Unwonk - Episode 20 - Disengaged

On this episode of Unwonk, we learn that you can put a price on a broken heart, and how to master home medical remedies of the 19th century by using condiments straight from your fridge.

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[Episode Keywords: Heart balm, My Kind of Town, Bro]

Episode Transcript


Hi, friend. This is a rough transcript of this episode of Unwonk. What’s that mean? It means that we’re just pasting the original script for the show plus unvetted transcripts of any interviews. So, you’re likely to see content that maybe didn’t make the final cut, maybe not see some content that was in the episode but not the original script, and run across a few typos.

As with everything on Unwonk, the transcript below is for general informational purposes only – this is not legal advice – if you need to have a legal question answered, please seek legit legal representation. 


On this episode of Unwonk, we learn that you can put a price on a broken heart, and how to master home medical remedies of the 19th century by using condiments straight from your fridge.

This is Unwonk. Answering all of the legal questions in the world with relevant and useful information. If you would like to submit a question, visit our site at Unwonk.com.

When you’re there, you can also find where to follow us on twitter, facebook, and all the social things. And make sure to tell your friends about us – there’s buttons for doing that right on the page for this episode at our website.

You can also check out our ask a lawyer column in deadspin by clicking on the banner at our site.

Even though the  general information on this podcast is provided by actual attorneys, you’d be an idiot to think it is actual legal advice, and you’d also be the type of person who would speak now at a wedding rather than forever hold your peace

And now, today’s question:

Dear Unwonk,

I’ve been engaged for about 3 months. My fiancee’s dad wants us to sign a prenup. She and I are ambivalent about it. Are pre-nuptial agreements actually real things? Where would we get one if they are? You only hear about them in movies, TV shows, and places like BuzzFeed. Seems kind of a bummer to make marriage about legal things and contracts.

Ben, Nashville, Tennessee

Brace yourself, Ben.

Marriage – the institution that for eons has created new families, brought feuding families together, torn families apart. Marriage, the ultimate expression of love between two people. Marriage, that blessed arrangement, that dream within a dream.

Well, marriage has always been about legal things and contracts. Several of them, in fact. Only in the last few centuries has love really been brought into the mix as an enticement for marriage. Really. Look it up. In fact, marriage itself IS a contract. Think about that.

But let’s focus right now on just one of those contracts around marriage. In many states in the US – about half – it used to be most of them – getting engaged is considered a legal promise. And if you break that promise, you can get sued for breach of promise to marry. So – before we even get to the actual marriage itself – which has a ton of legal obligations and rights around it, we’ve got the legal obligation to follow through with your agreement to marry. Let’s think about that. The mere act of getting engaged – that’s exchanging promises to marry – even if the engagement ring is from a box of cracker jacks – and EVEN if there’s no ring at all, say a temporary tattoo from a box of cracker jacks – can legally bind you.

Let’s immerse ourselves in this concept with the story of woman named Birdy.

Birdie Fye was born in Germany in 1873. Ten years later, she and her parents braved the journey to the United States and landed in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her mother died five years later. One year after that, her father remarried. After a few years in this new family arrangement, it became clear that Birdie and her stepmother didn’t really get along. Rather than living a tense life at home, Birdie moved out to forge her own destiny. She became a seamstress, and was so good at at it that she became an instructor in the field. She became so experienced as an instructor, that she relocated to Chicago for more money. Now, in contemporary times, Chicago is the hub of the midwest, but in the late 1800’s it was even more so. For a young woman to not only move by herself to Chicago but to do so followed but professional success speaks to Birdie’s character and the fact that it was her kind of town.

Much like today, professional success in the 1800’s often came at the cost of personal connections. Birdie was alone and looking for someone to share her life with. Enter McDonald’s Matrimonial Agency of Chicago. We’re not talking about the Tinder of the time.  This was a staid matchmaking clearinghouse with marriage as the only goal. After signing up and sitting through what I’d imagine to be some awkward interviews – as well as providing photographs to be sent to potential matches, Birdie received a letter from Mr. W. P. Kaufman of Tipton, Tennessee, dated August 28, 1894:

Mr. Kaufman said that he was 36, a bachelor, fair skin, auburn hair, had piercing blue eyes, and that he was respected and considered wealthy.

Am not looking for wealth, but not objectionable. Claim to be all that any domestic lady is looking for. Live in country. Have some beautiful country houses in Tennessee and Kentucky. Native of Kentucky. I am twenty-three miles from Memphis, and I think you would like this country, especially the mild winters and abundance of birds and flowers. Hoping to hear from you soon, etc., etc., I am, your unknown friend, W. P. Kaufman.

