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The Poor, Poor, Poor Men: The Truth of Bigamy Cartoons

Hannah Boller, research assistant

Have you ever heard of Oscar Wilde’s famous statement? “Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.” It usually elicits some laughter, especially when we consider the playwright’s sexual predilections. I have encountered a few bigamy jokes of the same nature while perusing TROVE (the Australian newspaper database - free to use!), never thinking too much about them. I got excited, however, after I saw a few bigamy cartoons and successively discovered the search function “Refinement based on Image Type.” ( To my delight, the keyword “Bigamy” produced 117 items, though only 30 were satirical and included cartoon-like images. I am sharing my initial observations.

Australian newspapers typically reported on bigamy to educate the public on marriage law ‘do’s and don’t’s’, injecting a healthy dose of entertainment and/or sensationalism. Nine times out of ten, the press assigned ‘victim status’ to women, even to female perpetrators!

(See previous blog post Poor Little Violet). If real life stories attracted public sympathy towards women, cartoons did the exact opposite, often portraying men as the victims of troublesome women.

In this 1932 Argus’ cartoon, readers are supposed to understand that the mother, standing beside the table, presumably serving son and husband, acts ‘troublesome.’ Perhaps context influences everything, and in the midst of The Depression, having more mouths to feed might indeed announce trouble, but that may overstretch the cartoon’s message a tad too much since we see food on the table. No, we are to understand that for men, wives embody trouble. Standing in the front of the frame, the joke is on the wife, a fact reinforced via the male two speakers.

A year later, we find another reference to the poor married man. Here the convict requires protection from his wives. The unsavoury character rejoices in the safety of his prison cell. In his estimation, his sentence liberates him from the reality of marriage. The caption boldly states that he escaped his real punishment - marriage and the wives that accompany it. His cell mate’s grin indicates that he agrees.

The trope of the poor man who needs protection from marriage does not disappear and even crosses class lines. The 1952 Queensland Times returns to the concept with this well-to-do chap agreeing with his wife, but from a different stance. Two years imprisonment for bigamy did not suffice: “for safety, poor chap, women’s memory being what they are,” the man dares to voice in front of his wife.

Again emerges the trope of the troublesome woman who might hurt the poor innocent husband! The cartoon trivializes the offense, taking away any harm the bigamist might have caused to the women he married. By presenting the sentence as an escape, cartoonists amplify the negative portrayal of wives.

The wife does not find her husband’s comment amusing, and she freely expresses her disapproval (note her raised eyebrows). Even if absent from the first cartoon, in these two prison examples, women yield power over their husbands, who find their exercise of power troublesome.

Following in the same vein as the previous two examples, all of which identify prison as the least of the husband’s problems, useless Eustace is sweating in fear. He is “scared silly” just thinking about the visit of his wives. But, what could his wives do to him? What power do they have over him in his cell? The suggestion that Eustace dreads visiting day, the only day his wives can affect him during his sentence, insinuates the wives themselves are worse than a normal day in prison. Poor men who have to endure the torture of their wives.

Editors enjoyed the ‘double-trouble’ mothers-in-law joke. The Australian Women’s Weekly liked it so much that it published two different cartoons with the same line.

The initial question reminds of the 1932 Argus cartoon. The answer keeps the focus on women, the mothers-in-law (not only wives) are troublesome. These two cartoons, printed in a Women’s magazine, puzzle me. Why would a woman find a joke targeting the poor man humorous? The editor presents the first version on a spread of “funnies,” most of which connect to husbands and marriage. Considering no self-respecting man would read the Women's Weekly, the purpose of these comedic illustrations could give license and power to women. A wife may read this and chuckle because she knows the fear her husband has of her mother. Therefore, the cartoon’s connotation could focus on empowerment.

The Adelaide News recycled the joke a decade later. Drawn as masculine, angry, and towering over the poor man, the mothers-in-law trap the little chap. Here the mothers-in-law are not empowering, but mocked.

Contrary to press reports which portrayed women as victims of bigamists, cartoonists trivialized bigamy by transferring the victim status to the poor men who had to deal with troublesome women.

References: - Wickepin Argus - Dec. 1, 1932. - Recorder - Feb. 18, 1933. - Queensland Times - Sep. 10, 1952. - The Australian Women’s Weekly - Jan. 27, 1934. - The Australians Women’s Weekly - Jul. 20, 1935. - News (Adelaide) - May 13, 1942. - Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate - Mar. 1, 1954.

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1 comentário

Shauna Wilton
Shauna Wilton
01 de jun. de 2022

Really interesting research! Right up my alley!

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