“I’ll take my share of the blame. I only ask that he take his.”
In Bringing Down the Colonel, the journalist Patricia Miller tells the story of Madeline Pollard, an unlikely nineteenth-century women’s rights crusader. After an affair with a prominent politician left her “ruined,” Pollard brought the man—and the hypocrisy of America’s control of women’s sexuality—to trial. And, surprisingly, she won.
Pollard and the married Colonel Breckinridge began their decade-long affair when she was just a teenager. After the death of his wife, Breckinridge asked for Pollard’s hand—and then broke off the engagement to marry another woman. But Pollard struck back, suing Breckinridge for breach of promise in a shockingly public trial. With premarital sex considered irredeemably ruinous for a woman, Pollard was asserting the unthinkable: that the sexual morality of men and women should be judged equally.
Nearly 125 years after the Breckinridge-Pollard scandal, America is still obsessed with women’s sexual morality. And in the age of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, we’ve witnessed fraught public reckonings with a type of sexual exploitation unnervingly similar to that experienced by Pollard. Using newspaper articles, personal journals, previously unpublished autobiographies, and letters, Bringing Down the Colonel tells the story of one of the earliest women to publicly fight back.
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About the Author
Patricia Miller is a journalist and an editor who has written extensively about the intersection of politics, sex, and religion. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation, The Huffington Post, RH Reality Check, and Ms. magazine. She is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, where she writes about the politics of sexuality and the Catholic Church. She was formerly the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor in chief of National Journal’s daily health-care briefings, including the Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report and American Healthline. She has a master’s in journalism from New York University and is based in Washington, D.C.
Patricia is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church and Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "Powerless" Woman Who Took On Washington.
Patricia Miller is a journalist and an editor who has written extensively about the intersection of politics, sex, and religion. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation, The Huffington Post, RH Reality Check, and Ms.magazine. She is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, where she writes about the politics of sexuality and the Catholic Church. She was formerly the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor in chief of National Journal’s daily health-care briefings, including the Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report and American Healthline. She has a master’s in journalism from New York University and is based in Washington, D.C.
Patricia is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church and Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "Powerless" Woman Who Took On Washington.
Read an Excerpt
Gold to Be Made
On January 29, 1894, a depression formed east of the southern Atlantic coast, moved inland over the Chesapeake Bay, and traveled northward, where it collided with another area of low pressure coming from the west and exploded into one of the most severe coastal storms the region had seen in years. A fierce gale and snow pounded the eastern seaboard into the next day, whipping Atlantic City with winds that reached sixty miles an hour, and wrecking the schooner Aberdeen off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. As the tempest gathered strength, a young woman hurriedly made her way from Boston down its path, as if the swirling storm were itself drawing her southward. By the time she reached New York, the full force of the blizzard had descended on Boston, burying it under snow. She took a ferry across the Hudson River to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Jersey City, dashed off a letter to her sister as she sat in the ladies' waiting room, and then boarded the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad's midnight express to Washington. She crossed paths with the storm's original landfall near Havre de Grace, Maryland, early on the morning of the thirtieth, just as the oystermen and the market duck hunters with their Chesapeake Bay retrievers would have been setting out to provision the restaurants and markets of Baltimore and Washington with those mainstays of the nineteenth-century diet.
For Jane Tucker — Jennie to her fractious family and her friends — the rushed journey southward was a desperate gamble to break free from the rut of low-paying jobs and lecherous bosses that had come to define her life as part of the first generation of women to foray into the formerly forbidden — and largely male — realm of office work. Still single and nearing thirty, like many young women of the time she realized she likely would need to take care of herself, but she had struggled to find financial and professional security. The opportunity in Washington was coming just as she felt "the bottom had dropped out of everything," as she told her mother. Her sister Patty, a successful journalist, had died the previous November, just months after being diagnosed with uterine cancer. Her aging parents had taken it hard, and her father in particular seemed "feeble and [grew] childish," deepening Jennie's guilt about leaving them alone in the family home in Maine. Then, just before Christmas, Jennie had lost her job as a secretary at the West End Street Railway in Boston, making her another casualty of the financial depression that had wracked the country since the previous winter. Adding to that, she had developed an excruciating toothache, the result of a badly abscessed tooth that had been treated three times but had so far resisted the ministrations of nineteenth-century dentistry.
