October 31, 2013
She moved amid the bland perfume
That breathes of heaven’s balmiest isle;
Her eyes had starlight’s azure gloom
And a glimpse of heaven–her smile.
New York Herald, 1838
John Anderson’s Liberty Street cigar shop was no different from the dozens of other tobacco emporiums frequented by the newspapermen of New York City. There only reason it was so crowded was Mary Rogers.
Mary was the teenage daughter of a widowed boarding-house keeper, and her beauty was the stuff of legend. A poem dedicated to her visage appeared in the New York Herald, and during her time clerking at John Anderson’s shop she bestowed her heavenly smile upon writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, who would visit to smoke and flirt during breaks from their offices nearby.
In 1838, the cigar girl with ”the dainty figure and pretty face” went out and failed to return. Her mother discovered what appeared to be a suicide note; the New York Sun reported that the coroner had examined the letter and concluded the author had a “fixed and unalterable determination to destroy herself.” But a few days later Mary returned home, alive and well. She had been, it turned out, visiting a friend in Brooklyn. The Sun, which three years earlier had been responsible for the Great Moon Hoax, was accused of manufacturing Mary’s disappearance to sell newspapers. Her boss, John Anderson, was suspected of being in on the scheme, for after Mary returned his shop was busier than ever.
Still, the affair blew over, and Mary settled back into her role as an object of admiration for New York’s literary set. By 1841 she was engaged to Daniel Payne, a cork-cutter and boarder in her mother’s house. On Sunday, July 25, Mary announced plans to visit relatives in New Jersey and told Payne and her mother she’d be back the next day. The night Mary ventured out, a severe storm hit New York, and when Mary failed to return the next morning, her mother assumed she’d gotten caught in bad weather and delayed her trip home.
By Monday night, Mary still hadn’t come back, and her mother was concerned enough to place an advertisement in the following day’s Sun asking for anyone who might have seen Mary to have the girl contact her, as “it is supposed some accident has befallen her.” Foul play was not suspected.
On July 28, some men were out for a stroll near Sybil’s Cave, a bucolic Hudson riverside spot in Hoboken, New Jersey, when a bobbing figure caught their attention. Rowing out in a small boat, they dragged what turned out to be the body of a young woman back to shore. Crowds gathered, and within hours, a former fiancee of Mary’s identified the body as hers.
According to the coroner, her dress and hat were torn and her body looked as though it had taken a beating. She was also, the coroner took care to note, not pregnant, and “had evidently been a person of chastity and correct habits.”
Questions abounded: Had Mary been killed by someone she knew? Had she been a victim of a random crime of opportunity, something New Yorkers increasingly worried about as the city grew and young women strayed farther and farther from the family parlor? Why hadn’t the police of New York or Hoboken spotted Mary and her attacker? The Herald, the Sun and the Tribune all put Mary on their front pages, and no detail was too lurid—graphic descriptions of Mary’s body appeared in each paper, along with vivid theories about what her killer or killers might have done to her. More than anything, they demanded answers.
Suspicion fell immediately upon Daniel Payne, Mary’s fiancee; perhaps one or the other had threatened to leave, and Payne killed her, either to get rid of her or to prevent her from breaking their engagement. He produced an airtight alibi for his whereabouts during Mary’s disappearance, but that didn’t stop the New-Yorker (a publication unrelated to the current magazine of that name) from suggesting, in August of 1841, that he’d had a hand in Mary’s death:
There is one point in Mr. Payne’s testimony which is worthy of remark. It seems he had been searching for Miss Rogers—his betrothed—two or three days; yet when he was informed on Wednesday evening that her body had been found at Hoboken, he did not go to see it or inquire into the matter—in fact, it appears that he never went at all, though he had been there inquiring for her before. This is odd, and should be explained.
If Payne hadn’t killed Mary, it was theorized, she’d been caught by a gang of criminals. This idea was given further credence later that August, when two Hoboken boys who were out in the woods collecting sassafras for their mother, tavern owner Frederica Loss, happened upon several items of women’s clothing. The Herald reported that “the clothes had all evidently been there at least three or four weeks. They were all mildewed down hard…the grass had grown around and over some of them. The scarf and the petticoat were crumpled up as if in a struggle.” The most suggestive item was a handkerchief embroidered with the initials M.R.
The discovery of the clothes catapulted Loss into minor celebrity. She spoke with reporters at length about Mary, whom she claimed to have seen in the company of a tall, dark stranger on the evening of July 25. The two had ordered lemonade and then taken their leave from Loss’ tavern. Later that night, she said, she heard a scream coming from the woods. At the time, she’d thought it was one of her sons, but after going out to investigate and finding her boy safely inside, she’d decided it must have been an animal. In light of the clothing discovery so close to her tavern, though, she now felt certain it had come from Mary.
The Herald and other papers took this as evidence that strangers had indeed absconded with Mary, but despite weeks of breathless speculation, no further clues were found and no suspects identified. The city moved on, and Mary’s story became yesterday’s news—only to return to the headlines.
In October 1841, Daniel Payne went on a drinking binge that carried him to Hoboken. After spending October 7 going from tavern to tavern to tavern, he entered a pharmacy and bought a vial of laudanum. He stumbled down to where Mary’s body had been brought to shore, collapsed onto a bench, and died, leaving behind a note: “To the World—Here I am on the very spot. May God forgive me for my misspent life.” The consensus was that his heart had been broken.
While the newspapers had their way with Mary’s life and death, Edgar Allen Poe turned to fact-based fiction to make sense of the case.
