughter Myra Gale in December of 1957…she had turned 13 that July. It was his third marriage…um, her first. A scandal ensued, based on both age and kinship, derailing his career for a good decade.
62.4 So to address those 2 issues…you will see their relationship variously described as cousin, 1st cousin, 2nd cousin, or even, incredibly, 3rd cousin…with or without any number of removeds. As Chart 207 plainly shows, J.W. and Jerry Lee were 1st cousins, making Myra Gale his 1st cousin once removed. Their Coefficient of Relationship is 1/16, which is to say they did not share 15/16ths of their genes. This is the same as half-1st cousins (the children of half-siblings), or halfway between 1st and 2nd cousins. It was, then as now, completely legal…roughly half the states today allow 1st cousin marriages, and even those that do not…do allow anything beyond 1st cousins…with the interesting exception of North Carolina, which excludes double 1st-cousins, since genetically they are the equivalent of half-siblings.
62.5 Truth be told, bride and groom were slightly more closely related than 1C1R, owing to Leroy and Arilla Lewis…grandparents of Jerry Lee and J.W. …themselves being 1st cousins. And given the way families intertwined in that neck of the woods, other connections further back should hardly surprise you.
62.6 Now anyone doing genealogical research will find many examples of 1st cousin marriages all across North America. Today, Louisiana is not one of the states that allows it, but the history of state marriage laws is notoriously difficult to ascertain…and as I’ve said many times, writing a blog for free is different than writing a book for money. Where no laws were in place, holdovers from British Common Law prevailed, and that allowed 1st cousins to marry. And even if laws against it existed, lax enforcement depending on the locale isn’t that far-fetched. It has been reported that the marriage license asked “Relation to Bride” and Jerry put down “none,” which I take to mean, without a shred of facetiousness on my part, “not my sister or my 1st cousin.”
62.7 As to the question of the bride’s age, for most of human history, girls married and bore children soon after the onset of puberty. That is pure fact. Western Common Law allowed marriage, with the parents’ permission, of girls at age 12 and boys at age 14. Grandma Arilla was 15 when she married Grandpa Lee…Jerry Lee’s mother Mamie was 16…his sister Frankie Jean was married and widowed at 12, and sister Linda Gail first married at 14. This was commonplace where they grew up, and Jerry Lee was frankly astonished at the public’s reaction. True, it didn’t help that they lied to the press and said she was 15…it also didn’t help that Myra Gale was quoted as saying “back home a girl can marry at 10 if she can find a husband”…and it certainly didn’t help that they also lied about the date of the wedding, since his divorce from wife #2 hadn’t yet been finalized when they tied the knot…nor that they told her parents after they were married, instead of before, which would have been the strictly kosher way to go about it.
62.8 Still and all, the fact remains that there were no legal ramifications…not to Jerry Lee and Myra Gale’s union, despite the outcry…nor for that matter to any of their many relatives and neighbors in similar connubial circumstances…and the couple remained married for 13 years and had 2 children. And it’s interesting that Elvis Presley’s popularity withstood his falling in love with a 14-year-old…so perhaps it was the misinterpreted blood relation after all that was the real bone of contention.
62.9 As to Jerry Lee Lewis’ recent marriage to the ex-wife of Myra Gale’s younger brother Rusty Brown, I’d say it’s none of anybody’s business. They are not blood relatives, period. He’s 76 and she’s 62, and his caretaker, and according to the bride’s sister, they are in love and extremely happy…heck, it should happen to any of us, right? The fact that Rusty Brown and his father J.W. recently published a book of remembrances of their famous relative suggests it’s one big happy clan, and we all ought to just politely butt out.
62.10 But while we’re on the subject of in-laws, a little history is in order. It will seem strange to us that over the last millennium, codified laws have generally allowed 1st cousins to marry, but not siblings-in-law. Indeed, in England it was not until the 1st half of the 20th century that in-laws could legally wed, altho this was, as it often is, a case of the law catching up with the prevailing social practice. (see 55.6-55.7) To understand why this is so, one must accept the fact that our ancestors’ ways were not always our ways…and understand the distinction between unilineal and bilineal systems of kinship.
