For a significant part of the 20th century, legislators in Annapolis struggled to get laws on the books to help curb Elkton’s efficient “marriage mill.” Striking legal blows in many directions, right in the middle of the Great Depression, the lawmakers managed to keep well paid attorneys and lobbyist working overtime for special interests.
Senator Harold E. Coburn knew about these troubles first hand for in trying to fulfill a 1935 campaign promise to “wipe out the marrying parsons” he found that he was up against powerful interests as so much money and influence was thrown into the fight. His bills often lost out or were overturned by the courts.
But a nearly perennial measure, aiming to put competition into cupid’s profitable business by legalizing civil marriages, really caused trouble. As early as the 1920s, measures to deal the “marring parsons a death blow economically by taking away the need for their service” were getting drafted and defeated.
The General Assembly finally passed one after decades of legal wrangling so couples tying the knot could be married at the courthouse beginning on January 1, 1964. The first deputy clerk to step into the hasty matrimonial business was E. Day Moore, who was hired by Andy Seth to perform the ceremonies. It was busy from the start and three weeks after his first day on the job, Moore married actress Joan Fontaine and Alfred Wright, Jr. They were couple number 440 and author John O’Hara was a witness, the Baltimore Sun reported.
The court was “horning in on the town’s wedding chapels,” the newspaper said in 1966. But business was so good that a major renovation of the courthouse included plans for the “county’s own wood-paneled wedding chapel.” Of course, the private weddings mills, including the Little Wedding Chapel and the Wee White Chapel where Rev. R. J. Sturgill officiated, “were less than overjoyed about it.”
The first court official to fill that role retired eighteen years later. On his final days on the job as “Cecil County’s Marrying Sam,” he’d united 63,729 couples, according to the newspaper. While the marriage mill was grinding much slower, Cecil County still ranked second in the state for the number of licenses issued, ahead of all other jurisdictions except Baltimore City in 1964.