Working in the spring of 1842, Edgar Allan Poe transported Mary’s tale to Paris and, in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” gave her a slightly more Francophone name (and a job in a perfume shop), but the details otherwise match exactly. The opening of Poe’s story makes his intent clear:
The extraordinary details which I am now called upon to make public, will be found to form, as regards sequence of time, the primary branch of a series of scarcely intelligible coincidences, whose secondary or concluding branch will be recognized by all readers in the late murder of MARY CECILIA ROGERS, at New York.
A sequel to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” widely considered the first detective story ever set to print, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” would see the detective Dupin solve the young woman’s murder. In shopping the story to editors, Poe suggested he’d gone beyond mere storytelling: “Under the pretense of showing how Dupin unraveled the mystery of Marie’s assassination, I, in fact, enter into a very rigorous analysis of the real tragedy in New York.”
Though he appropriated the details of Mary’s story, Poe still faced the very real challenge of actually solving the murder when the police were no closer than they’d been in July 1841.
Like many other stories of the mid-19th century, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” was serialized, appearing in November issues of Snowden’s Ladies Companion. The third part, in which Dupin put together the details of the crime but left the identity of the criminal up in the air, was to appear at the end of the month, but a shocking piece of news delayed the final installment.
In October 1842, Frederica Loss was accidentally shot by one of her sons and made a deathbed confession regarding Mary Rogers. The “tall, dark” man she’d seen the girl with in July 1841 had not been a stranger; she knew him. The Tribune reported: “On the Sunday of Miss Rogers’s disappearance she came to her house from this city in company with a young physician, who undertook to produce for her a premature delivery.” (“Premature delivery” being a euphemism for abortion.)
The procedure had gone wrong, Loss said, and Mary had died. After disposing of her body in the river, one of Loss’ sons had thrown her clothes in a neighbor’s pond and then, after having second thoughts, scattered them in the woods.
While Loss’ confession did not entirely match the evidence (there was still the matter of Mary’s body, which bore signs of some kind of struggle), the Tribune seemed satisfied: “Thus has this fearful mystery, which has struck fear and terror to so many hearts, been at last explained by circumstances in which no one can fail to perceive a Providential agency.”
To some, the attribution of Mary’s death to a botched abortion made perfect sense—it had been suggested that she and Payne quarreled over an unwanted pregnancy, and in the early 1840s New York City was fervently debating the activities of the abortionist Madame Restell. Several penny presses had linked Rogers to Restell (and suggested that her 1838 disappearance lasted precisely as long as it would take a woman to terminate a pregnancy in secret and return undiscovered), and while that connection was ultimately unsubstantiated, Mary was on the minds of New Yorkers when, in 1845, they officially criminalized the procedure.
Poe’s story was considered a sorry follow up to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but he did manage to work Loss’ story into his narrative. His Marie Rogêt had indeed kept company with a “swarthy naval officer” who may very well have killed her, though by what means we are not sure—did he murder her outright or lead her into a “fatal accident,” a plan of “concealment”?
Officially, the death of Mary Rogers remains unsolved. Poe’s account remains the most widely read, and his hints at abortion (made even clearer in an 1845 reprinting of the story, though the word “abortion” never appears) have, for most, closed the case. Still, those looking for Poe to put the Mary Rogers case to rest are left to their own devices. In a letter to a friend, Poe wrote: “Nothing was omitted in Marie Rogêt but what I omitted myself—all that is mystification.”
Poe, Edgar Allan, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”; “The Mary Rogers Mystery Explained”, New-York Daily Tribune, Nov. 18, 1842; “The Case of Mary C. Rogers”, The New-Yorker; Aug. 14, 1841; Stashower, Daniel, The Beautiful Cigar Girl (PenguinBooks, 2006); Srebnick, Amy Gilman, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth Century New York (Oxford University Press, 1995); Meyers, Jeffrey, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy (Cooper Square Press, 1992)
September 26, 2013
“It seems to me that a leading question ought to be: do the American people want a common libertine for their president?” So wrote a preacher from Buffalo, New York, to the editor of the Chicago Tribune on the eve of the 1884 presidential election.
Maine Senator James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate, had been shamed some years earlier when it came to light that he’d been trading congressional favors for cash, something his Democratic rivals brought up at every opportunity. The Democrats, though, had troubles of their own. A scandalous tale about the misdeeds of their candidate, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, was gaining traction, along with a particularly grating chant directed at him: “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?”
For on July 21, 1884, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke a story many in upstate New York had long known to be true—that 10 years earlier, a woman named Maria Halpin had given birth in that city to a son with the surname Cleveland and then been taken to a mental asylum while the child was adopted by another family.
Cleveland’s campaign, knowing there was no refuting the allegations, was almost blasé in admitting that yes, Cleveland and Halpin had been “illicitly acquainted.” At the time, the campaign provided this rationale: Cleveland was a bachelor, and Halpin had been rather free with her affections, including with some of Cleveland’s friends—prominent Buffalo businessmen all. As the only unmarried man of the bunch, Cleveland, though not certain the child was his, claimed paternity and helped Halpin name the boy and place him with a caring family. Really, he’d been looking out for his friends and for a woman in unfortunate circumstances. The scandal was, of course, unfortunate, but the governor’s involvement was far from nefarious, and certainly shouldn’t preclude him from serving as president (especially not when Blaine had already made it clear he was not a man to be trusted).
Nevertheless, newspapers ran with the story, and it was only a matter of time before reporters discovered Halpin’s whereabouts. Her tale differed from Cleveland’s, substantially.