Thrilled at this initial contact, albeit strangely and tersely worded, Birdie wrote back on September 13, 1894 – hang on – let’s get some Ken Burns letter-reading music in here:

Dear Friend: I am glad you like my picture. It is not very good of me. My friends say it is simply horrid. The nose don’t look like mine, and they say it looks so old; but I never take a good picture, anyhow, so what is the difference?

So you are wealthy? Well, you have the advantage of me there. I am as ‘poor as a church mouse.’ I have to make my own living, and do so by teaching. I know how to sing and dance, sew and cook, etc. I am inclined to be jolly and good-natured, and, if you like blondes, I am good-looking. I am fair complexioned; five feet six inches high; weight, 137 pounds. I am a German and Catholic, and sing in a Catholic church.

May I have your picture? I will return it upon request.

Well, my friend, we are so far apart I am going to write you the truth just as it is. I consider it a waste of time to write a falsehood or misrepresent anything. I like candidness.  Please write and tell me more of yourself, and I will, in return, be frank with you in regard to anything. Your true friend, Birdie D. Fye.

Birdie then wrote in a follow up letter:

What I want is this: An honorable, jolly, kind, industrious, sober gentleman, Catholic by faith. Now, you know I am a Catholic, and believe that my husband – if I ever shall have such an ornament – ought to be the same. So many are unhappy because of one being Catholic and the other some other denomination. It will create a discord. ‘He’ and I should harmonize in every particular.”


I am a farmer and a stave and lumber mill man, and recognized as the foremost of this country in these occupations. Have more than one country home, called nicest in this country. I have seen nicer. *** It is not special beauty I am looking for, neither is it wealth, as I can make all I need of the latter

After this, he moved from Tennessee to Kingsland, Arkansas, where his milling plants were located. He invited her to visit him. And, after some more back and forth, dropped this charming gem:

You should be very careful. Never marry a stranger until you go to his lair,-his home or birth place,-and know who and what he is. I contemplate going North during the winter, and, if you will allow me, I would be pleased to call on you; or, if I do not find time to leave, would suggest that you call on me, as I am always very busy, and you must know by experience that it is much safer for you to call on me than for me to call on you, as you are then in position to know me, and who I am. Have known several visits of this kind.

That’s right – Kaufman just said with a straight face – presumably, he was actually writing a letter at the time – that it is safer for a single woman in the 1890s to travel alone from the bustling metropolis of Chicago, Illinois – the second largest city in the US in 1890 with a population of 1.1 million – to Kingsland, Arkansas, population in 1890, 464 souls. And not only travel alone, but to meet a man she had never met. In the middle of nowhere. Classy.

In that same letter, he says he’s not looking for a cook in a wife, but a purely domestic lady to feel and know and actually be a lady, and one who can cast everlasting sunshine on the man she loves and make him happy. But if they can’t find someone to cook for them, she should at least know how to “prevent starvation.” Give him some credit for dry comic phrasing.

Birdie, was into it.

Your kind but somewhat plain letter received. You gave me quite a fatherly advice regarding getting married,-going to his birthplace, etc., etc. No, I am in no hurry, and also mean to be more careful. But nothing would delight me more than a journey to the South, etc., etc.”  You’ll see  alot of that ETC ET   in these letters. I can’t figure out if it’s the writer being lazy or if it’s before people thought of copping out on a sentence with a simple ellipses. But, she said, she needs to have expenses covered for clothes, the journey and such. No problem, he said. And – to keep things aboveboard – they agreed that she would do his bookkeeping and writing. He would treat her like a sister. Marriage, after all, is not something to rush into:

There is to be no courting. I am to keep your accounts, do your writing, and work for you just the same as if I were working for a firm in Chicago. I would work for your interest. *** I am independent natured, and can teach French, German, and, if necessary, I could be a governess or seamstress or cook or ‘bottle washer.’ If you wanted me for company, I am ready to be with you and make you enjoy yourself. Horseback riding? Oh, my! I would rather do that than eat. I did that in Germany when I was a child. It is delightful; but since I am older I could not have a chance in large cities. Yes, I am jolly, self-reliant, but careful and conscientious.

You know, it’s good to know that online dating essentially hasn’t changed for over a century. That last part, where Birdy says she is jolly, self-reliant, but careful and concienticous. Reminds me of my old forays into online dating, where 90% of the profiles tried to cover all bases by saying things like “you can take me to the opera or a baseball game,” “I can dress up to go dancing or stay home in sweatpants to cuddle,” “I’m very funny with a serious side.” It’s as if for ages everyone selling themselves romantically has tried to cover all possible bases with the effect of not providing a meaningful description at all. My body is comprised of atoms!

On December 21, 1894, Kaufman met Birdie at the train depot in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and accompanied her to the Trulock Hotel. There, he kissed her, despite a mild protest on her part.

