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SHIFTING THE TERRAIN OF THE TRIAL:
What Did the Husband Know?


By JOANNA GROSSMAN


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Monday, Aug. 5, 2002

But one annulment case in our history, at least, was far from frivolous. The 1924 suit was brought by Leonard "Kip" Rhinelander, a wealthy, white, New York socialite. Rhinelander sought an annulment of his marriage to the non-white, relatively poor Alice Jones. The case illuminates the state of race relations, class conflicts, and sexuality, as well as state control over the institution of marriage in the early part of the century. Indeed, it is so significant that it has been described by one critic as a potential rival to People v. O.J. Simpson for the "trial of the century."

In their recent book, Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White, Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone tell the story of Rhinelander v. Rhinelander. In so doing, they also offer us a snapshot of a very different era - in which states placed highly restrictive limits on a couple's ability to dissolve marriage.

The book has been fairly criticized elsewhere as a bit repetitive and overly reliant on newspaper articles. Yet it is nonetheless an engaging and important work of social history, which contributes to an otherwise paltry history of annulment in America.

The Legal Landscape: New York's Law of Annulment

Always a conservative outlier in this realm, New York in 1924 permitted couples to divorce only on grounds of adultery - a restriction that survived until almost 1967. But marriages could also be dissolved via annulment, a legal declaration that no valid marriage had ever existed because of some defect present at the time the marriage was celebrated.

Because of the state's restrictive divorce law, New York had an unusually high number of annulments - especially compared with states like California, which had a relatively lax approach to divorce. Then, as now, a New York spouse could seek an annulment on a number of different grounds. Couples not wishing to accuse each other of adultery (or not having sufficient proof) often cited one of these.

Annulments could (and can) be granted under New York law if the other party had a living spouse, if either party had not attained the legal age of consent, if one of the parties was mentally disabled, if one party's consent was obtained by force or fraud, or if one party lacked the physical capacity to consummate the marriage. (Today, incurable mental illness is an additional ground for annulment).

What Constitutes Fraud in the Context of Annulment?

The most common grounds for annulment in the early part of the twentieth century were bigamy and lack of consent due to age. But the Rhinelander case was premised on fraud, a less common, though still not unusual basis for annulment.

The misrepresentation must go to the very essence of the marital relation. What does that mean? It is a concept that is flexible and changing, as our collective ideas about marriage evolve. Particular cases serve to flesh out the standard; for instance a modern court said that it is not enough that a husband denied having a drinking problem and yet "turned out to be . . . a lazy, unshaven disappointment with a drinking problem."

In the Rhinelanders' era, annulments were routinely granted based upon concealment of a pregnancy; a false allegation of paternity for a real pregnancy; a false promise to have children; a false representation of chastity; or concealment of a venereal disease, a serious health problem, or a criminal record. The fact that all these conditions were thought to go to the essence of the marital relationship in turn reveals something about the public's sense of marriage and what, in its eyes, made one legitimate.

Annulments were also granted based on misrepresentations about race, ancestry, and religion. It was believed that one's race--or, more importantly, being of the same race--was of critical importance to a decision to marry.

Thus, though New York, unlike many other states, did not ban whites and blacks from marrying by statute, it still granted annulments based on misrepresentations about race. As a result, Alice Jones Rhinelander found herself as the defendant in a suit for annulment.

The Rhinelander Case: Alleged Misrepresentations As To Race

In Love on Trial, through the lens of trial testimony and newspaper coverage, Lewis and Ardizzone tell the story of Alice and Kip's courtship, short-lived marriage, and trial for annulment.

The couple met in suburban Pelham, New York, dated for three years, exchanged hundreds of explicit love letters throughout their courtship, and ultimately married in a small, quiet ceremony. But their happiness was cut short by a local newspaper reporter who, only a month after their wedding, published a story reporting that Kip, a descendant of one of New York's wealthiest and most established families, had married "the daughter of a colored man."

Kip initially stood by Alice as the journalists descended and began to hunt for evidence of her racial ancestry. But sadly, he ultimately left her - and signed a complaint for annulment drafted by his father's lawyers.

The complaint prayed that their marriage be dissolved based on Alice's alleged misrepresentation that she was white--the obvious implication being that Kip would not have married her had he known the truth. Without evidence of adultery, Kip had no other way to escape this marriage, so roundly condemned by his family and social circle.

Shifting the Terrain of the Trial: What Did the Husband Know?

But ultimately, none of these questions mattered, at least from a legal standpoint.

That is because Alice's lawyers took everyone brilliantly by surprise when they admitted in the opening statement, only for purposes of the trial, that Alice's father was indeed "colored," and that she, therefore, had "some colored blood" as well.