In an October 31, 1884, interview with the Chicago Tribune, she proclaimed, “The circumstances under which my ruin was accomplished are too revolting on the part of Grover Cleveland to be made public.”
Halpin was a 38-year-old widow in 1874, according to the Tribune, which also reported:
Halpin said that Cleveland had pursued her relentlessly, and that she finally consented to join him for a meal at the Ocean Dining Hall & Oyster House. After dinner, Cleveland escorted her back to her boarding house. In an 1874 affidavit, Halpin strongly implied that Cleveland’s entry into her room and the incident that transpired there was not consensual—he was forceful and violent, she alleged, and later promised to ruin her if she went to the authorities.
Halpin said she told Cleveland she never wanted to see him again, but “five or six weeks later” was forced to seek him out because she was in the kind of trouble only Cleveland could help her with.
The trouble, of course, was pregnancy.
Nine months later, Halpin’s son was born and promptly removed from her custody. Halpin was admitted under murky circumstances to a local asylum for the insane. Doctors from that institution, when interviewed by the press during the 1884 campaign, corroborated Halpin’s insistence that she was not, in fact, in need of committing. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported:
Dr. William G. King, an honored citizen of Buffalo, was then attending physician at the Providence Asylum. When visited by a Telegraph reporter last week he said that he remembered Maria Halpin well. He says she was brought to the asylum without warrant or form of law. When he examined her he found that she was not insane, though she had been drinking. The managers of the asylum had no right to detain her, and she left in a few days—that is, as soon as she chose to after her terrible experience.
Upon her release, Halpin’s first order of business was to locate her son, who had been “spirited away” after she was taken to the asylum.
Halpin contacted Milo A. Whitney, a well known Buffalo attorney, and announced her intent to charge Cleveland with assault and abduction:
Whitney says Maria Halpin came to consult him about instituting proceedings against all concerned in the assault and abduction. She said she knew that Grover Cleveland had plotted the abduction and hired the men to carry it out, as he had previously tried less violent means to deprive her of the child and get her out of the way.
Shortly after Halpin’s initial meeting with Whitney, her brother-in-law arrived from New Jersey to offer assistance. Days later, the pair called at Whitney’s office with a document that would seem to resolve the whole business:
They showed the attorney an agreement which stipulated that upon the payment of the sum of $500, Maria Halpin was to surrender her son, Oscar Folsom Cleveland, and make no further demands of any nature whatever upon his father.
Whitney maintained in all subsequent interviews that the document was in Grover Cleveland’s handwriting.
Oscar Folsom Cleveland (given the middle name Folsom after Oscar Folsom, Cleveland’s closest friend) was adopted by the Providence Asylum’s Dr. King and raised in Buffalo separate from his birth mother.
When interviewed in 1884 and asked about Cleveland’s assertion that any number of men could have been Oscar’s father, Halpin was outraged: “There is not and never was a doubt as to the paternity of our child, and the attempt of Grover Cleveland or his friends to couple the name of Oscar Folsom or any one else with that of the boy, for that purpose, is simply infamous and false.”
Halpin was living in New Rochelle, New York, just outside New York City, and breathless accounts of her looks and disposition filled the pages of the New-York World:
Mrs. Halpin is still an attractive woman, and although said to be 45 or 50, does not look more than 35. A wealth of dark hair and dark eyes of great depth and of strange, fascinating power are in strong contrast to a pale, clear complexion while regular features, and rounded chin, and a classically-cut and curved mouth could not fail to make a pleasant impression on those with whom she came in contact. Although robust, her form still preserves its symmetry, and this rotundity of figure rather adds to her matured charms than otherwise.
The story filled major newspapers during the summer and autumn of 1884—had Cleveland really taken part in the “seduction and ruination” of such a goodly woman? Was he indeed too much of a libertine to lead the nation? Or was his campaign telling the truth—that Maria Halpin was a harlot looking to cash in on a distant dalliance with the upstanding lawyer running for office on a clean-government ticket?
Most observers seemed to agree that Cleveland bore some degree of guilt. Writing to the Buffalo Evening Telegraph in the fall of 1884, Pastor Henry W. Crabbe, of that city’s United Presbyterian Church, condemned Cleveland resolutely:
I am very sorry to say that he is a corrupt, licentious man. He has never been married, and is notoriously bad with women. Cleveland is well known here, and it is a reproach to the city that he ever got into the Gubernatorial chair. I most sincerely and earnestly pray that he will not be our next President. His public life is revealing his true character. It may be said these stories are put in circulation for political effect, but the trouble is they cannot be refuted.
Still, Cleveland was not without defenders—including the famed reformer Henry Ward Beecher, who stood by the candidate in the pages of the Sunday Mercury, a Democratic-leaning newspaper:
Indeed, many of Cleveland’s supporters wrote the affair off as a young man’s folly—even though the man was nearly 40 years old when he became acquainted with Halpin.
In the end, Cleveland’s personal life proved more palatable to voters than Blaine’s political indiscretions: The Democrat won the election, carried by a New York state victory with a margin of barely 2,000 votes. The chant of “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” was answered by Democrats: “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”
The scandal was soon replaced on the front pages by breathless coverage of Cleveland’s new bride. Frances Folsom, daughter of the president’s best friend, became the first woman to be married in the White House and, at 21 (27 years younger than her husband), the nation’s youngest-ever first lady.
Oscar Folsom Cleveland faded from public record and seems to have come of age in privacy; some people believe he changed his name and became James E. King Jr., a Buffalo gynecologist who died childless in 1947.