Jennie had found herself questioning what her life as a working woman was adding up to, with a string of insecure jobs, paychecks that never seemed to stretch to the end of the month, and moves from one lonely boardinghouse to another. "I'm so tired of living alone," she wrote to her sister Maude. "I have not gained much by being independent in the past. It's brought more heartache ... than anything else." She confessed she felt so despondent that she "tried to make up my mind to kill myself only I didn't have the courage."
Jennie had returned home to take stock. "I think the shock to my nerves from all the trouble since Patty's death has kind of broken me up," she told her mother. When she arrived at Castle Tucker, which is what the locals called her family's turreted mansion on the Sheepscot River, her mother was shaken by the terrible condition her normally hale daughter was in, the trouble with her tooth compounded by "bleeding piles" from the arduous train journey north.
All Jennie wanted was to spend a quiet winter at home, but her respite was short-lived. Two days after she arrived, on January 17, she received a telegram from one of her old bosses, Charles Stoll — the only one she liked and the only one who had treated her as more than a stenography-taking drudge. He asked if she was available immediately for a two-month engagement in Washington, but didn't say what the nature of the work was. As much as she wanted to work for him again, Jennie hesitated. Physically and mentally, she felt depleted. And her mother needed her to get Castle Tucker ready for the paying summer guests who came to enjoy the Maine coast, the family fortune having gone the way of the cotton markets that built it. There was also the matter of money; Jennie was flat broke and her clothes were so shabby that she had spent much of her free time the previous fall mending and reworking her "old duds" to maintain some semblance of fashionable dress.
Why, she must have wondered, would Stoll need her to come all the way to Washington to do secretarial work when the capital, like the rest of the country, was awash in unemployed stenographers and typists?
When she raised her concerns with Stoll, he dashed off a quick letter dismissing them. "Why you, of all persons, are the last to let a little sickness effect your spirits ... Of course you have not made money — who has? Why for six months I was scared to death," he wrote. And then he said she could name her price if she agreed to come. That settled it. Jennie cabled back that she would come for fifteen dollars a week, the most she had ever made, plus her travel expenses. Stoll cabled back a quick acceptance of her terms, plus fifty dollars for expenses, and told her to go to Boston and await further instructions. The rest of the week was a rush of preparations. Not wanting to spend too much money on the new dress she desperately needed, Jennie took apart one of her sister's old wrappers — a loose-fitting, high-necked house gown that Victorian women wore belted like a robe — dyed it twice to get the color she wanted, and made what her mother called a "pretty, tasteful dress." She packed and made arrangements to return temporarily to the Beacon Hill boardinghouse where she had been living.
When Jennie arrived in Boston on Saturday morning, January 27, a thick letter from Stoll was already waiting for her. When she read it and comprehended what he wanted her to do, she shuddered. "My surprise and the feelings which first crept over me cannot be described," she wrote him back. He had explained that what he wanted her to do was "in the line of detective work" and required someone "thoroughly acquainted with human nature and able to devise and execute plans." He detailed exactly what the job entailed and how to make arrangements to come to Washington. The mission filled Jennie with trepidation, but she didn't want to disappoint Stoll. Swallowing her doubts, she cabled, "I leave for Washington Monday."
There was now no turning back. Sitting among the politicians and businessmen on the Congressional Limited Express, Jennie must have marveled at the turn of events precipitated by Stoll's letter: in a matter of days she had gone from an unemployed secretary to a player in the middle of the greatest political scandal of the day.
Stoll had written: "My lifelong friend, Col. W.C.P. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, has become complicated with a young woman by the name of Madeline Pollard ... She brought suit against him for breach of promise last summer." Jennie already knew this. The suit had been front-page news around the country. Col. William Campbell Preston Breckinridge, a U.S. congressman from Kentucky who was known as the "silver-tongued" orator of the Democratic Party, was a revered former Confederate officer and scion of a prominent political family. The Breckinridge name was practically synonymous with the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, which, as one Louisville newspaper noted, was as famed for "the brilliant achievements of its statesmen" as it was for "the speed of its horses and the excellence of its whiskey." It had been quite a surprise to polite society in Washington and Kentucky when Breckinridge's engagement to Madeline Pollard, who was nearly thirty years his junior, was announced the previous June, less than a year after the death of his wife. As far as anyone knew, Pollard was a no one — a poor young woman from Kentucky with literary aspirations who had managed to rise in Washington's southern social circles in recent years. It was even more surprising, then, when Breckinridge turned around and married someone else. When Pollard sued him for damages over the broken engagement, what had been only whispers of impropriety turned into a full-throated scandal.
