Monday, April 10, 2017
The Fall of the Louse of Breckinridge; A Cautionary Tale
In 1893, fifty-seven year old Kentuckian William Campbell Preston Breckinridge was poised to become a major leader in the Democrat party--possibly even a President of the United States. The resume and pedigree of this ex-Confederate Colonel were both impressive: He was a five-term Congressman, his cousin John C. Breckinridge had been Vice-President under James Buchanan, and his family tree was bursting with Attorney Generals, Senators, and Governors. He had the fame, the family, and the patronage to go to the very pinnacle of power.
And it all came crashing down on him, simply because in addition to all these attributes, he was an unmitigated skunk.
His downfall began, appropriately enough, on April Fools Day, 1884, when the Congressman boarded a train bound for his home in Lexington. During the journey, he made the acquaintance of a seventeen-year old Wesleyan College student named Madeline Pollard. Pollard was plain, an orphan, and so quiet and retiring she was habitually described as "mouse-like." She was a vulnerable woman who badly needed supportive friends.
What she got was William Breckinridge.
During the train ride, the two became so friendly that three months later, Pollard felt sufficiently emboldened to write Breckinridge asking for some business advice. The Congressman took time out of his busy schedule to visit her in person at Wesleyan to discuss the issue. This led to him asking the girl to meet him at a certain private location in Lexington. Two days later, after having dinner with his wife, he rendezvoused with Pollard and persuaded her to go to bed with him.
At Breckinridge's urging, Pollard transferred to Lexington's Sayre Institute. The Congressman paid for her board and tuition, and the two kept up their clandestine affair. In 1884, Pollard became pregnant to a child placed in a foundling home. In 1888, she again gave birth, to a child who was also given away. (Both children died in infancy.) Pollard bore her uncomfortable position as a married man's secret mistress without complaint. She loved him, and convinced herself that her feelings were returned. "His slightest wish was law to me," she later recalled. She even agreed to relinquish her children because Breckinridge feared they would be traced to him. "A woman can't do more than that," Pollard said flatly.
In 1887, Breckinridge moved Pollard to Washington D.C., where she worked in the Department of Agriculture and the Census Bureau. She became a minor figure in the capital's social scene. After his wife died in 1892, Breckinridge began promising Pollard that they would marry...someday. After she became pregnant a third time, he swore to her that this child would be kept, and acknowledged as his. The two set a wedding date for May 31, 1893.
On April 29, 1893, Breckinridge married his cousin Louise Wing.
Pollard did not learn of her soi-disant fiance's perfidy until several weeks later. Soon afterward, she suffered a miscarriage, and, like Mary Stuart after the murder of Rizzio, began to study revenge. She slapped her ex-lover with a breach-of-promise suit where she demanded $50,000.
The trial opened on March 8, 1894. The proceedings lasted for a scandal-packed month, with newspapers across the country eagerly reporting every sordid, salacious detail. Pollard--dressed all in black and accompanied by a nun--made a very sympathetic witness, all the more so when Breckinridge's attorneys defamed her as an experienced "prostitute" who deliberately lured him into a liaison. The defense went for the classic "nuts and sluts" argument, painting Pollard and a half-mad strumpet who had threatened him with ruin, or even death. Breckinridge denied all knowledge or paternity of her children. This tactic spectacularly backfired on him. What onlookers saw was a young woman who had been gravely wronged, and was now being further victimized when she sought some measure of justice. The jury quickly ruled in Pollard's favor, awarding her $15,000.
With exquisitely bad timing, Breckinridge had to run for re-election soon after the trial ended. He gritted his teeth and began campaigning in the face of newspaper editorials calling him everything from a rapist to a "wild beast in search of prey." Worse still for him, what seemed to be every woman in Kentucky was screaming for his head. He proved to be one of the best things that ever happened to the emerging suffrage movement. As one journalist put it, "Women who never took the slightest interest in politics in their lives have become active politicians." Women organized protest rallies against Breckinridge. His backers were boycotted. Families refused to allow their daughters to be courted by his supporters. Many old friends shunned him. The intensity of feeling aroused by the election was compared to the Civil War.
Amazingly, his previous enormous popularity, coupled with his new groveling "sackcloth and ashes" act, nearly carried the day for him. He lost, but by only 255 votes. However, his political career was over for good, with the women of his state being given all the credit for his stunning defeat. As historian Hambleton Tapp wrote, "The fall of Breckinridge was like that of an archangel."
Breckinridge found little happiness in retirement. His wife had a mental breakdown which at times erupted into violent mania, and he never completely lived down the disgrace of the Pollard affair. He quietly returned to his law practice, and bought the Lexington "Morning Herald," where his son Desha served as editor for many years. His daughter Sophonisba proved to be the most distinguished member of this scandal-tarred family. She became the first female in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D., as well as the first woman to be admitted to the Kentucky bar. Breckinridge died of complications from a stroke in November 1904. After his death, it was reported that due to his finances having reached "a very low ebb," he never paid a cent of the settlement Pollard had won against him.
As for Madeline Pollard, the year after the trial ended, it was reported that she was preparing to make a round-the-world journey as "the companion of a charitable woman." In 1897, the newspapers stated that she was living in London, where she planned a literary career. She subsequently disappeared from public view.
Fortunately for history, researcher Elizabeth de Wolfe managed to piece together a broad outline of Pollard's later years, which she summarized in an article for "Legacy" magazine ("Not Ruined, But Hindered," 2014.) Pollard continued her interest in literature and art, and studied several languages. In her existing documentation, she described herself as a "student and writer." She traveled extensively throughout Europe, and eventually settled in England, where she died in 1945. Her will left her small estate to her "beloved friend" Violet Hassard, who had lived and traveled with Pollard since at least 1900.
So perhaps in the end the "woman scorned" found true love.