Victorian American Romance and Breach of Promise

Victorian American Romance and Breach of Promise

Many parts of the American culture have slowly changed over the last century, and the concept of suing for breach of promise is one of them. When is the last time you heard of a couple breaking up and the woman suing her ex for implied promises of marriage? It’s unheard of in 2016, but as few as 105 years ago, such a threat was very real.

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---You can't tell how valuable a girl's affections are...until you are sued for blighting a set of them.

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Part 1. The Tiffin Tribune of Tiffin, Ohio, 22 January, 1874.

Part 1. The Tiffin Tribune of Tiffin, Ohio, 22 January, 1874.

Did you catch that?

The Vermont judge stated “no explicit promise was necessary to bind the parties to a marriage contract. Long continued attentions or intimacy with a female was as good evidence of tended matrimony as a special contract.

“If Hastings did not promise, he ought to have done so–the law holds him responsible for the non-performance of his duty.”

Part 2. The Tiffin Tribune of Tiffin, Ohio, 22 January, 1874.

Part 2. The Tiffin Tribune of Tiffin, Ohio, 22 January, 1874.

Part 3. The Tiffin Tribune of Tiffin, Ohio, 22 January, 1874.

Part 3. The Tiffin Tribune of Tiffin, Ohio, 22 January, 1874.

The article (1874), as stated, was “clipped from an old newspaper”. The story was published originally in 1838 in many newspapers in the United States. In 1838, the settlement of $1,425 was a fortune, apparently roughly $37,000 of today’s money, as “Mr. Hastings has been making a fool of himself fourteen years and some odd weeks”.

“$1,425 of 1838 dollars would be worth: $36,538.46 in 2015.” [source] (2015 is the latest date available)

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Mr. Hastings paid $1,425 for a 14 year courtship. Apparently he wasn’t the only one to drag on an “understanding” a ridiculous length of time.

Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, Ft Wayne, Indiana. 21 October, 1868.

Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, Ft Wayne, Indiana. 21 October, 1868.

“LONG COURTSHIP.–A gentleman was married in Portsmouth last week after a courtship of twenty-one years.” ~ Staunton Spectator, Staunton, Virginia, 23 November, 1869.

Apparently the gentleman’s new bride (nor her parents) sued him for breach of promise. Nor was he alone in this (hopefully) record-breaking length of courtship. Four years later, a Mr. W. G. Thompson tied for the honor of a two-decade (plus) courtship.

The Wilmington Morning Star, Wilmington, West Virginia, 30 April, 1873.

The Wilmington Morning Star, Wilmington, West Virginia, 30 April, 1873.

Maybe this string of lengthy courtships (and  many more like them) contributed to the resurgence of interest in the subject of suing for breach of promise, as indicated in the first article, above, published in 1874.

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Pacific RR length of courtship

We might infer that society (or at least those who were not courting males) believed a reasonable length of time–and not a moment longer–was appropriate for a courtship.

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After all, courtship meant “the act, period, or art of seeking the love of someone with intent to marry“. [source]

One huge difference with dating today vs. courtship of the American Victorian period is that young people (or simply put–unmarried men and women) “date”. Dating generally has no expectations of marriage, and very often includes no intention for permanence. Today, couples live together without any sort of a guarantee of marriage…yet (if ever). Then, a young man stated his intentions to a young woman’s father or brother (or whatever family member was responsible for her protection) and with that guardian’s permission and the woman’s acceptance, a courtship with the object of determining if they were suited for marriage would commence.

Because the expectation and social norm was for courtship to culminate in marriage, it’s understandable that nineteenth century Americans–especially the jilted lady–to feel wronged.

Courtship Quip 2. Vermont Phoenix. Brattleboro VT. 16 May 1873

A quip published in Vermont Phoenix of Brattleboro, Vermont, on 16 May, 1873.

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St. Louis Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri, 25 February, 1906.

St. Louis Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri, 25 February, 1906.

The following is a transcription of the article as it appears in the St. Louis Dispatch of St. Louis, Missouri, on 25 February, 1906, as the scanned image of the historic newspaper is difficult to read.

FOREST CITY, Io., Feb. 24.–The jury in the case of Snearly vs. Will returned a verdict of $2800 in favor of the plaintiff for breach of promise.

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[Note: “$2,800 of 1906 dollars would be worth: $73,684.21 in 2015.” [source] (2015 is the latest date available)]

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W.R. Will, a widower of buffalo Center, in the spring of 1903 advertised for a wife and received an answer from Miss Emily Snearly of Chicago. In May of that year he went to Chicago, met Miss Snearly and the marriage was planned for ten days later, but at that time the bridegroom-to-be failed to show up. he wrote, however, and another date was set for in August, and again no bridegroom appeared. Again it was set for December and it was arranged that the couple should meet in Cedar Rapids. Instead of Mr. will the hope-to-be- bride got a letter from him stating that he had married another, but that the wedding was compulsory and he had commenced action for a divorce and would marry plaintiff as soon as he was again free.