62.11 In Western society today, you consider yourself part of 2 families…your father’s and your mother’s…you have 4 grandparents…and uncles, aunts, and cousins on “both sides.” This is bilineal…2 lines of descent. But this way of thinking has evolved from an older form of kinship reckoning…unilineal or 1 line of descent…where you literally belonged to your father’s family or your mother’s, but not both. It’s a simple thing to state, but as we saw in the case of Beowulf and his matrilineal kin back in G4BB 59: Dygging Ye Olde Rootes, it has some startling implications: for example, a man’s social bonds being stronger to his sister’s children than even to his own children.
62.12 And as we saw, in the days of the first Anglo-Saxons the matrilineal system was changing to a patrilineal one. Thus, when a woman married, she literally became a member of her husband’s family. This is why she took his surname, not because she was “owned” by her husband. The “wife as property” myth has relatively recently been propagated by a school of thought I will not specify here, but it begins with an “f.” In fact, across Europe, laws and customs varied greatly, and in many cases women could own property and had rights of inheritance.
62.13 The point is, “joining your husband’s family” meant something more than we might imagine today. If a man’s wife died, he could not marry her sister, simply because she was his sister too…not by blood, but by law. In fact, that’s what “sister-in-law” meant…sister by law…or sister in the eyes of the law. Obviously, things have changed considerably from olden times till now. Even so, the notion that “in-laws mean incest” has lingered…at least when it comes to “hillbilly” jokes…a sad testament to the ignorance and mean-spiritedness of some people these days.
62.14 Next month a book by J.D. Davis will be published entitled “Unconquered – The Saga of Cousins Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart, and Mickey Gilley.” Yes, the three are “cousins” in the broadest sense…no, they are not 1st cousins, each to the others…as we will sort out with Chart 208.
62.15 The key players here are Elmo Lewis and his older sisters Irene and Ada. Their offspring…Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, and Willie Leon “Son” Swaggart respectively…are indeed 1st cousins. Jimmy Swaggart is the son of Son, thus 1st cousin once removed to Jerry Lee and Mickey. It should be noted that all 3 were born within a year of each other…Jimmy March 15, 1935 and Jerry Lee Sept. 29, 1935, both in Ferriday, Louisiana…and Mickey on March 9, 1936, across the river in Natchez, Mississippi. Thus, Son Swaggart was considerably older than these 2 of his many 1st cousins, and growing up they called him “Uncle Son”…calling to mind “Uncle Junior” from the TV series The Sopranos…and the 1st episode of Danny Thomas’ Make Room For Daddy, which was titled “Uncle Daddy.”
62.16 And that’s where it might stand…as I said, the trio are “cousins” in the casual sense…as indeed, J.W. Brown and Rusty Brown are sometimes called the “cousins” of Jerry Lee, altho they are father and son.* Except for the fact that, as indicated by the red lines in Chart 208, Jerry Lee and Jimmy’s mothers are sisters…hence they are 1st cousins on the Herron side, while all three are related as either 1st cousins or 1C1R on the Lewis side. I honestly wish I had time to research this interesting family tree further…I know for a fact that a total of 4 Gilley brothers married 4 Lewis sisters, and it may have gone the other way too, sibling-wise…but that’s on the old bucket list, I’m afraid. Mailbag time next week…Happy Easter, cousin!
*That is how it’s commonly done, after all. Recall on The Andy Griffith Show, Aunt Bee calls both Andy and his son Opie her “nephews,” altho not of course to the extent that she ever introduced them as “My nephew Andy, and my other nephew Opie”…😉😉
Not Wicked Ballsy, But Stoopid
For the life of me, I don’t understand why web-pages like the above exist. Maybe it’s the internet equivalent of people “liking to hear themselves talk”…like when a question is asked on some forum, and half a dozen helpful nudniks reply: “I have no idea.” Perhaps we should take the spirit of such as the above to be “we’re gonna get around to filling this out at some point”…or am I being overly charitable? Anyway, it gave me a chuckle, albeit a weary one.
Copyright © 2012 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved
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