William Breckinridge Breach of Promise Trial: 1894

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William Breckinridge Breach of Promise
Trial: 1894

Plaintiff: Madeline V. Pollard
Defendant: William Campbell Preston Breckinridge
Plaintiff Claim: Breach of promise
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Jeremiah M. Wilson, Calderon Carlisle, William G. Johnson. E. P. Farrell assisted with pretrial matters
Chief Defense Lawyers: Benjamin Butterworth, Philip B. Thompson, Jr., W. A. McKenny, John H. Stoll, John T. Shelby, William G. Mattingly. Enoch Totten, Desha Breckinridge, Charles H. Stoll assisted with pretrial matters
Judge: Andrew C. Bradley
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Trial: March 8-April 14, 1894
Verdict: For Plaintiff
Award: $15,000

SIGNIFICANCE: In 1893, it seemed William Campbell Preston Breckinridge of Kentucky was destined for great things. The five-term Democratic congressman's grandfather was an Attorney general, his cousin was a vice president, and several other relatives were senators, representatives, and governors. There was talk of higher office and the congressman dreamed of the White House. But Breckinridge's career and reputation rapidly collapsed once Madeline Pollard sued him for breach of promise.

When Madeline Pollard first met Congressman William Breckinridge on April 1, 1884 while riding a train, she was a 17-year-old student at Wesleyan College in Cincinnati, Ohio, one of the most prestigious girls' schools in the country. Pollard was on her way home to Frankfort, Kentucky, to visit a sick sister. At that same time, the 47-year-old Breckinridge was heading to Lexington, some 30 miles away from Frankfort, where he lived and maintained a law practice.

A Relationship Blossoms

An orphan and not remarkably attractive, Pollard was so quiet and unobtrusive at school that one of her classmates described her as "mouse-like." Therefore, she was probably in awe when Breckinridge introduced himself and struck up a conversation. Three months later, Pollard wrote to the congressman for advice on how to handle a debt incurred to pay her tuition. In response, Breckinridge went to Wesleyan on August 3 to consult with Pollard on the matter. There he asked for a more "confidential" discussion away from the eyes and ears of protective chaperones, and they left the campus that hot summer night in a closed carriage. Breckinridge then convinced Pollard to meet him in Lexington. Two days later, after he had dinner with his wife, the couple met at a secret location and he seduced her.

At the congressman's suggestion, Pollard transferred to the Sayre Institute in Lexington so she could be closer to him. During the next three years, Breckinridge paid her tuition and board at Sayre and the two met at least 50 times. Pollard quickly became pregnant, giving birth to a child in a foundling asylum in Ohio on May 29, 1885. Two years later, she was pregnant again and gave birth on February 3, 1888. (The second child died two months later.) Pollard knew that Breckinridge was a married man with children, but she thought nothing of it; she was in love and "his slightest wish was law to me then." Pollard even gave up her two babies "because he asked me. He said that if I kept them it would be traced to him and they would be known as his children. A woman can't do more than that."

A Promise Broken

Breckinridge moved the pregnant Pollard to Washington, D.C., in September 1887. There, the congressman got her a job with the Department of Agriculture and the pair continued to meet three or four times a week. After his second wife died in July 1892, the two met even more often and Breckinridge promised marriage. Pollard became pregnant a third time, but the congressman was going to acknowledge this child; the couple even considered names for the baby. They were supposed to be wed on May 31, 1893, but on April 29 Breckinridge secretly married his cousin. (According to the congressman, this was done so his new wife could gain the affections of his children before they learned about the wedding.) Before Pollard learned about the marriage, she and the congressman postponed their nuptials until December (long after their child's anticipated birth) so no one would know that Breckinridge was the baby's father. But a few weeks later, Pollard found out about Breckinridge's secret marriage. Then, on May 24, she suffered a miscarriage. Finally realizing that she had been conned all along, Pollard sued for $50,000 (equal to more than $500,000 today) for breach of promise.

