Revelations and Reckonings in a Sex Scandal From Long Before #MeToo

This is a tale of patriarchal double standards and sexual disgrace — but the humiliation turned out to be his, not hers.

In “Bringing Down the Colonel,” the journalist Patricia Miller has unearthed the case of Madeline Pollard, who brought a lawsuit against Col. W.C.P. Breckinridge, a five-term House representative from Kentucky, for breach of promise to marry. Miller began working on her book more than a decade ago, long before the revelations and reckonings of #MeToo, but what she found is a story from the 19th century that rumbles and resonates in our own.

When Pollard filed her suit in 1893, the United States was reeling from a financial crisis that would signal the end of the Gilded Age and the beginning of the Progressive Era. The scandal offered a “welcome diversion” when the country was hankering for one. A demoralized public wanted to hear about something other than cascading bankruptcies and grinding unemployment.

The scandal amounted to something more than a distraction. It both embodied and repudiated a set of sexual attitudes that was starting, however slowly, to change. Breach of promise lawsuits weren’t uncommon at the time; Miller describes them as a “Victorian-era legal convention” that recognized marriage as “a woman’s primary vocation.” A woman could recover damages for a broken engagement that left her with “neither her virginity nor a wedding band to show for it.”

Yet Pollard’s suit stood out. Not only was she bringing it against a respected politician and a scion of the Bluegrass elite; unlike other women who resorted to the legal system because their reputations had already been ruined, Pollard came forward for reasons other than sheer desperation. “She could have walked away from her relationship with Breckinridge with her reputation more or less intact,” Miller writes. And Breckinridge was mired in debt, so the $50,000 in damages Pollard sought was little more than a fanciful number. Still, she refused a settlement, and demanded a trial.

Part of her determination might have had to do with how Breckinridge, after his wife died, broke off the engagement to Pollard — by marrying a distant cousin instead. The Pollard-Breckinridge relationship had lasted nine years, after a chance meeting on a train: He was a 47-year-old, twice-married father of five who was running for Congress; she, a 17-year-old student at Wesleyan. Pollard testified that she had two children by him — abandoning the babies to foundling asylums at his insistence — and that during the engagement she had miscarried a third.

Breckinridge denied everything other than the fact of the relationship, even going so far as to dispute Pollard’s age. (Record-keeping being what it was back then, her birth year wasn’t readily verifiable, though Miller concludes that Pollard was probably three or four years older than she believed herself to be.) Breckinridge’s team tried to dig up dirt, enlisting a young woman to spy on Pollard and blaming the lawsuit on a shadowy conspiracy of “my enemies,” including the hemp lobby.

Miller follows the twists and turns of the case, giving a blow-by-blow account of the trial that initially has the pace of a TV procedural before crawling through a thicket of detail. Mostly, though, her book is a lucid guide to a story that became far more consequential than the titillation supplied by its salacious bits.

Part of what made the case so striking was the outpouring of public support Pollard received. Women who took on powerful men didn’t typically fare well. Miller devotes a chapter to the terrible story of Maria Halpin, who accused a suitor of raping her in 1873. He enlisted his friends to cover up the birth of their child by having the baby taken away to be raised by acquaintances, and he later had Halpin institutionalized. The following decade, this man — Grover Cleveland — would be elected president.

Breckinridge, by contrast, didn’t seem to have the sociopathic cruelty or cunning required to destroy Pollard. He certainly tried to win the case, but he was so confident in his station and the sturdiness of double standards that he became complacent, assuming that a desultory smearing of Pollard as a “wanton” and “experienced woman” would be enough. He emerges from these pages less as a formidable colonel than as a bumbling philanderer and entitled hypocrite who promised marriage to two women at once without thinking either one would call his bluff.

Strangely, Pollard remains more elusive in this book. Early on, Miller seems determined to cast her as a selfless feminist revolutionary. “The suit,” she writes, “wasn’t about a ruined woman looking to even the score. It was about challenging the double standard that created ruined women in the first place.”

Why couldn’t it have been about both? It wouldn’t detract from the merits of Pollard’s case to entertain the possibility that she was motivated by something more complicated and personal than abstract justice.

Besides, Pollard showed little interest in overturning the system. After filing her suit, she entered the House of Mercy, a home for “fallen women,” pledging herself to “educating and uplifting” its residents. The House of Mercy functioned like a punitive rehab facility. The women who lived there were inculcated with a “middle-class sexual morality through plain living, hard work and the cultivation of domesticity.”

What Miller depicts so well are the larger cultural changes that bore down on the case, even if whatever emancipation was set in motion remains unfinished still. During the trial, Breckinridge became unnerved by how much sympathy Pollard elicited, and how much criticism came his way. “The world seemed to be shifting under his feet,” Miller writes, “as were ideas about who was fit to sit in judgment of whom.”

Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.

Bringing Down the Colonel
A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the ‘Powerless’ Woman Who Took On Washington
By Patricia Miller
Illustrated. 368 pages. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.

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