Mock Shotgun Weddings
As my father wrote about last week, we recently received a collection of photographs from the Harris family. The Harrises intermarried with the Hagenbuchs and the two families attended Hidlay Lutheran Church in Columbia County, Pennsylvania. On New Year’s Eve of 2023, my father and I sat by the fireplace examining the Harris photos and discussing what we saw in them.
One image really stood out from the rest. At first glance, it seemed to depict a wedding party gathered to celebrate a couple’s important milestone. Behind the group, a car idled ready to whisk away the newlyweds off. A handwritten note on the back of the picture indicated that the event occurred on July 22, 1948 at Hidlay. By comparing it to other images of the area, the photograph appears to have been taken alongside the schoolhouse that once stood near the church.
Yet, upon closer examination there was nothing ordinary about this wedding picture. First and foremost, the individuals in the group were all women, each dressed to portray a different role: bride, groom, preacher, maid of honor, best man, and so on. Another fascinating detail: the person on the far left was conspicuously holding a shotgun! Clearly, this wasn’t any wedding. It was a shotgun wedding—when the father of the bride forces a reluctant groom to marry his daughter. Furthermore, it didn’t even look to be a real ceremony. Rather, this group of women were portraying a matrimony scene in costume. What was going on here?
I began my search with the date on the back of the photograph: July 22, 1948. This was a Thursday—an unusual day to be at church. Additional research yielded another clue. A newspaper article in The Morning Press of Bloomsburg, PA explained that Hidlay Church held their annual Sunday school picnic on Saturday, July 24, 1948 at Spring Brook Park near Catawissa, PA. The picnic included plenty of food, a baseball game, swimming, and skating. Perhaps it also featured an amusing skit about a shotgun wedding, one that had been practiced a few days before at the church? After all, shotgun weddings were a popular topic in the American media.
During my research of newspapers, I saw that articles mentioning shotgun weddings increased in the early 20th century and peaked around the 1950s. Often the phrase was used as a figure of speech to describe two politicians or countries being made to work together. Television programs and films incorporated shotgun weddings in various story lines too. For example, the 1947 film, Tycoon, coerced John Wayne to marry Laraine Day in a shotgun ceremony. It has been suggested that as the practice of forced marriage declined in America throughout the 19th century, the public grew increasingly fascinated with the act.
Mock weddings—theatrical parodies of real nuptials—were once popular spectacles within rural communities. According to Michael Taft in his 1989 paper Folk Drama on the Great Plains, a mock wedding is a common form of traditional costume drama that is “characterized by cross-dressing, bawdy behavior, ad-libbing, and general carousing.” Taft asserts that mock weddings in North America date to the 19th century and grew out of Tom Thumb weddings, where under the guidance of their parents, children portrayed the various roles in a marriage ceremony. Eventually, mock weddings were staged by adults as part of festivals, parades, anniversaries, dances, parties, and other communal gatherings. They would unexpectedly interrupt a larger event, steal the stage, and produced jeers or laughter from the crowd.
Considering the history of mock weddings, one can imagine the scene at the Hidlay Sunday School picnic. As everyone finished eating lunch, a commotion was heard from beyond the pavilion. A few people stood and pointed. Moving towards them was a line of outrageous characters—portrayed by the women of the church. They were led by a preacher in a top hat and a gun-toting father, who insisted the unwilling groom marry his embarrassed daughter. The humorous sketch, interrupted by snickering from the audience, was one of the most memorable moments of the day.
While researching the photograph, I realized that some of my closest family members were present at the park to see the mock wedding. In 1948, my maternal grandfather, Roy A. Gutshall Jr. (b. 1920), was the minister at Hidlay Church. It was one of his first charges after graduating from the Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary in 1946. Indeed, the article from the The Morning Press listed him, my grandmother Ethel (Brandt) Gutshall, and their eldest daughter, Renna Mae as attending the picnic. At the time, the family lived in Espy, PA next to Elmer and Elizabeth “Lizzie” (Fetterolf) Hagenbuch. What a coincidence that several decades later, one of the Gutshalls’ daughters would marry a Hagenbuch son!
New Year’s Eve concluded with my mother, Linda (Gutshall) Hagenbuch, reviewing the Harris pictures. It was her keen eye that noticed her mother, Ethel, in another photograph from Hidlay Church. The image captured a group of women and girls standing outside of an unknown building. A dog appears to have entered the frame from the left and distracted some of the subjects just as the camera snapped the shot. Ethel, the minister’s wife, is visible in the center of the image looking down at the dog. She is wearing a dark-colored dress with a white necklace.
The back of the picture is labeled with many names and the date January 1949. Given the number of women wearing short-sleeved dresses that date seems unlikely. Instead, it is more reasonable that the photograph was taken during the summer of 1949, perhaps after a church activity for the women of the congregation.
Photographs are rich sources of family history, not only for the people they show but also for the events they depict. An image of a mock shotgun wedding at Hidlay Church reveals just as much about the people in one congregation as it does about the popular folk traditions of rural America. We thank the Harris family for preserving and sharing these glimpses into the past.