Then, the truth started to come out. She asked if maybe – just maybe – he was older than 36. Ok, admitted, 44. She then asked if he was married – possibly something she should have asked in their frenzied pen pal conversation chain. Ok, he admitted, yes. But he hadn’t lived with his wife for thirteen years, and divorce proceedings were pending.

Well, shit. Birdie said – it’s impossible. Under the rules of the catholic church, she couldn’t marry a divorced man, not to mention a married man. Birdie was, to put it lightly, pissed. Oh, yeah, Kaufman was also not Catholic.

Kaufman said that he was totally going to tell her about small detail of being married, but it was really really hard to express that in writing, so he thought he’d wait until she uprooted her life and traveled to the middle of nowhere to a stranger’s house to spring it on her. He insisted that she at least stay on board as a book keper as planned, Having nowhere else to go, she agreed and stayed at his house. About a month later, she went to Memphis and got a gig teaching people how to use sewing machines – kind of her specialty. Not one to throw out the baby with the bathwater, Birdie talked with a priest in Memphis to see if there was any way to get around this divorce. The priest said, no. BUT, that wouldn’t count if the divorced person had never been baptized. And Kaufman had never been baptized.

So, all it took was Kaufman becoming Catholic. And, of course, obtaining a divorce from his current wife. Here, the letters really heat up, like in this one from Kaufman:

As a matter of fact, I will surely be yours at such time as you may name. Don’t worry at all about Kaufman. He will stand like a brick wall, and will verify any statement he will make. He is yours, and you are his.

Sounds kinda serious. And this third person stuff is AWESOME. The year passed with lots of bible study, travels back and forth, meeting of the family. You know, I’m-getting-ready-to-marry-you kind of stuff. A wedding was set for November.

But then, suddenly, it was postponed, for unknown reasons.

Birdie went to stay with Kaufman in late December. She actually even brought an old lady friend with her because on previous extended visits, Kaufman’s neighbors began to gossip. She got news of a job in Little Rock in early February. Kaufman, however, was sick. She suggested mustard plasters and hickory bark to make him feel better, but in her rush packing to leave for her trip, she forgot. Kaufman was annoyed. They kissed goodbye and all was well. At a train connection in Memphis, she mailed him a mustard plaster.

I know what you’re wondering at this point: What the hell is a mustard plaster. According to Wikipedia, a mustard plaster was a poultice of mustard seed powder spread inside a protective dressing and applied to the body to stimulate healing. It was used to warm muscle tissues and for chronic aches and pains. People don’t use it anymore. Except maybe people at those herbal shops where there’s always a cat and homeopathy is a thing.

A week after arriving in Little Rock, Birdie received the following letter from Kaufman:

Dear Birdie: I received the mustard plaster, for which please accept thanks. My cold is better, but am yet very sore in the side from my hurt. Birdie, I feel very sad over our affairs, as it’s very bad to learn to love each other as we have, and then find out that we are not suited. But I can never marry you. You fail to meet my requirements as a domestic helpmate and partner. I consider that I have discharged all my duty, and, if you are deficient, I am not responsible for your shortcomings. You have my love, respect, and sympathy, and I shall forever hold you in memory as a true friend, but nothing more. With a sad and sympathetic heart, I am truly your friend, W. P. Kaufman.

That’s right. He broke up with her by letter. By email. By text. And if you’re a guy who’s ever tried that, you know what happened next.

My Still Precious Sweetheart: I am sure you must be mistaken in your last letter. Oh, it can’t be true! Why, you say you can never marry me. Honestly, I have been sick; could hardly eat anything. I am hardly strong enough to write this now. I never thought you would have changed so suddenly. You kissed me on the morning I left. I have given you my word to be your wife since we found out my religion would let me marry you. We have long since decided that we loved each other, and have been engaged positively since or before I left for Cincinnati. You know how many admirers I have had, but am still waiting for you. Tell me kindly the reason why you wish to break your word. Do you think I would ever have gone back and forth to visit and cheer you up if I had not been sure you were going to make me your wife? The world, my intimate friends, father, and everybody expects me to be Mrs. Kaufman. Candidly, dearest, tell me the reason of your sudden change. Now you owe me the reason why you so suddenly turned against me. Do tell me the reason frankly. You know how hard it is for a girl to imagine herself a happy wife, and then the only one she loves-all her bright hopes for the future blanched like that. You say you can never marry me. Tell me that, if you should mean that as your final words, as hard as they are, tell me them if true. *** Please do answer right away these questions, makes no difference if a short letter, and tell me the candid reason. I shall rest easier now, and still imagine myself to be your soon future wife. I never had any idea I would be otherwise than the future Mrs. Kaufman. Was I mistaken? Write at once to your anxious future loving wife Birdie.

