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  • More Than a Congressman’s Mistress:Ambition and Scandal in the Life of Madeleine Pollard

In the spring of 1894, few Kentucky women were better known than Madeleine Pollard. Scorned by some as an adventuress and praised by others as a voice of justice, Pollard first gained national public recognition in August 1893 when she sued Kentucky’s five-time representative to Congress, William C. P. Breckinridge, for breach of promise for his failure to honor his marital pledge. The suit revealed a host of secrets: Pollard and Breckinridge had been involved in an affair since 1884; Breckinridge had seduced the one-time college student and promised to marry her but then reneged; and that Breckinridge, a widower for less than one year, had, in April 1893, clandestinely married Louise Scott Wing of Louisville. Newspapers dug into the juicy story, investigators scoured Kentucky, and lawyers tracked down anyone who claimed to have known Pollard. Breckinridge even employed a female spy to find out “just exactly what kind of a woman this is.” Who was Madeleine Pollard? Although she was the subject of continuous newspaper coverage from August 1893 until the trial’s conclusion in April 1894, little was known of Pollard beyond the transgression that gave her public notoriety. Two competing narratives emerged: the knowing, social-climbing adventuress, actively pursuing her goals, and the innocent, seduced schoolgirl, who was the passive victim of the will of others. Ultimately, for both Pollard’s [End Page 313] supporters and detractors, her story became a cautionary tale about the ambitions of women.1

Historians have written little about the scandal, even though it captured national attention and generated extensive commentary in public and private documents. After six weeks of closely watched testimony, legal maneuvering, and constant media attention, Pollard won the breach of promise case. Despite Pollard’s vindication, historians have focused exclusively on Breckinridge, with his subsequent failed bid for reelection and his life’s denouement. Pollard’s own post-trial future has not been considered, which tacitly suggests that for an acknowledged mistress, there was no future.2 Compounding this historical erasure is a lack of discussion of Pollard’s life before her national notoriety, freezing Madeleine Pollard’s story in one moment of time.

Two factors have worked against a closer examination of Madeleine Pollard. First, there has been little apparent interest. Earlier scholarship focused on a more traditional male subject in the political sphere and, perhaps, the mistress-wronged story seemed all too familiar.3 Second, the direct evidence of her life is scattered and challenging to reconstruct: there is no cache of letters or secret diary that reveals Pollard’s innermost dreams. The depositions, transcript, and other court documents from the breach of promise trial have vanished. In the National Archives, an archival box identified as containing the official records holds only a single slip of paper that reads “do not remove this card.” Newspaper articles are therefore the most readily available source.4 Newspaper accounts can provide good historical [End Page 314] detail, but reportage on Pollard was driven often by rumor and speed, rather than accuracy. However, in the absence of the trial documents, these accounts provide the best sources on the sensational court proceedings.5 Publicly available accounts—newspapers and a handful of quickly produced books that attempted to turn public curiosity into sales—are part and parcel of the late-nineteenth-century version of the commoditization of shame, the peddling of humiliation in a print media eager to profit.6 As Monica Lewinsky recently noted of her public shaming in print and online, “I was seen by many but actually known by few.”7

Archival collections get us closer to Madeleine Pollard. The voluminous Breckinridge Family Papers at the Library of Congress contain correspondence, memoranda, and other materials documenting Breckinridge’s preparation for the breach of promise trial. Period letters in archives across Kentucky (and elsewhere) provide private commentary on this public conversation. Pollard herself offered multiple versions of her life story, first in print a month after the scandal broke and then, later, on the stand during the trial. Her own narrative was no less carefully crafted than any...


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