So, I recently got the latest issue of Filmfax (my favorite magazine in the world) and it was a good one. As soon as a I got it I was heading directly for the article on Peter Hyams’s NASA conspiracy flick Capricorn One (1978), but I got sidetracked by Paul Holbrook’s article about an exploitation film from 1938 called Child Bride. I think it was the sub-title that grabbed me: “A THROBBING DRAMA OF SHACKLED YOUTH!”
Paul Holbrook does a wonderful job talking about the making of this exploitation film from the 30s which was actually trying to cash-in on the moral panic surrounding Eunice and Charlie Johns in 1937. You see, Charlie Johns was 22 and Eunice Winstead was nine. And with their marriage Eunice became “the youngest American girl married in the history of marriage statistics.” When the marriage was picked up by the press, the Tennessee newlyweds became national celebrities, and it proved to be one of the most outrageous topics of 1937. In fact, Life magazine took exclusive images of them at their home, and even featured the confrontation between Charlie Johns and Eunice’s teacher when she was switched in elementary school as part of their Private Lives series in the August 23rd, 1937 issue (you can read it by clicking on the image of Eunice to the left). And if you want more about the elementary school switching, you can read another article on the same day from Time magazine here. And for more on this, read the article exposing Child Marriage in Time‘s February 15, 1937 issue titled “What God Hath Joined.”
So, with this as the backdrop, “one of the most notorious exploitation films ever made, a weird cinematic oddity unlike any other film shot in the 1930s” gets produced by Raymond L. Friedgen. And as Holbrook points out:
Exploitation films had dealt with narcotics, perversion, sex hygiene, and all kinds of other things movies were not supposed to show but which pople secretly wanted to see anyway. These roadshow films were produced quickly and exhibited in only a few theaters at a time, often accommodated by a lecturer who spoke who spoke out against whatever evil was being presented and sold educational literature warning of its dangers.Because they were made independently and never distributed through the standard theater chains, they were not under the jurisdiction of the Production Code. The films were free to show topics that would get any other film in trouble and pulled from circulation.
This nice, taut frame for the exploitation film circuit frames beautifully how morality can be the most subversive distribution channel. By promoting these films as a morality tale railing against some vice or social issue, it could simultaneously get away with visualizing some of the most illicit visions of the day. And this in many ways is what makes the film Child Bride so controversial, even to this day. And despite the scrolling moral that starts the film to “Abolish child marriage,” by the time the film is ready for release the child marriage laws in Tennessee and other states had already been changed due to immense social pressure. So, what you have is social issue film without an issue. Or, rather, it’s own issue. What makes this film so controversial is a swimming scene that features brief nudity of 12 year-old actor Shirley Mills, as well as her double Bernice Stobaugh. Nudity was a staple of this exploitation films, but child nudity, if even brief, became its own issue as the film re-circulated under various different titles over following decades. In 1958 Child Bride appeared in theaters again, and, as Holbrrok notes:
By the ’60s, Child Bride‘s underage skinny dipping scene lef to its brief screening in the grindhouses of San Francisco as an adults-only film. Bernice Stobaugh Ray, Shirely’s swiming-double and life-long Christian, heard about that and says she was in a meeting of church women one afternoon in the 1980s when the pastor tried to begin a discussion by asking if any of them had ever one anything outrageous. Bernice raised her hand and said, “I was the double for an actress in a porno film once!”
There was an uneasy silence, and the preacher switched the topic.
Man, articles just don;t get much better than this one in Filmfax, filled with interviews and repleted with images, an so spot-on, fun writing about a a classic from the exploitation canon. And what’s more, the article mentioned Child Bride was in the public domain, so on a goof I googled it (though I was sure to add the year and movie so the FBI doesn;t show up at my door) and voila, guess who has the full version for free streaming or download? That’s right, the venerable Internet Archive has the full film, all one hour and two minutes of Child Bride right here.
So this post inspired me to go search for more information about Eunice Winstead. Did you know that the reason she supposedly got married was b/c in Tennessee at that time it was legal for a married child to not attend school? Apparently Eunice’s teacher was particularly fond of corporal punishment and she did it to escape the whippings. Not only was legislation quickly passed in Tennessee to outlaw 9yos being able to get married, a law was passed requiring married children to attend school.
I also found a thread on a genealogy site by a guy who searched out Eunice and met her in the mid-90s. He said she was delightful and had stayed married to Charley until he died in the 90s.
