John Tarleton's Divorce
By Chris Guthrie
The story of John Tarleton is so riddled with unsubstantiated legends that it is nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction when attempting to reconstruct his life and legacy. The problem is aggravated by amateur historians who insist on repeating legends about him without critically evaluating their sources of information. Not only does this tendency represent bad history, it also deprives us of a chance to really see into the character of the man who founded this university. A good example of this situation is the story of John Tarleton’s divorce from Mary Louisa Johnson.
When Tarleton first met Mary Louisa, he was part owner of the McMullen and Company department store in Waco. She was the widow of Telephus Johnson, one of the richest men in the city at his death. Tarleton and Mary Louisa were married in June of 1876 but within three years, she had moved to St. Louis and filed for divorce. The reasons for the divorce seem to have centered on Tarleton’s parsimonious personality. On the day of their marriage, Tarleton and his bride-to-be had signed a prenuptial agreement in which they agreed to keep their property and estates separate after their wedding. At the time, however, Mary Louisa believed that Tarleton’s only property holding was his interest in McMullen and Company. When she learned that he owned thousands of additional acres of land, she asked for part of it. Tarleton refused. If true, this story illustrates Tarleton’s rather businesslike attitude towards his new wife. This analysis is also confirmed by the story of the couple’s honeymoon to the World’s Fair in Philadelphia. Tarleton allegedly “charged his wife with half the expenses of the trip, insisting that it was in keeping with the contract that they had signed.”
Mary Louisa claimed half of Tarleton’s property in her divorce suit. She also claimed that Tarleton had cursed and abused her and had put her in “fear of her life by striking and assaulting her and threatening to whip her.” Legend has it that Tarleton, upon learning of Mary Louisa’s claims, sped to St. Louis without even taking the time to change his clothes. However, evidence from the divorce proceedings indicates that he first obtained sworn statements from a number of notable Waco citizens attesting to his good character. His lawyer also drew up a motion to drop the charges of violence, arguing that the incidents were out of character and which they both regretted. Tarleton also obtained a copy of the prenuptial agreement. In short, Tarleton appears to have had plenty of time to mount a defense of his interests and good name before he left for St. Louis.
Legend also claims that Tarleton arrived in St. Louis just in time to prevent Mary Louisa from grabbing half of his property. According to this traditional story, he arrived in St. Louis right before the case went to court. He produced the prenuptial agreement and, after examining the contract, her lawyers dropped the demand for property division. The revised divorce decree was granted that same afternoon. However, court records indicate that the divorce proceedings dragged on for a while. Mary Louisa originally filed for divorce in June 1879 but it was not granted until December 1, 1879. Legal negotiations continued after the divorce and it was only on February 13, 1880 that Tarleton’s lawyer managed to remove all disabilities against his client from the decree. Rather than being the product of a last second drama, the final divorce agreement resulted from nine months of tedious negotiations. In the end, Mary Louisa did drop her charges of violence and her claim on half of Tarleton’s property (which eventually became his legacy to this university).