Were the lawyers (and Alice), then, conceding the case? Not at all. Once the task of proving Alice's race was taken off the table, the trial suddenly shifted to the question of whether Kip knew what her lawyer had just admitted to the jury. Now it was Kip, not Alice, who was on the defensive.

Had Kip married Alice knowing she had "some colored blood"--or lived with her in a state of matrimony after finding out? Proof of either of these things would negate his claim of fraud, and prove the marriage valid - able to be terminated only by divorce. (As mentioned above, interracial marriages were valid in New York at the time.)

In the remainder of the book, suspense builds regarding the crucial "Did Kip know?" question - in the same way it must have for the 1920's journalists nationwide who followed every stage of the trial, and the public who devoured their reports. Printing daily trial transcripts and reports on every tiny development, newspapers of the day followed the story with a devotion and venom now characteristic of Court-TV.

Evidence of Race - And Playing the Race Card

Both sides had ups and downs in the trial. Evidence that Kip spent his nights relaxing with Alice's family--including her visibly non-white father and her clearly black brother-in-law surely hurt his contention that he did not know her race before marriage.

So, too, did evidence that Kip and Alice had engaged in premarital sex and, according to his own testimony, he had seen her unclothed prior to marriage. To prove Kip's knowledge of Alice's race, Alice's lawyer even got permission to have Alice appear topless in front of the jury--on the belief that an examination of a woman's bare skin would reveal her true color.

But there was one point Kip cited in his favor: Alice's family had lived in a sort of racial never-never land, balancing precariously between black and white worlds, without being clearly identified with either. The Joneses belonged to a white church, commingled with white neighbors, and did not belong to any obviously black community.

Both sides, in a sense, played the race card. Kip's lawyers drew on stereotypes that held that black women were hypersexual and amoral to create the impression that Alice had roped Kip into a marriage against his will. They also invoked the "one-drop" principle of racial classification that was common in both social and legal settings of the time. Finally, they appealed to the jurors' and the public's prejudices against interracial marriage, in the hope they would disregard evidence of Kip's knowledge and simply nullify the marriage on that basis.

Alice's lawyers, for their part, invoked ideas about race that today would be considered just as troubling. Most notably, they put forth the idea that race was something so simple and obvious that it could be determined by physical appearance and the color of one's companions.

The jury of 12 white, married men all admitted, in subsequent polling, to condemning interracial marriage. Thus, in the end, the question became whether they could put aside that view to nevertheless validate a particular interracial marriage if they believed that Kip had not, in fact, been defrauded, as the law required.

Note: If you intend to read the book Love on Trial, you may not want to read the following two paragraphs, which reveal the outcomes of the case. - Ed.

Fortunately, it turns out, the jurors were able to put aside their prejudices at least in the context of the trial. They denied Kip's prayer for annulment. Indeed, their verdict form reflected a sound rejection of all of his claims, concluding that Alice had not hidden her race from him and that he had married her with full knowledge of her race.

Alice and Kip thus remained "married," in the eyes of the state of New York. (Kip ultimately sought a divorce in Nevada, the fast-rising divorce mill, though its validity was never certain. Neither Kip nor Alice ever remarried).

While Annulment Itself Has Withered, Rhinelander Still Has Historical Weight

The Rhinelander trial is a reminder to the modern day reader of an era in which the state exerted, or at least tried to exert, much greater control over family formation and dissolution than is the case today.

Today, there is little role for annulment. Most states have adopted no-fault divorce, which provides couples access to divorce-on-demand. As a result, civil annulment has largely forfeited its role as a divorce substitute. (Annulments sought for religious reasons - for example, to make remarriage possible for Catholics - are generally sought from and granted by the Church rather than a court of law.)

Some couples do still seek civil annulments, but now it is often a strategic ploy. Sometimes financial rights and obligations depend on the way a marriage is ended. Sometimes this is the result of state law; more often it is the result of a prenuptial agreement.

In other cases, an annulment provides some vindication for a spouse who is truly duped or made the fool. And in still others, it wipes the slate clean for someone who doesn't want to have a divorce on record.

While annulments thus have limited benefits for some, it still retains serious costs. Unlike divorce, annulments are not available on demand. As a result, couples who wish to pursue an annulment must allege and prove grounds for one - and these grounds, under applicable statutes, must be quite specific.

The need to present this type of specific proof of grounds is an obstacle that keeps annulment from being a desirable remedy in most cases, given that divorce is also available. Thus, it is unlikely that we will ever have a modern-day Rhinelander trial to capture our collective eye. So O.J. can probably be assured of his title.


Joanna Grossman, a FindLaw columnist, is an associate professor of law at Hofstra University, where she teaches Family Law, among other subjects. Grossman's other articles on family law and other issues, including sex discrimination, sex harassment, and trusts and estates, may be found in the archive of her pieces on this site.

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