Maria Halpin remarried and lived in relative obscurity until her death in 1902, and she seemed to take solace in her privacy to the last. According to her obituary, her last wish was that her funeral should not be public, “for she dreaded having strangers look curiously upon her dead face.”
THE DEFENSE.: A Man of 40 Lusty Summers “Sowing His Wild Oats”, Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 August 1884; THE CLEVELAND SCANDAL: A Fresh Scrutiny of the Charges Affecting the New York Governor, Chicago Tribune, 31 October 1884; THE CLEVELAND SCANDAL.: WHAT THREE BUFFALO CLERGYMEN SAY OF GROVER CLEVELAND–WILL ANY CLERGYMAN TESTIFY ON THE OTHER SIDE?, Chicago Daily Tribune, 11 August 1884; THE CHARGES SWEPT AWAY, New-York Times, 12 August, 1884; CORROBORATION.: A PHYSICIAN’S STATEMENT. SEEKING REDRESS. MR. WHITNEY’ Chicago Daily Tribune, 19 September 1884; CLEVELAND.: History of Wicked Maria Halpin; Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 August 1884; PASSING OF MARIA HALPIN; The Atlanta Constitution, 8 February 1902; Lachman, Charles, A Secret Life: The Sex, Lies, and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011; Presidential Election of 1884 Resource Guide, Library of Congress; Nevins, Allan, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage, Dodd/Mead, 1934.
September 4, 2013
The 1915 marriage of Louis Merillat and Ethel Wynne was straight out of a fairy tale. She was a Chicago beauty from a wealthy family, and he was a two-time All-American West Point cadet, handsome and destined for success.
But a thorn appeared in the form of Helen Van Ness, a Wooster, Ohio, stenographer who claimed that Merillat had committed himself to marry her after a series of visits in the fall of 1913. Merillat, Van Ness claimed, was in breach of contract.
Seeking a “heart balm,” or salve for her wounded pride, Van Ness served Merillat with a lawsuit. No wedding plans had been made, she acknowledged, but the emotional distress caused by her love’s marriage to Ethel Wynne was worth, in the estimation of her lawyers, $20,000.
According to Van Ness, her romance with Merillat had been both passionate and devoted. They met when Merillat was visiting an Ohio aunt whose property was near Van Ness’ home; introduced by a mutual friend, she said, he was instantly smitten with her, and visited regularly through the summer of 1913. Upon his return to West Point, she said, they began to exchange letters, and by Christmas, he had returned to Ohio and proposed.
Her evidence? She told a local paper:
“And here I have a ring,” the girl said. “Here it is. His West Point ring. It’s just about the same as a college fraternity pin. It has the same significance as an engagement ring. It has my birthstone for a setting.”
Van Ness arranged for her engagement to be announced in a Wooster paper, but as winter turned to spring, her connection with Merillat grew weaker.
We were happy and wrote each other many letters. Then something happened and he quit writing. I have always supposed it was parental objection. I always thought things would come out all right, though, until I learned in August that Louis had married a girl in Chicago.
A broken engagement (let alone one broken in such a seemingly cruel fashion) seemed out of character for Merillat. “To meet Louie is to like him,” proclaimed a 1915 West Point yearbook. “His ability to always see the bright side of things, his laugh that is simply contagious, and his enthusiasm which is undeniable—there is no branch of cadet activity that has failed to feel his influence, and a boodle fight without his beaming countenance would be a fiasco.”
“Merry,” as he was known, was lavished with praise in the American Journal of Veterinary Medicine, a publication often featuring Merillat’s father, a prominent Chicago veterinarian:
One could go on writing about Merillat all day and yet not describe his achievements while a cadet at West Point. He has been a corporal and sergeant in the battalion; is a sharpshooter, is captain of the army baseball team, and “All-American” end in football for two years; member of the basketball squad, a wearer of the “A,” and has been prominent in outdoor and indoor athletic meets ever since coming here.
It was Merillat’s football prowess that earned him the most recognition. The breakout star of West Point’s Army teams of 1913 and 1914—teams that included future generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley— Merillat was named a first-team All-American each year. In 1913 (the year he became acquainted with Van Ness), Merillat scored 18 points as Army beat a Navy team that had allowed only seven points all season.
He was a hero again in 1914, leading Army to a 9-0 record and once more scoring against Navy in the season’s final game, which the West Point boys won, 20-0.
It was after this season and before his entry into the United States Army that Merillat wed Ethel Wynne—and Helen Van Ness filed suit in Cook County, Illinois.
Lawsuits over the breach of promise to marry were becoming increasingly rare by the 1910s, but they had served an important purpose in the history of American courtship. Initially designed to provide pecuniary compensation to women whose intendeds had stolen their virtue (meaning virginity), so-called heart balm statutes also helped jilted brides hold men accountable for their promises of marriage and helped their families recoup lost investments in wedding planning (and, in some cases, in their future sons-in-law).
Van Ness told a Wooster paper:
“Louis and I were very good friends, and he requested me to wed him. I accepted, read the story of his exploits on the football field with great interest and was very, very happy. I want to see him punished for he certainly didn’t treat me fair.”
Merillat’s account of their relationship differed. He had visited Van Ness only a handful of times, he said, and told her after their Christmas 1914 meeting that they would likely never see each other again. The ring Van Ness said marked their engagement was, according to Merillat, worth $15 and certainly not intended for her. Reported the Oswego Daily Palladium:
On one of his trips to the girl’s home he wore a ring which he purchased as a present for his aunt. He spoke of it to Miss Van Ness, and, according to the statement of the lieutenant today, she “abducted” it, having wished to see it and then kept it. He says he endeavored to get it back, but it was of no use, he said.
