This afternoon I watched an old Andy Griffith Show episode (this is pre-Matlock), in which Andy finds himself chosen as the second husband of an unhappy mountain bride, Charlene Darling, when she suspects that her husband is seeing an old flame. According to custom, she can divorce her husband by burying the appropriate divorce instruments. She is then free to select a new man.
Andy, of course, is reluctant to become involved in this domestic dispute, and even more reluctant to seem to give any credibility to mountain ways, even though old reliable deputy Barney Fife tells him to take this situation seriously after Charlene's family visits him to tell him the wedding plans are on. Barney reminds him that he always wants to settle things peacefully, but Andy says there is no settling things peacefully or reasoning with these people. As it turns out, both of them turn out to be correct. Barney goes off to the library to do research on mountain folklore, while Andy puts the problem out of his mind.
Things go from bad to worse. Charlene's soon-to-be ex-husband Dudley (played by a young Bob Denver) shows up to challenge Andy to a duel of some sort and Andy cannot reason with either Charlene or her father. Back comes Barney with a book on folklore, which says that the "intended" (Andy) can derail the marriage by digging up the "instruments" by a full moon before 30 days are up. Andy tells him that he isn't going to dignify this situation by participating in it at all because it's ridiculous. Finally, Barney reads Andy a passage that seems to offer a possible solution. A marriage is cursed if, on the way to the church, a bridegroom passes by a rider dressed in black on a white horse going from east to west. And of course, that's how it happens (courtesy of Barney). Charlene and Dudley are reconciled, and return to the mountains and Andy goes back to sheriffing in Mayberry. A comical story, played for laughs and poking fun at hillbillies and their silly beliefs.
Or not. Charlene and her family, and their people have their own set of norms, created to establish under what circumstances marriages and divorces take place. Ridiculous as they might sound, they are principled. Charlene explains herself to her father and other relatives, to Dudley, and to Andy. She accuses him of seeing an old girlfriend, of alcoholism, and of neglecting her.
Charlene: You know what else he did? He went huntin' foxes with old Hasty Burford and he didn't come home until Wednesday week.
Andy: Well, maybe he's tryin' to get you some makin's for a fox pie... or a nice fur collar to wear to preachin'.
Charlene: No, he wasn't. I know what they do up there in the hills. They sit around drinkin' hard cider, punchin' each other in the arms and hollerin' "flinch". I don't want him anymore.
She follows the rules (bury the "divorce instruments," wait 30 days before marrying again, identify the chosen successor, etc.). The first husband apparently has customs to engage in--some kind of challenge to the second groom involving whittling, for example, in order to show himself to be the better man. Presumably if he wins the challenge, he can assert that the divorce is at least halted, if not off, although that's not clear from the story. The second husband also has rules to follow. That he doesn't seem to be able to object seems to be a problem, but this mountain society seems to be somewhat more matriarchal than was customary for traditional mainstream America to see on tv in the 1960s. At least, Charlene's father seems willing to let her do what she wants. She is fairly strongwilled, and that trait hasn't developed overnight. As her father says, "You're giving up a good man, who don't hit you too much." (Well, that part doesn't sound too feminist). She is choosing her second husband, without much if any objection from the father or relatives, who seem willing to assist her even if the groom is unwilling. Is the story still quite so funny? Or are its themes little more serious?
At the time, most of the audience probably didn't realize that other cultures and religions perform marriages and divorces without the sanction of the secular authority. One example is the get, the Jewish divorce. Today, same sex partners who want to formalize their unions may ask a religious authority to marry them even though they know that the secular authority does not recognize their unions. The magic of religious recognition of their union and their pledge to each other is important, even if, in Sheriff Andy-speak, it has no secular meaning. In the episode, it seems that either party can divorce, for any reason, which is more liberal than the existing U.S. divorce laws of the time. It may have been that community pressure prevented certain parties from pursuing the option, but still, the option was there.
Of course, there is an important, and crucial difference, between a voluntary union, and an involuntary union. What Charlene is trying to force is an involuntary union between herself and Andy. Part of the humor comes from the notion that she can force the sheriff into a "shotgun" wedding, although the fact that she has brought along several male relatives to help her is not so funny. Indeed, when Andy and Barney, following the information in the folkways book, show up in the dead of night to dig up the "divorce instruments," they find Charlene and her family waiting for them.
Andy uses the Darling family's own irrational beliefs against them in order to extricate himself from an awkward situation, as Columbus is supposed to have used knowledge of a lunar eclipse to save himself and his crew during his fourth and last voyage. When Andy cannot reason with the Darlings, he uses the opposite of reason. Also interesting is that someone has bothered to study and document the local folkways, since Barney found the relevant book in the library.
The episode is "Divorce, Mountain Style," first aired March 30, 1964.