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[Note: $5,000 of 1904 dollars would be worth: $135,135.14 in 2015.” [source] (2015 is the latest date available)]

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Suit was commenced in may, 1904, for $5000 damages and the case was heard this week. All the love letters were read on the stand, those of Mr. Will being very gushing and full of importunities [sic], Miss Snearly’s being brief and full of business.

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This Sydney man renewed his promises to wed–one time too many, on April Fool’s Day (at which the unidentified reporter couldn’t resist poking fun).

The San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, 15 July, 1892.

The San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, 15 July, 1892.

“$15,000 of 1892 dollars would be worth: $394,736.84 in 2015.”  [source] (2015 is the latest date available)

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In the March 17, 1868 edition of The Tennessean of Nashville, Tennessee, an article simple titled CHICAGO included the case for breach of promise against a seven year courtship.

CHICAGO, March 16.–The case of Miss Amanda J. Craig, of Cincinnati, against F. G. Sprague, for breach of promise, will shortly be called up for trial. The complainant is said to be a sister of Judge Craig, for many years one of the Justices of the Ohio Supreme Court, and she was lately a teacher in Covington.

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She claims the courtship to have lasted seven years, and wants one hundred thousand dollars damages for deferred hopes and blasted prospects. The defense has just filed depositions by Dr. R. J. Garrett and J. H. Barrows, of Cincinnati endeavoring to prove that they had been applied to by Miss Craig to produce an abortion.

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(italics and bold face added for emphasis)

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It’s important to note that not every suit for breach of promise ended in a verdict for the defendant to pay the injured party (plaintiff). A rather remarkable case reported in The Rutland Herald (quoting Salem Register) of Rutland, Vermont on 6 February, 1851 apparently proved to the jury that the plaintiff (a woman referred to as Miss Nancy Free Soil [the man she accused of breach of promise was noted as Charles Democrat and another man as Geo. Whig so I suspect the surnames were changed]) was the instigator of the purported courtship, the one to give expensive gifts, the one to show a history of chasing men (both free to wed and encumbered by marriage). The gentlemen of the jury, “after a short consultation, returned a verdict of one cent damages, the plaintiff to pay the costs.” (emphasis added) [source]

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Given the times, the social customs, and the expectations of hopeful brides-to-be (especially after verbal promises were made), it’s not surprising the jilted sued for settlements…especially when years and years were ‘wasted’ in courtship that jumped the tracks.

Suing for breach of promise makes a whole lot more sense than suing to recoup the financial losses of a courtship (a father’s expense for his daughter), as in this brief nugget of newspaper reporting:

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Brooklyn, NY. 9 January, 1869.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Brooklyn, NY. 9 January, 1869.

Surprising, isn’t it? That a father, successful in seeing his daughter wedded, sued his son-in-law for the expense of his daughter’s courtship–entertaining the would-be husband. Interesting.

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Home for Christmas could have included breach of promise

In closing, it appears I seriously missed the boat. The first novella I published, Home for Christmas, would have been a perfect situation for a very nice girl to sue for breach of promise… but I didn’t recognize the opportunity. Continually studying history is a valuable thing for me but it’s also a two-edged sword. For the more I learn the more I realize I don’t know.

Have you read a Western Historical Romance novel with a Breach of Promise element? Please respond (see field, below–remains open for 2 weeks from article post date), and let us know the title and author, if you recall.

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Up next! The Proper (and safe) Way to Terminate a Victorian American Courtship

HEADER. The Proper and Safe Way to Terminate a Victorian American Courtship

After all, those who broke up with their sweetheart badly were obviously at risk for a suit of breach of promise. What did the gurus of decorum and proper conduct say was the best way to handle such things in the nineteenth century American West? Read on to find out!

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Most Romantic…PROOF?–on Romancing the Genres Victorians Flirting…In The Personals? Masks and Victorian Attitudes (about courtship)–on Romancing The Genres The Proper (and safe) Way to Terminate a Victorian American Courtship First Historical Use of term “Correspondence Courtship” Book Description: Home for Christmas Christmas Novellas: 15 Reasons Readers Adore them Courtship, Old West Style The Spinster Book: 1901 (And Men Are Like Cats…) A Proper Victorian Courtship Matrimonial Offer–Latest New York Style (1851) (on Sweet Americana Sweethearts)

Copyright © 2016 Kristin Holt LC

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