Eunice and Charlie had been friends for a long time prior to their marriage. Their parents’ farms were next door to each other. He used to sit by her in school, evidently one of those one-room schools where kids of all ages attended. Charlie had his friend get a marriage license for him, telling the clerk that the bride was 18. Charlie then surprised her with the document on the day they were married and they went looking for Preacher Lamb. She didn’t married to get out of school. Charlie didn’t like it when she went back to school in the fall and the teacher switched her for refusing to stay in her seat and do her lessons. So he took her home to stay and that was the end of her education. The law permitted married students to drop out of school. Tennessee had actually had a law with the legal age limit for marriage set at 14, but it had been repealed about a year earlier, apparently without anyone realizing what might happen. I have an extensive archive of newspaper articles about Eunice which I may use to write an article about her and Charlie.
Thanks for the nice comments about my Filmfax article, Jim!
I am fascinated by that potential interpretation of a willful young girl who was indeed in love with Charlie, but also saw the opportunity to get out of a bad school situation. I guess that would be one film interpretation that gives this 9 year old a lot more agency than we traditionally would 🙂
Very cool to have you commenting here, and I was afraid you may have thought me too liberal with reproducing so much of your article here, but I couldn’t help myself. It was a truly intriguing examination of a moral historical phenomenon I knew little or nothing bout. And the ay you frame that against the exploitation film is just brilliant, kudos. As for your research into Eunice Winstead, I’d definitely like to know more about the particulars, and would love to know where else (although where could be better than Filmfax? 🙂 ) you write, cause your stuff is a lot of fun.
Thanks for all the nice comments about my article. It’s really encouraging. You didn’t reproduce too much of my article, so don’t worry about it.
What else would you like to know about Eunice Winstead? I’ll try to answer any questions you have.
That’s is my Aunt Eunice. 🙂
The website owner has my email address. Please write to him for it and get in touch with me! Thanks.
She is my great Aunt. My grandmother was Henrietta Wolfe who ran the post office in Treadway.
I knew Henrietta well. We lived 1/4 mile from her post office.
Eunice, now deceased, was my aunt–my dad’s sister.
Please get in touch with me. You can get my email address from the website owner. Thanks.
I’d love to communicate with you and any other relative of Eunice’s! I’d like to know more about her and her life. I think it would make for a great article, her story being something unique in American history. If you have a lot of information, please contact me. Thanks for any consideration and action you may give to this.
Eunice is my great aunt and I carry a copy of the original newspaper clipping in which her mother is talking about the marriage. Charlie married her to make her a wife and nothing else. Eunice’s father went after the preacher with a gun for marrying the two, but Charlie agreed not to consummate the marriage until Eunice was 16 years of age. They stayed married until his death. I will be happy to share the newspaper clipping.
Please get in touch with me through the owner of this website. Thanks.
I am very interested in this story. I am in a sociology class and Charlie and Eunice’s picture is in a lesson about family. I was surprised as I see that Charlie gave a doll to his bride as a wedding gift. I just keep thinking of how it would be possible for a 22-year-old man to get married to a child. Was it allowed at that young age? Was because her parents could not raise her? It was just my random question. That was impossible! After reading Michelle Winstead haley’s note, it comes to point that I have a high respect to Charlie and Eunice. What a great woman she was to stay married till the death of her husband. She used her agency to be with whom she wanted. Well, it doesn’t mean that I would agree for a child to get married to a grown-up man; but if all men were thoughtful like Charlie, it would be great. He did not consummate till she became 16; I am from Cambodian and even it is now in a modern day, yet the youngest Cambodian bride would be around 16 or 17 years of age. Thanks for sharing the story!
Chin her first child was born when she was 14 yo, so no he did not wait to consummate their marriage. Also he was 24 yo, not 22 yo, when he “married” a 9 yo child. He gave her the doll as a Christmas gift the year before he “married” her. If that’s not grooming I don’t know what is. The man was a pedophile.
Michelle, I’d love to be in touch with you and learn more about Eunice and Charlie. Perhaps through this site you and I can get in touch. The Eunice and Charlie story grows more fascinating the more I learn. I’m interested in them and the whole media reaction during the time. The story made such an impact that future newspaper accounts of child brides had only to mention her name without explanation, so familiar were readers with who she was.
Chin, I will attempt to clear up some of the questions you have about the Eunice and Charlie story.
My research into newspaper accounts of the wedding indicate that Charlie gave her a doll for Christmas in 1936, just a month before he married her. Reporters photographed her holding the doll and somehow the story evolved that it was a wedding gift.
Tennessee had laws on the books setting a minimum age for marriage, but there were problematic aspects of it that caused it to be null and void, so it was done away a few months before without setting a new minimum age, so it became legal for her to marry Charlie. Immediately after the news of the wedding broke, Tennessee legislators put aside all other business to quickly enact new laws setting a minimum age, which I believe was fourteen with parental consent and sixteen without it. The governor said the marriage disgraced the whole state!