Merillat’s friends, the Palladium continued, had warned him about Van Ness and the ring—she might “make use of it,” they suggested, but Merillat brushed the incident off and returned to West Point. He exchanged letters with Van Ness a few times, telling the press they were “of the usual sort.” An oblique reference to Merillat’s epistolary relationships appears in his West Point yearbook profile: “He has exhibited not a hint of predilection for the opposite sex, but a certain daily epistle belies the rumor that he is a woman-hater.”
If the letters referred to in the yearbook were from Van Ness, they made no major impact on Merillat. The correspondence soon slowed and eventually halted by the spring of 1914; he had almost certainly forgotten it by the time he married Wynne.
He was shocked, then, when Van Ness made her accusations public, and even more so when she announced her intent to sue. Merillat and his father hired Clarence Darrow, who would go on to become one of the most formidable attorneys in United States history, and they refused to negotiate with her.
Van Ness’ story made front-page headlines for a week or so—but her claim was eventually dismissed.
Merillat seems to have moved on with his reputation and marriage intact. (His wife’s feelings on the matter are, by modern standards, curiously absent from the record, but they remained married.) He went on to serve in World War I, reaching the rank of captain, and returned to the States in 1918 after being wounded in battle at Avocourt, in northeastern France. In 1925, he played one season for the Canton Bulldogs, an early National Football League team, and invested in sports, later organizing a professional basketball team for the Canton area. He also became a soldier of fortune, eventually supervising the training of French Foreign Legion troops and supervising U.S. soldiers based in Miami during World War II.
Helen Van Ness faded from view, and heart-balm lawsuits became increasingly rare. Legislation designed to eliminate them was proposed in Ohio and Indiana in the late 1920s, with the support of female politicians and activists. Women, they argued, could and should take care of themselves, and breach-of-promise suits perpetuated stereotypes of women as infantile and dependent. Roberta West Smith, an Indiana legislator, told her colleagues that women “do not demand rights, they earn them, and such privileges as these which are abolished in this bill.”
In 1947, Illinois, the state in which Helen Van Ness had sought vindication some 30 years earlier, made its position of heart-balm suits clear:
(740 ILCS 15/3) (from Ch. 40, par. 1803)
Sec. 3. No punitive, exemplary, vindictive or aggravated damages shall be allowed in any action for breach of promise or agreement to marry.>
Some states allow jilted lovers to sue for the costs of canceled weddings, but broken hearts? They’re priceless.
American Journal of Veterinary Medicine, Vol. 10, 1915; “Jilted Stenographer Seeks Redress,” Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 29, 1911; Lettmaier, Saskia, Broken Engagements: The Action for Breach of Promise of Marriage and the Feminine Ideal, 1800-1940, Oxford University Press, 2010; “Do You Remember Merrillat of Army? He Was a Good One; He Caught Prichard’s Passes and He Was Soldier of Fortune,” Syracuse Herald Journal, Jul. 6, 1948; “SHE SUES ARMY ATHLETE: Girl Claims Lieut. Merillat Jilted Her and Asks $20,000; Miss Van Ness, of Ohio, Says Officer Wed Another,” Washington Post, Nov. 11, 1915; “Chicago Football Star West Point Graduate,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 31, 1915; “NEVER PROMISED TO WED GIRL,” Oswego Daily Palladium, Nov. 24, 1915.
July 25, 2013
In the summer of 1791, Alexander Hamilton received a visitor.
Maria Reynolds, a 23-year-old blonde, came to Hamilton’s Philadelphia residence to ask for help. Her husband, James Reynolds, had abandoned her—not that it was a significant loss, for Reynolds had grossly mistreated her before absconding. Hamilton, just 34, was serving as secretary of the United States treasury and was himself a New Yorker; she thought he would surely be able to help her return to that city, where she could resettle among friends and relatives.
Hamilton was eager to be of service, but, he recounted later, it was not possible at the moment of her visit, so he arranged to visit her that evening, money in hand.
When he arrived at the Reynolds home, Maria led him into an upstairs bedroom. A conversation followed, at which point Hamilton felt certain that “other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable” to Maria Reynolds.
And thus began an affair that would put Alexander Hamilton at the front of a long line of American politicians forced to apologize publicly for their private behavior.
Hamilton (whose wife and children were vacationing with relatives in Albany) and Maria Reynolds saw each other regularly throughout the summer and fall of 1791—until James Reynolds returned to the scene and instantly saw the profit potential in the situation. December 15, Hamilton received an urgent note from his mistress:
I have not tim to tell you the cause of my present troubles only that Mr. has rote you this morning and I know not wether you have got the letter or not and he has swore that If you do not answer It or If he dose not se or hear from you to day he will write Mrs. Hamilton he has just Gone oute and I am a Lone I think you had better come here one moment that you May know the Cause then you will the better know how to act Oh my God I feel more for you than myself and wish I had never been born to give you so mutch unhappiness do not rite to him no not a Line but come here soon do not send or leave any thing in his power.
Two days later, Hamilton received a letter from James Reynolds that accused him of destroying a happy home and proposed a solution:
Its true its in your power to do a great deal for me, but its out of your power to do any thing that will Restore to me my Happiness again for if you should give me all you possess would not do it. god knowes I love the woman and wish every blessing may attend her, you have bin the Cause of Winning her love, and I Dont think I Can be Reconciled to live with Her, when I know I hant her love. now Sir I have Considered on the matter Serously. I have this preposial to make to you. give me the Sum Of thousand dollars and I will leve the town and take my daughter with me and go where my Friend Shant here from me and leve her to Yourself to do for her as you thing proper. I hope you wont think my request is in a view of making Me Satisfaction for the injury done me. for there is nothing that you Can do will compensate for it.
