Local History: Celebrity Divorce, 1909
Then and now, notables' marital woes were recorded in the paper.
TomKat claims headlines almost daily, as the marital situation of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes becomes tabloid fodder. While the media coverage seems modern, it's not exclusive to our time. Even a century ago, a local socialite made the headlines with a public divorce.
Samuel Lord was well-known in the Oranges and beyond. In 1826, he and cousin George W. Taylor established a small dry goods store on Catherine Street in Manhattan. Lord & Taylor became the first store to fill their display windows with Christmas scenes, rather than merchandise, a tradition that continues to thrive. Samuel Lord was also onetime owner of South Orange's own spa.
His son, also named Samuel, joined the family firm. When he was 22 years old, he married Miss Mary Adele Horton, daughter of James Douglass Horton, president of the Second National Bank of Newark. When the younger Samuel was promoted to junior member of Lord & Taylor, he and his wife moved to Orange, where they built "a handsome residence," according to the New York Times, and lived a fashionable and public life. Mrs. Lord was one of the founders and benefactors of the Domestic Training School, and her activities were recorded in the society columns of the newspaper. Indeed, an 1887 report begins, "The ante-Lent festivities of Orange N.J. came to a close last with a grand ball." Mr. and Mrs. Lord attended, along with many of "New-York's prominent merchants and bankers, who have their residence in Orange." Fellow party-goers included Gov. Leon Abbett, Sen. Frederick Frelinghuysen, New Jersey's Chancellor Runyon (perhaps a relative of our other local Runyons), the Honorable George A. Halsey and Colonel E. H. Wright. The party was also memorable because it was the first time electric lights were used in Orange for "internal illumination, and with great effect."
It's hard to overstate Samuel Lord's position in society and in business. Lord & Taylor's post-Civil War business was booming, and the store repeatedly outgrew its premises. When the 1870 store opened, 10,000 customers used its newfangled elevator in the first three days.
Samuel and Mary Lord raised their daughters in the Oranges, among such society. When each daughter was engaged, the Social Notes informed readers that cards were "issued" for the wedding. In January 1895, Mrs. and Mrs. Lord issued cards for the marriage of Miss Mabel Douglass Lord and Lucian Carpenter Shellabarger, a real estate magnate from Decator, Ill. They were married at Grace Episcopal Church in Orange, which is now Epiphany Church. Later that same year, Samuel Lord died at age 46. At the time of his death, Samuel Lord lived at 205 Centre St. in South Orange and was described as "a liberal contributor to benevolent objects" in the Oranges. He belonged to the New England Society and the Essex County Country Club.
Then, in 1909, Mabel Shellabarger returned to the family home on Central Avenue, making headlines. Under the headline "Mrs. Shellabarger sues," the story explained that "Mrs. Mabel L. Shellabarger has filed a suit for divorce against Lucien Shellaberger... a wealthy real estate man." Mrs. Shellabarger then merited a full article of her own. "Mrs. Shellabarger in Reno," reads the headline, followed by "Wealthy Woman of Orange NJ, Says She Will Sue for Divorce."
Reno was a destination of choice for those seeking divorces because it allowed for divorce after only six months of residence, and seven grounds for divorce were permitted. Thus Mrs. Shellabarger, who had moved home to 288 Central Ave., left her children, Catherine and Mary, with their grandmother, at 215 Central Ave., and checked into the Riverside Hotel on July 2, 1909. According to her attorney, Mrs. Shellabarger planned to "charge desertion" against her husband. The article notes that "the Shellabargers have been separated for some time."
Why so much coverage of a private affair, even if divorce was less common at the time? Why did this merit headlines? The answer may lie in the article's final paragraph. "Mrs. Shellabarger is a daughter of the late Samuel Lord of Lord & Taylor, and both she and her mother, who also lives in Orange, are wealthy." The rich and famous command headlines and column inches then and now, especially in times when they are least likely to seek the spotlight or wear their notoriety well.
A shorter version of this story appeared in 2009; research has been added, facts corrected since then.