Stoll wanted Jennie to figure out what everyone was wondering: What, exactly, did Madeline Pollard want? Since Breckinridge had married someone else, the suit couldn't be used as it was deployed by many a despairing Victorian woman — to force a reluctant suitor to the altar. And while breach of promise suits were designed to provide women with financial compensation for their dashed marriage chances, money also didn't seem to be the motive — Breckinridge was far richer in stature than in cash. As the Washington Post put it, "Everybody who knows the 'silver tongued' blue grass orator is aware that he is not a man of means." Mysteriously, Pollard had refused Breckinridge's offer of a modest settlement, and her lawyers hadn't even extended to Breckinridge, who was himself a lawyer, the professional courtesy of notifying him of the impending suit and giving him a chance to settle it.
Then there was the mystery of where Pollard got the money to hire two of Washington's best lawyers, who seemed to have nearly unlimited funds to prosecute the case. Somehow, a penniless girl from Kentucky was mounting a serious legal challenge to a powerful congressman, threatening a political dynasty that stretched back to the administration of Thomas Jefferson. What Stoll wanted Jennie to do was to get close to Pollard and determine "the real motive and purpose of the suit." He hoped that if they could figure out what Pollard really wanted, and who was backing her, they could prevail on her to take a settlement. It wasn't just his friend whom Stoll hoped to spare from the trial. The filing of the suit, he told Jennie, had "created such a sensation in the country" that every household was certain to "be filled with the details" of the trial, and "the effect upon society, and especially the young people of the country, cannot be for good."
And if the suit couldn't be prevented from coming to trial, Stoll wanted Jennie to "be in a position" to give Breckinridge's legal team a day-to-day appraisal of "the movements of the other side" and the contours of any testimony that might be introduced — in other words, he wanted her to spy on the opposition.
There was a catch, however. Pollard had entered the House of Mercy, a home for "fallen" women in Washington. Jennie would have to devise some "pitiful tale" to get in, Stoll wrote, and live in the institution to befriend Pollard. The idea of "lying and living a lie day after day" filled Jennie with trepidation. At the same time, she sensed an opportunity to turn around her own flailing life and give it the purpose it lacked. "If I could be the means of bringing about a settlement of a frightful scandal like this, and prevent the harm which must surely result from such a trial, and could also feel that I had helped a friendless woman to retrieve a terrific blunder, I might truly think that I had lived to some purpose," she told Stoll.
Jennie also hoped the unconventional mission would open new professional opportunities for her and finally put her on a sound financial footing. "I have undertaken quite a thing here and if I succeed I shall doubtless make a good thing out of it," she wrote to her mother, saying that despite the challenges and her own misgivings, "the gold is too scarce to let a good chance slip to make it."CHAPTER 2
A Bright and Brainy Woman
The telegram that arrived for Madeline Pollard on July 9, 1893, was addressed to her simply at "The Farm, Charlottesville, Va." Everyone in the city knew the place. It had been called The Farm since before the Revolutionary War, when it was the only homestead amid the virgin forest of what would become Charlottesville. And it remained The Farm long after the rough colonial farmhouse had been replaced by a red brick neoclassical mansion built by the same master craftsmen who constructed Mr. Jefferson's university not far away.
Madeline was visiting Julia Churchill Blackburn, of the Churchill Downs Churchills, and the widow of the former Kentucky governor Luke Blackburn. Blackburn was herself a guest of Julia Ann Farish, the widow of Thomas Farish — the owner of The Farm and a former Confederate officer who narrowly escaped being hung on his own front lawn as a spy during the Civil War when he tried to sneak home in civilian clothes to visit his family. The other guest rounding out the party was Nancy Hines. She was the wife of Thomas Henry Hines, who actually had been a Confederate spy, renowned for his daring escapes and for plotting with Luke Blackburn to foment unrest in northern cities during the war. Hines was at this point a retired chief justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
Madeline found herself among this august group of Confederate wives and widows because Col. W.C.P. Breckinridge had, on a Friday evening back in March, asked Julia Blackburn to serve as a social chaperone for Madeline, as, he explained, he planned to marry her once a suitable period of mourning for his late wife Issa had passed. Now their engagement — and Madeline's ascent to Bluegrass royalty — was public knowledge. It had been announced in the Washington Post social column a little more than two weeks ago and subsequently reported in the New York Times. Like many of the Bluegrass elite, the Breckinridges came to America in the early 1700s as part of a wave of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who immigrated first to Pennsylvania before following the spine of the Appalachians south in search of virgin land. The Breckinridges settled near Staunton, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. Economically and socially ambitious, they quickly became part of the local gentry, in no small part because Congressman Breckinridge's grandfather John Breckinridge in 1785 married Mary Hopkins Cabell of the prominent Cabell family, whose roots reached back to the British gentry who founded Virginia.