Rather than leave town (and his new mark), James Reynolds allowed the relationship to continue. A pattern was established in which Maria Reynolds (by this time likely complicit in her husband’s scheme) would write to Hamilton, entreating him to visit when her husband was out of the house:
I have kept my bed those tow days past but find my self mutch better at presant though yet full distreesed and shall till I se you fretting was the Cause of my Illness I thought you had been told to stay away from our house and yesterday with tears I my Eyes I beged Mr. once more to permit your visits and he told upon his honnour that he had not said anything to you and that It was your own fault believe me I scarce knew how to beleeve my senses and if my seturation was insupportable before I heard this It was now more so fear prevents my saing more only that I shal be miserable till I se you and if my dear freend has the Least Esteeme for the unhappy Maria whos greateest fault Is Loveing him he will come as soon as he shall get this and till that time My breast will be the seate of pain and woe
P. S. If you cannot come this Evening to stay just come only for one moment as I shal be Lone Mr. is going to sup with a friend from New York.
After such trysts occurred, James Reynolds would dispatch a request for funds—rather than demand sums comparable to his initial request of $1,000 dollars (which Hamilton paid), he would request $30 or $40, never explicitly mentioning Hamilton’s relationship with Maria but referring often to Hamilton’s promise to be a friend to him.
James Reynolds, who had become increasingly involved in a dubious plan to purchase on the cheap the pension and back-pay claims of Revolutionary War soldiers, found himself on the wrong side of the law in November 1792, and was imprisoned for committing forgery. Naturally, he called upon his old friend Hamilton, but the latter refused to help. Reynolds, enraged, got word to Hamilton’s Republican rivals that he had information of a sort that could bring down the Federalist hero.
James Monroe, accompanied by fellow Congressmen Frederick Muhlenberg and Abraham Venable, visited Reynolds in jail and his wife at their home and heard the tale of Alexander Hamilton, seducer and homewrecker, a cad who had practically ordered Reynolds to share his wife’s favors. What’s more, Reynolds claimed, the speculation scheme in which he’d been implicated also involved the treasury secretary. (Omitted were Reynolds’ regular requests for money from Hamilton.)
Political enemy he might have been, but Hamilton was still a respected government official, and so Monroe and Muhlenberg, in December 1792, approached him with the Reynolds’ story, bearing letters Maria Reynolds claimed he had sent her.
Aware of what being implicated in a nefarious financial plot could do to his career (and the fledgling nation’s economy), Hamilton admitted that he’d had an affair with Maria Reynolds, and that he’d been a fool to allow it (and the extortion) to continue. Satisfied that Hamilton was innocent of any wrongdoing beyond adultery, Monroe and Muhlenberg agreed to keep what they’d learned private. And that, Hamilton thought, was that.
James Monroe had a secret of his own, though.
While he kept Hamilton’s affair from the public, he did make a copy of the letters Maria Reynolds had given him and sent them to Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s chief adversary and a man whose own sexual conduct was hardly above reproach. The Republican clerk of the House of Representatives, John Beckley, may also have surreptitiously copied them.
In a 1796 essay, Hamilton (who had ceded his secretaryship of the treasury to Oliver Wolcott in 1795 and was acting as an adviser to Federalist politicians) impugned Jefferson’s private life, writing that the Virginian’s “simplicity and humility afford but a flimsy veil to the internal evidences of aristocratic splendor, sensuality, and epicureanism.” He would get his comeuppance in June 1797, when James Callender’s The History of the United States for 1796 was published.
Callender, a Republican and a proto-muckraker, had become privy to the contents of Hamilton’s letters to Reynolds (Hamilton would blame Monroe and Jefferson, though it is more likely Beckley was the source, though he had left his clerk’s position). Callender’s pamphlet alleged that Hamilton had been guilty of involvement in the speculation scheme and was more licentious than any moral person could imagine. “In the secretary’s bucket of chastity,” Callender asserted, “a drop more or less was not to be perceived.”
Callender’s accusations and his access to materials related to the affair left Hamilton in a tight spot—to deny all the charges would be an easily proven falsehood. The affair with Maria Reynolds could destroy his marriage, not to mention his hard-won social standing (he had married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of one of New York’s most prominent families, and a match many thought advantageous to Hamilton). But to be implicated in a financial scandal was, to Hamilton, simply unthinkable. As Secretary of the Treasury, he’d been the architect of early American fiscal policy. To be branded as corrupt would not only end his career, but also threaten the future of the Federalist Party.
Left with few other options, Hamilton decided to confess to his indiscretions with Maria Reynolds and use that confession as proof that on all other fronts, he had nothing to hide. But his admission of guilt would be far more revealing than anyone could have guessed.
Hamilton’s pamphlet Observations on Certain Documents had a simple purpose: in telling his side of the story and offering letters from James and Maria Reynolds for public review, he would argue that he had been the victim of an elaborate scam, and that his only real crime had been an “irregular and indelicate amour.” To do this, Hamilton started from the beginning, recounting his original meeting with Maria Reynolds and the trysts that followed. The pamphlet included revelations sure to humiliate Elizabeth Hamilton—that he and Maria had brought their affair into the Hamilton family home, and that Hamilton had encouraged his wife to remain in Albany so that he could see Maria without explanation.
