The couple separated either in December 1893 (according to Albert) or December 1894 (according to Eliza), and the difference matters. Both agreed the separation began after Albert left for Hammond, Louisiana, to perform work as a minister. Most of the witness timeline of separation aligned with Albert’s date. The only two witnesses who gave the year as 1894 were Eliza and the couple’s daughter, Ida.
Albert and Eliza disagreed also on who abandoned whom. He claimed Eliza had moved out of their home in early 1894, while he was traveling. He also alleged that he had caught his wife being unfaithful with Mike Moudy, a man seventeen years her junior who worked and lived with the Creels before Albert went to Louisiana. A number of witnesses supported the accusation. They disagreed about exactly where Eliza moved during Albert’s absence, but most claimed she went to Neshoba County, Mississippi, residing in the household of her son Tom’s in-laws, Sam and Martha Goss, where Moudy was also staying. None of the witnesses, however, suggested that the Gosses had knowledge or involvement in an affair between the two.
Eliza’s testimony painted a different picture. She claimed Albert abandoned their family when he left for Louisiana. In early 1894, two of the Creel children—Tom and Ada— were married and gone. The five children living at home were Ida, age seventeen; Charlie, twelve; Bradley, eight; Azzie, five; and Maude, an infant. Eliza testified that they ran out of provisions, which forced her to move in with Tom. Eliza denied adultery or ever living with Moudy or in the Goss household. She further claimed that after six weeks away, Albert came back and took the four oldest children living at home, leaving the youngest, Maude.
Maude and the dispute over the separation date become particularly important to this case from a genealogical perspective. Albert and other witnesses claimed that Maude was Moudy’s child, not Creel’s. Albert even produced a letter, purportedly in Eliza’s own hand, in which she confessed Maude was not his and offered to give the child to Moudy if her husband would return to her.
Eliza and her daughter Ida Dennis—by this time married— both denied the claim. Her case depended, however, on the disputed date of Albert’s departure for Louisiana. Both Eliza and Albert agreed that Maude was born in November 1894. If Albert’s professed departure date of December 1893 was correct, Maude would have been conceived while he was far away. If he departed in December 1894, as Eliza claimed, Maude was conceived and born before he departed.
With Albert as the complainant, much of the case’s evidence centered on the allegations against Eliza, and witnesses were chosen to that end. Still, evidence cast a shadow on Albert’s character as well. One of the first witnesses, J. L. Scarborough, testified that Albert had Eliza assaulted by the “white caps” in 1897, punishing her alleged involvement with Moudy. While the witness gave no further details about these visitors, he likely refers to a vigilante group, possibly the Ku Klux Klan, using fear tactics to enforce a moral code.
Albert’s fidelity also came into question. Scarborough claimed he gave Eliza a sexually transmitted disease. Eliza testified that he had been sending “love letters” to a woman named Elmora Johnson Dennis. Testimony that Albert was seeing a woman in Choctaw County, Alabama, though still legally married to Eliza, might be supported by surviving records. A federal census taker placed Albert (designated as a widower) in a boarding house just over the Alabama state line in Womack Hill, Choctaw County, on June 12, 1900. Two households away lived the widowed dressmaker Nancy Lillian “Lillie” Brown, a thirty-five-year-old mother of three. Albert married Brown on February 5, 1901, just months after his divorce was final.
A Mississippi court had dismissed a divorce suit Albert filed against Eliza a few years earlier in Meridian. Albert and his Mississippi lawyer, F. V. Braham, testified that Albert had been too sick to come back from Alabama to testify. However, the Choctaw County court granted him a divorce from Eliza in 1900.
Scarborough testified about why Albert needed a divorce. During 1893 and 1894, Albert had left his traditional Methodist pastorage and gone itinerant with what Scarborough called a “Holiness Band.” He testified that Eliza’s questionable reputation had generated speculation that Albert would have to divorce her in order to remain a preacher. At the time of the divorce, though, Albert was actively preaching in Choctaw County. Local news accounts praised his skill as he pastored a Methodist Protestant church and led revival meetings around the area.
Albert and Lillie had a baby boy they named Scarborough in 1903, and she died May 10, 1906. Sixteen months later, he welcomed a new daughter, Esther, with his third wife, Sallie Anderson, and another daughter, Ollie, in 1909. Somewhere along the way he had relocated to Wayne County, Mississippi, where he died in 1925. Sallie was buried with him there in 1956.
At the time of the divorce, Eliza lived with her four remaining minor children next door to her son Tom in Neshoba County, Mississippi. She never remarried and lived with her son William Bradley Creel in Newton County, Mississippi, until her death in 1939. She was also flagged as a widow in all but one of the federal censuses after her divorce.
Moudy married Lottie Laurabelle Savell in 1895, and they had eight children together. The couple appears to have separated and possibly divorced. Moudy lived most of this life in Mississippi, but he moved to Los Angeles, California, before his death in 1946.
A divorce case this rich in detail provides layers of valuable lessons to genealogists. First, the case is not online; anyone seeking this family’s history will miss essential details by limiting research to what is digitized. Second, the Creels lived near a state line and moved back and forth across it. Any Creel researcher limiting the search to what they find in Mississippi sources will miss the case’s most critical elements. This case also demonstrates how much insight into private lives a divorce case can offer. With each witness, we meet a person in their circle, learn their relationship to the couple, and often get glimpses into personalities and events.
Further, while neither the case record nor supporting documentary evidence can tell us who spoke the truth here, this particular case might not be finished. We have what they did not: DNA tests. Descendants may yet shed new light on the paternity of the innocent infant in all this, Maude Creel Loper (1894–1980), who mothered nine children of her own.
Carlie Anne Burkett has been a reference archivist at the Alabama Department of Archives and History since 2017. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Alabama and a master’s degree from the University of Southern Mississippi. Working in the research room allows her to fulfill her dream of helping others research history every day.