But John Breckinridge felt constrained in late eighteenth-century Virginia — which was crowded with ambitious, well-connected men and short on cheap land — despite receiving a four-hundred-acre farm outside Charlottesville as his wife's dowry and being elected to the Virginia House of Delegates when he was twenty. In 1793, he joined the emigration of Virginians to Kentucky and moved his family to Cabell's Dale, a six-hundred-acre farm near Lexington, on what was still the frontier of white settlement. Breckinridge's foresight brought the family land and wealth (eventually he would own thirty thousand acres) and, according to the family biographer James Klotter, what he really sought: "greater prestige for unborn generations of Breckinridges."
Much of this prestige came from an energetic role in the political life of the new state of Kentucky and, eventually, on the national stage. Within thirteen years, John Breckinridge "serve[d] the commonwealth as attorney general, Speaker of the Kentucky House, United States Senator, and the first member of the cabinet from west of the [Appalachian] mountains," recounts Klotter. While in the Kentucky legislature, John Breckinridge conspired with Jefferson, then vice president, to introduce the Kentucky Resolutions of 1789, which opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts and what Jefferson and Breckinridge saw as a dangerous consolidation of federal power. As a U.S. senator, he helped Jefferson negotiate the Louisiana Purchase and was rewarded with an appointment as his attorney general.
In the generations that followed, members of the Breckinridge family became fixtures in the political and social elite of the South. "They were governors and senators and members of Congress, and presidents of colleges and eminent divines, and brave generals ... There were four governors of old Virginia. They were members of the cabinet of Jefferson and Taylor and Buchanan and Lincoln. They had major-generals and brigadier-generals by the score; and gallant officers in the army and navy by the hundred," wrote the biologist Charles Davenport in lauding the family as an example of superior genetics. Or, as the Lexington Herald later put it, the "Breckinridges of Kentucky ... have been in American public life ever since there was an American public life."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bringing Down the Colonel"
Copyright © 2018 Patricia Miller.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Gold to Be Made 3
2. A Bright and Brainy Woman 9
3. A Bastard Catch’d 24
4. The Left-Hand Road 37
5. The Wanton Widow 52
6. Not So Easily Handled 74
7. What Shall We Do with Our Daughters? 91
8. For the Likes of Me 101
9. The Needle, the School Room, and the Store 117
10. A House of Mercy 133
11. A Good Woman 149
12. Miss Pollard’s Ruin in Lexington 165
13. Somebody’s Daughter 187
14. A Man of Passion 200
15. Hindered, Not Ruined 215
16. The Front Parlor and the Back Gate 230
17. The Cavalier and the Puritans 256
18. Refusing to Behave 280
19. Redemption 289
Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the ‘Powerless’ Woman Who Took On Washington A look at things in Victorian America for women. A Kentucky lawyer and politician makes promises he won’t keep and plays fast and loose with young women while his wife is at home. When he’s finally brought up short and one files a lawsuit against him for breach of promise, he tries to brush her off, using his power and prominence to quiet her. Madeline Pollard files a lawsuit after Colonel Breckenridge marries another woman, leaving her in the lurch after nearly 10 years of promises to marry her. She’s left with a bad reputation and no future and takes up residence in a residence for wayward women. Another young woman, Jennie Tucker goes undercover for the defense using another name to try and befriend Pollard and gain intel. The case goes to court, and Pollard gives her side of things, showing all that the Colonel has truly put her through, and all that she has given up for him, including the children she bore him. The case is ascribed to changing the feeling of people against women being the only party responsible when there is a public outing of a couple doing wrong, never the male, prior to this case. Sentiments became harder toward men after this in terms of morality.