Letters from Maria to Hamilton were breathless and full of errors (“I once take up the pen to solicit The favor of seing again oh Col hamilton what have I done that you should thus Neglect me”). How would Elizabeth Hamilton react to being betrayed by her husband with such a woman?
Still, Hamilton pressed on in his pamphlet, presenting a series of letters from both Reynoldses that made Hamilton, renowned for his cleverness, seem positively simple. On May 2, 1792, James Reynolds forbade Hamilton from seeing Maria ever again; on June 2, Maria wrote to beg Hamilton to return to her; a week after that, James Reynolds asked to borrow $300, more than double the amount he usually asked for. (Hamilton obliged.)
Hamilton, for his part, threw himself at the mercy of the reading public:
This confession is not made without a blush. I cannot be the apologist of any vice because the ardor of passion may have made it mine. I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang which it may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity, and love. But that bosom will approve, that, even at so great an expense, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness. The public, too, will, I trust, excuse the confession. The necessity of it to my defence against a more heinous charge could alone have extorted from me so painful an indecorum.
While the airing of his dirty laundry was surely humiliating to Hamilton (and his wife, whom the Aurora, a Republican newspaper, asserted must have been just as wicked to have such a husband), it worked—the blackmail letters from Reynolds dispelled any suggestion of Hamilton’s involvement in the speculation scheme.
Still, Hamilton’s reputation was in tatters. Talk of further political office effectively ceased. He blamed Monroe, whom he halfheartedly tried to bait into challenging him to a duel. (Monroe refused.) This grudge would be carried by Elizabeth Hamilton, who, upon meeting Monroe before his death in
18251831, treated him coolly on her late husband’s behalf. She had, by all accounts, forgiven her husband, and would spend the next fifty years trying to undo the damage of Hamilton’s last decade of life.
Hamilton’s fate, of course, is well-known, though in a way the Reynolds affair followed him to his last day. Some time before the publication of his pamphlet, Hamilton’s former mistress Maria Reynolds sued her husband for divorce. The attorney that guided her through that process was Aaron Burr.
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton, Penguin Books, 2005; Hamilton, Alexander. Observations on Certain Documents, 1797; Callender, James. History of the United States in 1796, 1796; Brodie, Fawn McKay. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, W.W. Norton & Co., 1975; Collins, Paul. Duel With the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery, Crown, 2013; McCraw, Thomas K., The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy, Belknap Press, 2012, Rosenfeld, Richard M. American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998.
June 17, 2013
Along the Los Angeles beach between Venice and Ocean Park, a small group of mourners wandered aimlessly, occasionally dropping to the sand to pray—unable to stop their tears. “Aimee is with Jesus; pray for her,” they chanted. A Coast Guard cutter patrolled just offshore as deep-sea divers plunged into the water. Aimee Semple McPherson, evangelist, faith-healer, founder of the Foursquare Gospel Church and builder of the Angelus Temple, was believed to have disappeared during a swim on May 18, 1926. In the hours that followed, rescuers were sparing no effort to find her.
“God wouldn’t let her die,” one of her believers told a reporter. “She was too noble. Her work was too great. Her mission was not ended. She can’t be dead.”
Already, one young church member had drowned herself in her grief. Soon after that, a diver died while trying to find McPherson’s body.
In the coming days, her followers would dynamite the waters of Santa Monica bay, hoping to raise her body from the depths. Yet the blasts surfaced only dead fish, and the passing time merely gave rise to countless rumors. She’d disappeared to have an abortion. Or plastic surgery. Or an affair. As the days turned to weeks, McPherson’s body, much to the chagrin of police and the California Fish and Game Commission, remained missing. Soon, witnesses were coming forward to contradict the report, given by McPherson’s secretary, Emma Shaeffer, that the evangelist had vanished shortly after entering the water.
There were accounts from a detective in San Francisco that McPherson was spotted at a railway station there. “I know her well by sight,” the detective said, “and I know that I am not mistaken.” A ransom note delivered to McPherson’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, demanded $50,000 for the safe return of her daughter and warned, “Mum’s the word—keep police away.” Meanwhile, some faithful church members, convinced that the evangelist was dead, clung to the belief that she would be resurrected by supernatural powers.
Newspaper headlines trumpeted alleged McPherson sightings in cities across the United States. Another ransom letter surfaced—this one promising to sell the evangelist into “white slavery” unless a half-million dollars was paid in cash. Convinced her daughter was already dead, Minnie Kennedy threw away the letter. By the summer of 1926, no woman in America commanded more headlines than the vanished “Sister Aimee.”
The woman at the center of this media storm was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in 1890 to a religious family on a farm in Ontario, Canada. But unlike her Methodist parents, she questioned her faith at a young age and began to rebel against her “tambourine-thumping Salvation Army” mother by reading novels and attending movies.
Yet when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution made its way into Canadian schools, Aimee rebelled again—this time, against evolution. (In 1925, she would support the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial.) Before her 18th birthday, she married an Irish Pentecostal missionary named Robert Semple, became pregnant, and set off for Asia on an evangelical tour. But the young couple contracted malaria, and Robert succumbed to the disease in August 1910. Aimee gave birth one month later to Roberta Star Semple and returned to the United States.
In 1912, she married an accountant, Harold Steward McPherson, but after giving birth to a son, Rolf McPherson, and trying to settle into a life as a housewife in Providence, Rhode Island, Aimee felt a sudden calling to preach the Gospel. In 1915, she ran out on her husband, taking the children, and hit the road in a Packard touring car (“Jesus is Coming Soon—Get Ready” painted on the side), preaching in tent revivals and churches across the country.