Charlie determined he was going to marry Eunice but didn’t tell her when. He had a friend go to the county seat and acquire a marriage license for him and Eunice, putting her age at 18. On the morning they were wed, he took her to find the local pastor, who married them in the middle of the road. Their parents didn’t know she was married until it was too late. Her parents were upset but let the marriage stand. The newlyweds had no home of their own. They lived for years with his parents.
Charlie may have promised not to have sex with Eunice until she was sixteen, but clearly he didn’t keep his word. Eunice had their first child when she was fourteen. Newspaper accounts say he went squirrel hunting all day on the day she gave birth.
Yes, the marriage lasted sixty years. But what real options did she have? Her education ended the year she was married. She was pretty much stuck back in the far hollows of the hills and simply had no opportunity for a better life. I believe she was happy, though.
Was the picture of Charley and Eunice you saw in Sociology class in America or Cambodia? I’m amazed that it turned up within a college class.
thank so much for the response to my questions. wow! what a story! Their marriage stayed for sixty years until the death of Charlie. That was incredible. You have answered my questions, and I would love to read more about their story. It is really interesting to me.
Last year, my classmates and I happened to film a woman, 82, who was married when she was 16, for a class of film and TV production. It was a great story; she stayed married till the death of her husband. Anyway, when we presented the film in the class, everyone was amazed of how mature she was in dealing with her daily life as a wife, mother and worker. Well, I am not majoring in Sociology, but it is part of requirement for my nursing program; isn’t that odd that I have to take the class and find myself in love with sociology? Paul, I am taking the sociology here in the United States. I am currently living in Salt Lake, Utah. I got in the United States ( straight from Cambodia) in 2008; so, I have been in Utah for over five years now. You have to forgive my language if you find some sentences weird or things that get you offended. Even I am going to college, I still need lots of improvement, both speaking and writing. I get struggled daily with the language and my wife is my mentor. Sometimes my Caucasian friends and wife still ask me if I speak in Cambodian with them Anyhow, long to short, I would love to read more about their story. Once again, thank you, Paul, for all the answer.
Here is the book called A DOWN TO EARTH APPROACH: ISBN: 978-0-205-57870-2
It is in Chapter 12 on page 333. Let me know if you want me to send you a book. It is so interesting that everyone just puts each piece of info together. I can’t wait to read a whole story.
Thanks, Chin. I don’t think I need to see the book, not if there’s just a single photo of Eunice and Charlie. Does the book cover any more of their story? When was your copy published? I’m just wondering whether they could have used information in my article. The Eunice story has never been told anywhere else.
I will be more than happy to share anything with you. My Father can help you more too. How can I send you a copy of the newspaper clipping?
I’ve contacted this site’s owner and asked that he forward to you my email address. If he doesn’t, then I’ll post it here, though I hate to make it public. I’m looking forward to sharing information with you!
The book doesn’t cover the detail of the story; that is why I try to go online to do more research and see this site. The book was published in 2009.
Michelle, I assume that you want to send more info to Paul, correct?
I am the grand daughter of Eunice winstead Johns. I’m in some of the pictures that where taken an put in the magazines . I lived with her, an they come from all over to take pictures of them an their family.
I am a nephew of Eunice–which of her children was your parent?
I also heard about this story in my sociology text book. That’s great Eunice stayed with her husband until death, but she married him at 9…and dropped out of school. and had 7 kids by the time she was 29 so not like she could go anywhere even if she wanted to. And why couldn’t he marry someone his age? Did he raise her, too? What happens when she has temper tantrums or “acts out” or acts the way people do when they are growing up? Not even sure I believe he did not consummate the marriage until she turned 16, unless he was sleeping with someone else.
She was my dad’s sister (my aunt). Her sister, Ina, got married at age 13. She was married to Jack til he died.
There is only one sister still living. The youngest, she was only 2 at the time.
Such a strange movie. I dont feel like it correctly portrayed the characters on which it was based.
Too many people try to analyze this marriage. It was just the way it was in the place/time period where she lived. There is no drama here. Actually, her mom was not upset with the marriage. Charlie was a strict man, yes, but he provided for her and their children til the day he died as far as I know. She most certainly could have married someone at an older age and been mistreated. You would have had to have lived in this area during the 30’s til even now. How do I know? I lived 1/8th of a mile from them from 1949 til 1957. You see, see was my father’s sister, my aunt. Her mom & dad lived between the Johns family and us. So, you see, it all worked all. God answered at lot of prayers during this time. There’s a lot more to this story, too!
Meant to say “worked out”.