Vic­to­rian-era scan­dal still res­onates

#MeToo has roots in 1893 trial

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Books - Karen Ab­bott is the au­thor, most re­cently, of “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy.” Her next book, “The Ghosts of Eden Park,” will be pub­lished in Oc­to­ber. By Karen Ab­bott

Be­fore Roy Moore, be­fore Har­vey We­in­stein and be­fore Brett Ka­vanaugh, there was Wil­liam Camp­bell Pre­ston Breck­in­ridge. In 1893, the 56-year-old scion of a po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful South­ern fam­ily found him­self em­broiled in a sex­ual scan­dal that en­thralled the en­tire coun­try and sparked fu­ri­ous de­bate. Like his 21st-cen­tury coun­ter­parts, Breck­in­ridge had much at stake: his mar­riage, the re­spect of his chil­dren, his ca­reer as a Demo­cratic con­gress­man serv­ing Ken­tucky’s 7th Dis­trict and, not least, his rep­u­ta­tion as an up­stand­ing Chris­tian — one who warned young women against “use­less hand­shak­ing, pro­mis­cu­ous kiss­ing, need­less touches and all ex­po­sures.” Breck­in­ridge him­self did not ad­here to such rig­or­ous stan­dards and never ex­pected his paramour to ex­pose their af­fair: Why would a woman risk di­vulging the very be­hav­ior that would — right­fully, in his view — bring her ruin and shame? Surely the pub­lic wasn’t pre­pared to lib­er­ate women from the strict moral code it sel­dom de­manded of men?

These are the ques­tions at the heart of Pa­tri­cia Miller’s tan­ta­liz­ing and beau­ti­fully re­searched book, “Bring­ing Down the Colonel” (“the Colonel” be­ing Breck­in­ridge’s nick­name, a ref­er­ence to his ser­vice in the Con­fed­er­ate army dur­ing the Civil War). Breck­in­ridge’s vic­tim — or ac­cuser, de­pend­ing on one’s view — was Made­line Pol­lard, a woman with none of Breck­in­ridge’s in­flu­ence but dou­ble his cun­ning. Pol­lard, nearly 30 years younger than the colonel, was born in Frank­fort, Ky., the daugh­ter of a sad­dler whose shop also of­fered an ar­ray of news­pa­pers and high­brow mag­a­zines like Harper’s. She read avidly, mas­ter­ing Latin and mem­o­riz­ing Shake­speare, and dreamed of be­com­ing a writer. When her fa­ther died and left the fam­ily on the brink of star­va­tion, Pol­lard went to live with an aunt in Lexington, where she met a fam­ily friend named James Rhodes. He of­fered her a deal: If he paid for Pol­lard to at­tend Wes­leyan Fe­male Col­lege in Cincin­nati, she had to agree to marry him after grad­u­a­tion.

Des­per­ate for an ed­u­ca­tion and ea­ger to amass a cul­tured cir­cle of friends, Pol­lard sup­pressed her loathing for Rhodes and ac­cepted the deal. Months into her Faus­tian bar­gain, she hap­pened to meet Breck­in­ridge on a train. Since he had been her fa­ther’s po­lit­i­cal idol, she rec­og­nized him im­me­di­ately, and they shared a brief con­ver­sa­tion. Thus be­gan a re­la­tion­ship that would span al­most a decade and re­sult in two chil­dren (both sent to in­fant asy­lums, where they died). Even­tu­ally, Breck­in­ridge promised, they would marry.

But un­be­knownst to Pol­lard, Breck­in­ridge was also court­ing Louise Scott Wing, a 48-year-old doyenne of Wash­ing­ton so­ci­ety. When he mar­ried Wing, Pol­lard re­tal­i­ated with a “breach of prom­ise” law­suit, which en­abled Vic­to­rian-era women to seek le­gal re­dress after a bro­ken en­gage­ment. Al­though Pol­lard’s suit cited $50,000 in dam­ages, she wasn’t in­ter­ested in money (Breck­in­ridge was fa­mously broke). Her mo­ti­va­tion was to chal­lenge the Vic­to­rian dou­ble stan­dard that judged women’s sex­u­al­ity while cel­e­brat­ing men’s. Such a case had never been tried be­fore, and she nat­u­rally en­coun­tered pub­lic op­po­si­tion. “Why on earth do you want to ruin that poor old man in his old age?” a nun scolded Pol­lard, to which she coun­tered, “I asked her why should that poor old man have wanted to ruin me in my youth?”

Miller spends a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time pro­vid­ing his­tor­i­cal and so­ci­etal con­text, re­lay­ing fas­ci­nat­ing anec­dotes that il­lu­mi­nate the evo­lu­tion of the sex­ual dou­ble stan­dard and the dif­fi­culty of Pol­lard’s en­deavor. Be­gin­ning with the sur­pris­ingly egal­i­tar­ian mores of colo­nial times (both mother and fa­ther faced nine lashes if a child was born too soon after mar­riage), Miller delves into the mid-18th-cen­tury prac­tice of “bundling,” whereby cou­ples were en­cour­aged to sleep to­gether and preg­nancy sig­ni­fied a de facto mar­riage, and traces the tran­si­tion to the harsher con­ven­tions of the In­dus­trial Age.

By the early 1800s, men de­layed mar­riage to pur­sue ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment, and an out-of-wed­lock child could thwart their up­ward mo­bil­ity. Women who had pre­mar­i­tal sex now risked so­cial os­tra­ciza­tion and ruin, a haz­ard that per­sisted into the Vic­to­rian era, when their chastity be­came, in the words of the Mid­dle­sex Wash­ing­to­nian, a “price­less jewel.” By ad­mit­ting that she had en­gaged in pre­mar­i­tal sex, Pol­lard was set­ting her­self up for the Gilded Age equiv­a­lent of slut-sham­ing; Breck­in­ridge rea­soned that he wouldn’t need to pre­pare a proper de­fense, since Pol­lard’s wicked his­tory should be enough to ex­on­er­ate him.

The trial it­self de­volved, as these things do, into a sprawl­ing tan­gle of he-said-she-said al­le­ga­tions. Miller deftly sorts through them, but one wishes she had re-cre­ated the more cine­matic events as they hap­pened, giv­ing the nar­ra­tive a Rashomon-like qual­ity that high­lighted the drama while ex­am­in­ing the of­ten sub­jec­tive na­ture of truth. The trial does yield some sur­prises, not least of which is the pub­lic’s nearuni­ver­sal con­dem­na­tion of Breck­in­ridge’s be­hav­ior and sup­port for Pol­lard (fast-for­ward 125 years, and she might be in hid­ing after a bar­rage of death threats).

Any­one em­bold­ened by the #MeToo move­ment to come for­ward owes a sig­nif­i­cant debt to Pol­lard. Soon after the trial, Miller re­ports, a let­ter signed “Many Women” was pub­lished on the front page of the Lexington Morn­ing Tran­script, urg­ing Demo­cratic Party lead­ers to with­draw their sup­port of Breck­in­ridge. “Let him sink into the obliv­ion” of his guilt, they de­manded. “Let his voice be silent.”

Wil­liam Breck­in­ridge was sued after he failed to marry Made­line Pol­lard after a nearly decade­long re­la­tion­ship.


Pol­lard chal­lenged the Vic­to­rian dou­ble stan­dard that judged women’s sex­u­al­ity while cel­e­brat­ing men’s.

By Pa­tri­cia Miller, Crich­ton, 368 pages, $28

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