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I've just watched the The Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode Three Wives Too Many from 1964.

In it, a man has a wife in four different USA states, traveling between them constantly and keeping them secret from one another. Apparently, the punishment was extremely harsh -- death, even?! -- for "bigamy", so he's very scared of this becoming revealed.

Yet he is legally married to four different females.

How is this possible? How can there not have been some sort of central authority keeping track of this, especially if it's not only illegal but an extremely serious crime? Were the different (even nearby) USA "states" so extremely detached as to not share this kind of basic information?

Maybe it's only silly TV nonsense, but they make it seem like the different states are almost like different parallel worlds. I may also have misunderstood the part where one of the wives threatens him with revealing the whole setup, but she seems to suggest that he will be executed for bigamy.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Pat W.
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 15:38
  • My father had something like 20 different driver's licenses in a dozen different states under at least three different names. He was able to maintain this fraud up until at least 1979. Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 16:10
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    OTOH, Bigamy as a crime is generally treated as a type of fraud (possibly tax fraud), it was never punishable by death under the law. However what an angry mob might do to an exposed bigamist is another story, and there may well be cases where they were murdered for such. There have certainly been cases of mob killings of members of the Church of Latter Days Saints ("Mormons") from their early years (pre-1900, mostly) and this is usually attributed to the general American public's aversion to polygamy at the time. Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 16:19
  • Bit of a spoiler, but the “punishable by death” crime would have been the murder of his wives, he wasn’t guilty but there would have been enough circumstantial evidence for a conviction. Interestingly enough, if he had married the other women in a jurisdiction that allowed multiple wives (obviously outside the US), he may have been immune to prosecution in the US for bigamy (although not of course for the suppose murders)
    – jmoreno
    Commented Feb 21, 2022 at 1:45

4 Answers 4

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I'm thirding the "very plausible" on the disconnect.

Something to keep in mind is that the US is big. Really big.

It's one of the top things people who aren't familiar with the US just don't grasp. The time to drive from Los Angeles, California to New York City, New York is only about 25 minutes less than the drive from Lisbon, Portugal to Moscow. The time it takes you to drive through multiple countries in Europe won't even get you out of some of our states. You could dedicate an entire day to your cross country trip just getting between El Paso, Texas and Houston, Texas. While there are a few small states, the end result is that most states are disconnected, in the sense that you mean, just by virtue of distance alone. The reasons mentioned in the other answers--fiercely independent states with all of these records administered locally, and lack of substantive computer database technology for several more decades--reinforces this. But physical disconnection is itself a powerful force here, and has long contributed to significant differences in culture and law between states. Not quite the cultural and legal disparity between, say, Spain and Russia, but enough to be noticeable.

For example, Ted Bundy went on a seven state killing spree in the mid 1970's, racking up 20 confirmed and 30 confessed murders, assisted by his knowledge that states rarely ever communicated information about murders and missing persons to each other. When he was at last arrested for good in Florida, it took a lot of time for authorities to even know who they had on their hands and the severity of his crimes, due to this lack of sharing (and his using a false name; which they figured out was false fairly quickly, but that still didn't tell them his real name). These killings helped to spur states to create better information sharing agreements and cooperation with Federal authorities, but point being: even murder wasn't something states felt was worth keeping other states informed of as late as the 70's.

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    Physical disconnection was even worse in 1964 than it is today, because aviation was still heavily regulated, the Interstates were still under construction, and transportation in general was very underdeveloped by modern standards.
    – Kevin
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 5:35
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    Fun fact: If you want to drive from Houston to Los Angeles, by the time you reach El Paso you're more than halfway to the destination. I took my family on an extended work trip / vacation to a conference very close to Disneyland. I got to go to the conference while the rest of the family went to Disneyland. We decided to make it a driving trip rather than flying. By the time we got to El Paso, our kids were saying "Can we go home now?" Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 10:02
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    Not only were states disconnected, even agencies within the federal government were. That's why the Department of Homeland Security was created after 9/11, to coordinate among many departments related to safeguarding Americans.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 14:54
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    Size is very relevant (+1 for that). But equally important is that the Americans are allergic to central registries of the population. I have tried, in vain, to explain how my native Finland (size of Colorado in both area and population) managed it more than a century ago. What I have a hard time grasping is that the Americans sincerely seem to believe that such a registry is only a tool for a totalitarian regime, when, in my opinion, the exact opposite is true. Commented Feb 19, 2022 at 18:03
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    That said, I always find size comparisons of nations, continents, etc. to be kind of fascinating. As I, and I think a lot of people, were taught global geography primarily through projections that result in almost nothing looking the size it ought to (Alaska is way bigger than Texas, Greenland's huge, etc.). So the factual reality of distances and area has this perpetually shocking quality to it, no matter how often I hear it, because my brain is always using those distorted maps as its starting point. Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 18:36
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Were USA states really this disconnected in 1964

