Behind Closed Doors: The Divorce Case of Dr. Lydia Allen DeVilbiss

Dr. Lydia Allen DeVilbiss, in News-Journal, Jan. 16, 1914.

Dr. Lydia Allen DeVilbiss was a doctor and surgeon in Shelby, Ohio, who wrote Jane Addams a brief letter on August 10, 1912, commending her for her speech to the Progressive Party Convention. DeVilbiss was an active civic leader, serving as president of the Shelby Equal Franchise Association, president of the Richland county Woman’s Suffrage Association, secretary and treasurer of the Shelby Medical Society, president of the Anti-Tuberculosis Society, and medical director of the Better Babies Bureau of the Woman’s Home Companion. In addition, she was the first woman to become a member of the Shelby Socialist local. These accomplishments alone were newsworthy for a woman during the early 1900’s. But in 1912, DeVilbiss made the news for a very different reason; a dramatic divorce case that pushed her private life into the spotlight.

On Christmas day in 1906, Lydia married Albert K. Shauck, a professor and musician who was twenty years her senior. Early on, it appeared as though their life was going well; in 1907, for example, there was news of Albert opening a music school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the same building as his wife’s medical practice. But in November 1912, the News-Journal in Mansfield, Ohio reported that Lydia was suing for divorce. She accused Albert of having verbally abused her, using “foul, indecent and threatening language,” and slandering her reputation by spreading rumors. Lydia surmised that Albert treated her cruelly out of jealousy, as he also “materially interfered with her practice as a physician and surgeon.” Albert had also threatened Lydia’s life, she said, saying he would “take her life” and “circulate such slanderous stories about her” if she tried to leave him. Despite the threats, the couple had been separated for the six months before Lydia filed for divorce. When she made the decision to divorce Albert, she made arrangements to stay with her sisters in Fort Wayne and work as a drug saleswoman for Strong, Cobb & Company in Cleveland.

The first news announcement of the Shauck divorce case, News-Journal, Nov. 29, 1912.

Shortly after this news broke, Albert came forward with his own accusations. The News-Journal reported in early December that Lydia “treated him [Albert] worse than a dog,” subjecting him to verbal and physical abuse. He claimed that while he never abused Lydia or threatened her life, she had done so to him; in a statement made to the press, Albert presented a record of threats Lydia had made against him, which included “I wish someone would kill you” and “I wish there was no law against killing. I would just like to kill you.” Albert also alleged that Lydia once threw a butcher knife at him, smashed a bottle against his head, and broke his finger. He also complained of how, due to Lydia’s work, most of the housework fell to him.

The dramatic news coverage of the divorce case did not end there. Only about two weeks later, Albert refused to eat, and his health rapidly declined. He was sent to the Marion, Ohio sanitarium, and Lydia collected money due to him in order to pay for his treatment.

Albert K. Shauck’s account, News-Journal, Dec 2, 1912.

No news appeared on the Shaucks until one year later, when, in December 1913, Lydia dropped the divorce case. The case was dismissed without prejudice, but not because the couple had reconciled; rather, the courts believed that Lydia’s suit was not strong enough to warrant a divorce. Lydia chose to remain in Fort Wayne rather than return to Shelby. That was the last time the Shaucks’ marriage appeared in the news, but by 1920, Lydia and Albert were divorced.

After the divorce, Lydia moved to Miami, Florida, where she opened the Mothers Health Clinic in 1928. There, she conducted research on birth control and came up with inexpensive soap-based spermicidal jellies to be used with a sponge. However, Lydia believed only educated women could  understand these methods. She practiced sterilization on those she deemed less intelligent. Most of the sterilized patients were African-American women who may have been forced or mislead into having the procedure. DeVilbiss initially supported the work of African American physicians who opened a black branch of the Mothers Health Clinic, but after disagreeing with their methods, she shut them down.

All that is known of Lydia’s private life after her divorce is that by 1930, she married to Dr. George Bradford. She died in Florida in 1964. We will never know the details of the Shaucks’ private lives, nor whose account held the most truth. For now, we are left with newspaper articles as the main glimpse into the life of Lydia Allen DeVilbiss, and what may have happened behind closed doors.

Sara Catherine is writing a series of blog posts about interesting characters that she comes across while working as a co-operative education student for the Project this semester. Her work involves identifying and describing the over 5,000 unique individuals mentioned in Addams’ correspondence.

Sources:

Cathy Moran Hajo, Birth Control on Main Street: Organizing Clinics in the United States, 1916-1939 (2010), pp. 70-71, 117.

Esther Katz, Peter C. Engelman, Cathy Moran Hajo, and Amy Flanders, eds. The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger: Volume 2: Birth Control Comes of Age, 1928-1939 (2006), pp. 230-1.

Albert K. Shauck, 1920 United States Federal Census.

“Dr. Shauck is Now Medical Director of Magazine’s ‘Better Babies’ Bureau,” News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), January 16, 1914, p. 7.

Lydia DeVilbiss Bradford, 1930 United States Federal Census.

Lydia D Shauck, 1910 United States Federal Census.

“A New Conservatory,” The Monroeville Breeze, August 15, 1907, p. 8.

“Professor was a Good Dodger,” News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), December 2, 1912, p. 5.

“Refuses to Eat,” News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), December 18, 1912, p. 9.

“Shauck Case is Dismissed,” News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), December 13, 1913, p. 8.

“Suffragette Asks Divorce,” News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), November 29, 1912, p. 5.

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