I’m writing a novel set in the 1860s-90s (haven’t quite settled on the exact decade), and have been unsuccessfully trying to research this question. 

I know that there was first cousin marriage in the early Victorian period, including Queen Victoria herself, Charles Darwin, and so on. Sources tend to emphasize that this was perfectly normal and unremarkable in the day. Nowadays, while cousin marriage is legal in the UK and some US states, it is almost always practiced only in certain immigrant communities and mainstream culture seems to find it disgusting and improper – basically it’s considered incest even if it’s not legally incest.

What I’m trying to determine is this:

When did the cultural shift in which first cousin marriage stopped being widely acceptable take place?

What instigated this change?

Thanks for reading.

Jodika Gilworth


Dear Ms Gilworth:

Marrying a first cousin is still legal throughout Europe; in fact, the only prohibitions against it are in some of the United States. In 1846, Massachusetts Governor George N. Briggs initiated a study of “idiots” with the implication that he believed it to be the result of incest. Noah Webster, Philip Milledoler and Joshua McIlvane were among the early advocates for such a ban before 1860. By the 1870s Lewis Henry Morgan was writing about “the advantages of marriages between unrelated persons” and “the evils of consanguine marriage,” claiming that the former would “increase the vigor of the stock.” Ironically, Morgan had married his cousin in 1853. Physician Samuel Merrifield Bemiss of the American Medical Association wrote a highly influential report that “inbreeding does lead to the physical and mental depravation of the offspring.” By the 1880s 13 states had passed laws against marrying one’s cousin, and that number doubled in the 1920s.The latest to do so were Kentucky (1943), Maine (1985) and Texas (2005).

The current range of state judgments on marriage between first cousins is shown below: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cousin_marriage_law_in_the_United_States_by_state



Jon Guttman

Research Director

World History


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