Yes.

Indeed they still are quite disconnected by the standards of other federated nations. US states have always jealousy guarded their autonomy. Marriage has always been a state responsibility and, in some states, the responsibility is passed onto local government. Even today there is no national register of marriages and there may not even be statewide ones.

Notwithstanding, in 1964, marriage records were not computerised. The only record of your marriage was a piece of paper in a filing cabinet. If there are 4 pieces of paper in 4 different filing cabinets in 4 different states (or counties), how would anybody know?

Was bigamy really punished by death?

The United States, due to the presence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has had more experience with polygamy than most western nations. However, it has never been punishable by death.

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    It took till about 1980 for computers to reach all areas of the government as this little booklet tells us. in 1950, there were 2 computers in the whole US government, in 1980 it were 15800 - which means many branches still had very limited computer access and those machines were still mostly restricted to experts. And a 1980s era computer was still about the size of a large room in many cases, with terminals in the whole building.
    – Trish
    Commented Feb 17, 2022 at 23:43
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    FWIW, there is still no national registry of either marriages or divorces in the United States in 2022, notwithstanding modern IT tech. There aren't even state registries that include all legal marriages in every state, since common law marriage is allowed in a number of U.S. states. This is sometimes a practical issue when, for example, someone got divorced in an unexpected county and you have to prove that it happened.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 0:34
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    @B.E. They had simple adding machines in the 19th century. These got progressively more sophisticated. What they certainly didn't have in 1964 was large, fast, reliable storage. Until you've got that, you can't run lookups on a database with 100 million entries. Cost-effective hard disks were a prerequisite for this. Mag tape or other earlier storage doesn't cut it.
    – Graham
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 8:37
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    @B.E.: In the 1800s, "computer" meant a job, not a machine. Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 9:53
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    Elaborating on the point by @user2357112supportsMonica , computers were predomoninately male human beings until the early 20th century. The first world war made people look at females as possibly working as (human) computers. Females were equally capable of performing computations and they were willing to work for much lower wages than were their male counterparts. By the 1950s the field was almost entirely underpaid females. The career of being a (human) computer started to vanish in the mid to late 1960s. Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 10:33
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Yes, the Disconnect is Plausible

The US has always been quite localized in the collection and retention of vital statistics. Even today there is no central repository or database of such information; when federal officials require proof of identity they ask for a state document certified by a state or local authority. Many birth certificates even now are certified by a local county or municipal clerk, not a state official, and there may be no state-wide database of births.

For marriages, I recently had to provide a marriage certificate to a federal authority. They wanted an original document, certified by the local authority. There was and is certainly no US-wide database of marriages to consult. In 1964, I very much doubt whether there would have been any state-wide files, and even if there were, how would they be compared? Neither the SSN nor any other nation-wide identifier was routinely used on a marriage record at that time, and names are far from unique. Even if there had been some sort of national file of marriages, there would have been no practical way to determine whether a person seeking to enter into a marriage had previously married in some other state, even under the same name, let alone under a different name. One would have to know first the locality, names, and approximate date of a possible previous marriage to be able to do a records search to confirm it.

The traditional common-law way of preventing plural marriage was “posting the banns”, that is, announcing in church a planned marriage for each of several weekly services prior to the date scheduled for the marriage. This worked when most people did not move around much, and an attendee would likely know of any previous marriage. Even in the middle ages, such people as merchants, peddlers, and traveling laborers were not detected by this system if they entered into a bigamous marriage.