As a female preacher and something of a Pentecostal novelty, Aimee Semple McPherson learned to whip up crowds by speaking in tongues and delivering faith-healing demonstrations in which crutches were tossed aside and the blind were made to see. By 1922, she was breaking attendance records set by the biggest evangelical names at the time, such as Billy Sunday, the former baseball star. In San Diego, more than 30,000 people turned out for one of her events, and the Marines had to be called in for crowd control. There, McPherson laid hands on a supposedly paralyzed woman who rose from her chair and walked. The audience reached a frenzy.
The constant travel began to take its toll, and McPherson decided to settle down in Los Angeles, where she raised funds to build the Angelus Temple in Echo Park. She packed the 5,300-capacity building in services held seven days a week. Her style was light-hearted and whimsical at times, yet she spoke and sang with power and passion.
By the spring of 1926, McPherson had become a phenomenon—a household name across America. So it came as a surprise to the faithful on May 18, 1926, when McPherson did not arrive at the temple to preach the scheduled sermon and her mother stood in. By the next day, the entire nation was in shock at the news that Sister Aimee had disappeared and likely drowned.
But the prayers of many were soon to be answered: After a month of mourning and unending rumor, McPherson turned up in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a small Mexican town just south of Douglas, Arizona. She claimed to have walked across the “burning sands” of the desert to flee kidnappers and then collapsed. She was taken to a hospital, and in a phone call with the staff, Minnie Kennedy confirmed her daughter’s identity by telling them of the location of a scar on her finger and of her daughter’s ability to provide the name of her pet pigeon.
Once she’d recovered from her “state of collapse,” McPherson gave a bedside interview, saying she’d been lured to a car after swimming and taken across the border by three Americans, including a man named Steve and a woman named Rose. She’d been drugged and held in a Mexican shack for weeks, she said, and her captors had planned on keeping her until they’d received a ransom of half a million dollars. But she foiled the plan, she claimed, when she sawed through the ropes that were restraining her and staggered 20 miles through the desert to Agua Prieta.
Minnie Kennedy rushed to Arizona to reunite with her daughter. “My God, Sister McPherson is alive,” she told followers. “Run up the flag on the temple and send out the word broadcast. The Lord has returned his own.”
When McPherson came home, a throng of more than 50,000 showed up at the train station to welcome her. In a massive parade featuring airplanes that dropped roses from the skies, the evangelist made a grand re-entrance. But despite the attendance of Los Angeles officials and dignitaries, not everyone was thrilled. The Chamber of Commerce viewed the event as “gaudy display,” and Los Angeles District Attorney Asa Keyes called for an investigation into the evangelist’s account of a kidnapping.
Within two weeks, McPherson voluntarily appeared before a grand jury as newspapers continued to trumpet accusations of fraud, accompanied by witness “spottings” in Northern California. Gaining the most traction was a story that centered on the fact that Kenneth Ormiston, a married engineer at the Christian radio station KFSG (owned by McPherson’s church) disappeared just when McPherson did. The two worked together on McPherson’s regular broadcasts. Police were dispatched to a cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Ormiston had been seen with an unidentified woman during McPherson’s disappearance. (Ormiston admitted to having an adulterous affair at the time of McPherson’s disappearance, but denied that the stranger known as “Mrs. X” was her.) After dusting the cottage for fingerprints, however, police found none that matched the evangelist’s.
The headlines, gossip and innuendo continued throughout the fall, until a judge determined that there was enough evidence to proceed with the charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice against McPherson. A jury trial was scheduled for January the following year. However, Keyes had begun to determine that some of his witnesses were unreliable, and he decided to drop the charges.
The kidnapping remained unsolved, and the controversy over a possible hoax went unresolved. Critics and supporters alike thought McPherson should have insisted on a trial to clear her name; instead, she gave her account of the kidnapping in her 1927 book, In the Service of the King: The Story of My Life. She would be mocked in the media for years, but the scandal did not diminish her popularity.
McPherson continued to build her church right up until her death in Oakland, California, in 1944, from what the coroner described as most likely an accidental overdose (Seconol was found in the hotel room where she died) “compounded by kidney failure.” The Foursquare Gospel Church was worth millions at the time, and today claims nearly 9 million members worldwide. But when Aimee Semple McPherson’s estate was sorted out, the evangelist had just $10,000 to her name.
Articles: “Divers Seek Body of Woman Preacher,” New York Times, May 21, 1926. “No Trace Found of Woman Pastor,” Atlanta Constitution, May 29, 1926. “Cast Doubt on Evangelist’s Death in Sea,” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1926. “Bay Dynamited to Locate Body of Woman Pastor,” Atlanta Constitution, June 3, 1926. “Faithful Cling to Waning Hope,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1926. “$25,000 Reward for Evangelist’s Return,” Boston Globe, May 29, 1926. “Kidnap Hoax Exposed,” The Baltimore News, July 26, 1926. “Los Angeles Hails Aimee McPherson,” New York Times, June 27, 1926. “Evangelist Found: Tells Story of Kidnapping,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 24, 1926. “Missing Woman Pastor Found in Douglas, Arizona,” Boston Globe, June 23, 1926. “Aimee Semple McPherson,” Wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aimee_Semple_McPherson. “Aimee’s Life,” “Aimee’s Message,” “Aimee’s Religion,” by Anna Robertson, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug00/robertson/asm/background.html. “Sister Aimee,” The American Experience,” PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/sister/filmmore/index.html