In a final letter, Kaufman came clean. He said that Birdie scolds and fusses around, and says mean things very unbecoming. He didn’t expect her to cook, wash, and scrub. But, when he did ask her to do other things around the house, he found they weren’t done or not done to his liking. That’s right, the sole reason he broke up with her is because her negligence in doing chores and what he called her “scolding disposition.”

As to your virtue I have no doubt, considered unquestionable. Neither do I doubt your love. But it takes the other good qualities to make harmony. I think it is so very bad to have to live unpleasant, and it’s better that we find out about each other before it’s too late, and as a true, loving, and virtuous girl you have my love forever, but as a partner domestic, prompt and business I regard you as a failure. If I needed a sewing-machine woman or a solicitor in city you would fill the bill. Now, Birdie, cheer up, be stout and resolute, and say, ‘Let come what will, I’ll stand the storm.’ I regret very much to have R    caused you the slightest grief, and as to myself I have no blame to cast on you. *** I have highest respect for you, and would now and forever defend your good name, etc., etc.

Now that’s one hell of a pep talk.

The next month, Birdie filed suit against Kaufman for breach of promise to marry. Remember when Kaufman trumpeted Birdie’s virtue and character and that he would forever defend her good name? Well, he amended his court filing attacking her good name by claiming she was guilty of lewd and unchaste conduct with one L. O. Knox both before and after the engagement. During trial, Kaufman even admitted trying to take advantage of her numerous times while she was staying at his house, and being rebuffed each time. One of these times, he grabbed her by the ankle, and she in return struck him hard, which – in the words of Kaufman, “knocked fire out of my eyes like electric car wheels.”  About this incident, Kaufman had written to her: I don’t blame you now as a lady to call me down when I misbehaved. Yes, you done right, for which I only love you more.” I don’t know what they called it then, but definitely the whiff of kink going on with this guy.

But, Birdie won. She won $3,000, to be exact. And Kaufman appealed. And he lost. He lost largely because he based his breaking of the engagement on Birdie’s lack of virtue, which could have worked, but his defense was roundly trumped by the language in his own letters.

The case was called Kaufman v. Fye, decided in the supreme court in Tennessee, right in your backyard, Ben. You can find a copy of it at unwonk.com/disengaged. And I’m kind of fudging it a bit – breach of promise is actually a tort, not a contract action. But, it’s historically based in a promise, which is essentially, a contract.

Now, back to your question. Yes, prenuptial agreements are real. And I’m not going to talk much about them. Why? Because there’s two pieces to consider:

The first piece: A prenup isn’t something you google around and download. I’d say it isn’t even something you’d go to one of those sites that sell you forms. You do that for selling a used car or helping that cousin you don’t like get his will together. This is your marriage. This is your life. If you’re going to move forward, you need an attorney. And you need an attorney that specialized in matrimonial and family law – not just some schmoe. If you need help on how to select an attorney and how to work with one, check out our episode… wait, we haven’t done an episode like that. We should do an episode like that.

Along with this, realize that every state is going to have different requirements for prenuptial agreements. 27 states have adopted the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act – but realize that each of those states will have judges that interpret that act differently.

Now, the second piece. And this is something entirely un-legal. Prenups can just be icky. Do I have advice on this piece? No. Do I think you need to reach out to your social network to see how other people may have handled this. Yeah. You’re going to hear a lot of people saying no, a lot of people saying yes. The worst part – and this is the same for any legal agreement but magnified here because it focuses on such an intimate relationship – is that it makes you think that your permanent forever home of a relationship may actually end. That you’re being asked to enter into something unbreakable with an asterisk. And nobody wants to think about that while you’re writing your vows or deciding whether you’re going to have a band or a DJ – the answer to that one is DJ – always get a DJ.

So, to answer your question without knowing any specifics about you, your fiancee, her meddling father, or all the dynamics that go with that, you need to do some diligence on the relationship side, and, if you move ahead, make sure you use a lawyer. You may, in fact, each want to use separate lawyers, just to make sure everyone gets a fair chance.

Anyway, Ben. All this was just to demonstrate that marriage being riddled with legal issues is nothing new. It’s been around forever.  The most important thing is how you and your fiancee feel about each other. And, of course, that your wedding reception has an open bar. Anything else is just tacky.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Unwonk. And special thanks to Producer Cara for reading the part of Birdie Fye.

If you enjoyed this episode, you’d be awesome to share it – and to make it easier, just go to unwonk.com/disengaged and click on social sharing button of your choice. 

And don’t forget check out our deadspin column by clicking on the link at our website.

On the next episode, we learn about:

  • The three types of gifts that are illegal to give as a wedding present in the state of Michigan;
  • How you can legally marry your cousin in Massachusetts if you both go through a recreation of a witch trial in Salem; and
  • The maximum prison sentence length for recording the wedding ceremony on your mobile phone even though it’s clear there’s a professional videographer and it’s not even your own damn wedding.