I will have to check on the possible penalty for bigamy in the 1960s. It might be that the more plausible threat was of private violence from one or another bride's relatives. A Wikipedia article says US penalties for bigamy are “up to five years in prison” but cites no source and gives no date.

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    "The US has always been quite localized in the collection and retention of vital statistics" – One of the major pieces of "evidence" cited by many Birthers (i.e. conspiracy theorists who believe that Barack Obama was not born in the US) was the fact that his birth certificate looked different than theirs, which they took as "proof" that is was faked. Of course, the real explanation is simply that most of the conspiracy theorists weren't born in Hawaiʻi, and since every State has its own birth certificate, of course, a Hawaiʻian birth certificate looks different than, say, a Texan one. Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 10:00
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    This is a somewhat well-known real-world example of just how federalist this system is, where the States don't even agree on the title or format of basic legal documents. Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 10:01
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    My mother recently moved from one state to another and had to deal with her new state not accepting the marriage certificate issued by the old state. It was a giant hassle. For people who live in, say, France, the idea that you have to get new health insurance because you moved across a state border would sound crazy. Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 17:25
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    @WaterMolecule not only might you need to get different health insurance when you cross state lines, the regulations around coverage and eligibility can be completely different. One of the big challenges of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) was trying to impose a national standard on a system made up of 50+ different sets of rules.
    – Seth R
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 20:17
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    @gnasher729: No-one ever accused conspiracy theorists of being clever. Commented Feb 19, 2022 at 23:55
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How is this possible? How can there not have been some sort of central authority keeping track of this, especially if it's not only illegal but an extremely serious crime? Were the different (even nearby) USA "states" so extremely detached as to not share this kind of basic information?

Other answers and comments have focused on the technology aspect, but it is primarily an issue of government organization and legal rules, rather than one of technology.

This wouldn't have happened in France, even in the 19th century (i.e. post-French Revolution after marriage laws were standardized in the French Civil Code and in related bureaucratic centralizing reforms initiated by Napoleon). There, all of the marriage and divorce and name change records of a person are maintained at the local clerk's office of the local government in the place you were born, and there is no counterpart to the notion of "common law marriage" that exists in a few residual common law jurisdictions including a number of U.S. states.

This old fashioned paper records in a file cabinet method worked because each person had only one designated file cabinet. If you tried to get married under a false name and the local clerk's office where the person of that name purported to have been born didn't have a birth certificate for that person, the marriage would have been promptly annulled by operation of law even if no one complained, and a fraud investigation would have been commenced.

Likewise, if a French citizen got married a second time, without the proper paperwork showing that their existing marriage had been terminated by death or divorce filed with the local clerk's office in the place that they were born, the marriage would also have been annulled by government officials even if no one complained, and a bigamy prosecution would have been begun as a matter of course.

In a sense, this method of personal record keeping was even decentralized. There was no single central databased of birth, death, marriage and divorce records for most of French history, although there may be one now in very recent times developed long after WWII.

But, while the record keeping was decentralized, it was still highly coordinated in an efficient pre-modern bureaucratic system.

The Japanese family registry system of the late 19th century and beyond would have been similarly effective and efficient in a low technology era by similar means (except that polygamy wasn't prohibited there until after WWII, so this particular problem wouldn't have arisen).

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    It works the same way in Germany and even in such a huge organisation as the Catholic Church. It is not really complicated to ensure a (mostly) correct register of martial status, if you say to everyone who wants to marry: "First give me a current certificate from your home town/parish." And then give this office notice of the marriage.
    – K-HB
    Commented Feb 19, 2022 at 15:13
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    It would have some loopholes, of course. If word gets around that the clerk's office in the town of Trifouillis-les-Oies has burned down, then anybody who wants to hide their identity can claim to be from Trifouillis-les-Oies. Commented Feb 19, 2022 at 20:22
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    (+1) @NateEldredge You don't get to do that just like that. In that case, you need a court to issue a decision vouching that you were indeed born in Trifouillis-les-Oies, based on the testimony of three witnesses and explaining how the original registry disappeared (that's called an acte de notoriété). The court can also conduct additional investigations if necessary. I actually know someone in just that situation (born in Kinshasa). The real loophole here is that you can get a judge in another country to do it and the integrity of the judicial system in, e.g., the DRC is debatable.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 17:22

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