A Trial Watched by the Nation

The trial began on March 8, 1894, and it lasted 28 days. Circuit Judge Andrew Bradley, a member of the church that Breckinridge attended in Washington, presided over the trial as a jury of 12 men heard the testimony and considered the evidence. (In 1894, women were not allowed on juries.) Jeremiah Wilson, a former Indiana congressman and state judge who now practiced law in the District of Columbia, led Pollard's legal team. Breckinridge's defense lawyers were under the command of Benjamin Butterworth, a former Republican representative from Ohio, and included Breckinridge's son, Desha, Breckinridge's law partner, John Shelby, and former congressman Philip Thompson, Jr.

For over one month, the country enjoyed the scandalous headlines that came from the courtroom. Upholding the morals of the time, Judge Bradley once refused to allow women in the audience lest they hear some lurid testimony. At one point, a fist fight broke out among the lawyers and Breckinridge's attorneys had to swear to Bradley that they did not bring concealed weapons into the courtroom.

Dressed in black and accompanied by a nun, Madeline Pollard made an impressive witness; the defense was unable to crack her story, and she even fainted when she testified about the death of her second child. Breckinridge's attorneys hoped to attack Pollard's reputation to show that she was someone an influential congressman would not associate with, but much of their evidence was inadmissible hearsay and, in the words of Judge Bradley, "too filthy and obscene" to hear anyway. Furthermore, their tactics only earned Pollard more sympathy. Halfway through the trial, Breckinridge and his lawyers changed their strategy and started to depict Pollard as a wanton woman who pursued the congressman as much as he pursued her.

"I was a man of passion. She was a woman of passion," Breckinridge testified. "There was no seduction, no seduction on either side. It was simply a case of human passion."

Defense Portrays Pollard as a Harlot

According to the congressman, Pollard schemed to trap him from the very beginning. She was not underage when they met, but an experienced woman between 20 and 22 years old. She approached him on the train. They went on an unchaperoned carriage ride, but it was at her suggestion and he paid her 10 dollars for it. Pollard came to Lexington shortly after they met, but she followed Breckinridge on her own initiative, just as she followed him to Washington three years later. The congressman paid Pollard's tuition and board at the Sayre Institute from 1885 to 1887, but he did not see her at all during that time. He got Pollard a government job, introduced her to acquaintances as his fiancee and as his daughter. After his second wife's death, he visited her up to seven times a day, but he had to; at various times, she threatened to ruin him, to kill him, or to kill herself if he broke off their affair. Most astonishingly, the congressman denied all knowledge of Pollard's first two children.

In their closing remarks, Breckinridge's attorneys described Pollard as a "self-acknowledged prostitute," but it did no good. The jury took only one hour and 23 minutes to consider their verdict. They ruled in Pollard's favor and awarded her $15,000 (three times the annual salary in 1894 of a congressman). Breckinridge filed a motion for a new trial and later appealed, but both were denied.

A Career in Ruin

The congressman went back to Kentucky to run for reelection, but he was in trouble. In his home state and across the nation, newspapers, civic organizations, and religious groups denounced him. Breckinridge was called a "rapist," a "lust fiend," and a "wild beast in search of prey." But most importantly, the trial galvanized the suffrage movement in Kentucky. As one local paper reported, "Women who never took the slightest interest in politics in their lives have become active politicians." Thousands of ladies attended protest meetings, and resolutions were adopted calling for the congressman's defeat. Businesses that supported Breckinridge were boycotted and parents sent letters to newspapers warning the congressman's young supporters that they could no longer date their daughters.

Breckinridge pleaded for forgiveness. "I have sinned and I repent in sackcloth and ashes." And he still had many friends and supporters. Pollard predicted that the congressman would be reelected and she was nearly right; when the ballots were counted, he lost by only 255 votes out of 19,000 cast. Breckinridge never held public office again.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

. "Sex, Scandal, and Suffrage in the Gilded Age." The Historian: A Journal of History 42, no.2 (February 1980): 225-43.

Lexington, Fayette. The Celebrated Case of Col. lV. C. P. Breckinridge and Madeline Pollard Chicago: Current Events Publishing, 1894.

Parker, Agnes. The Real Madeline Pollard: A Diary of Ten Weeks' Association with the Plaintiff in the Famous Breckinridge-Pollard Suit. New York: G. W. Dillingham, 1894.

Ross, Shelley. Fall from Grace: Sex, Scandal, and Corruption in American Politics from 1702to the Present. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

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