Harmon’s Histories: Political scandals not reserved for 21st century
By Jim Harmon
We’ve seen our share of modern political scandals. There was Chris Christie’s bridge, Bill Clinton’s intern and Carlos Danger’s “Weiner.” But the late 1800s had its scandals too. One of the biggest was Rep. William Campbell Preston Breckenridge’s affair with a “coed,” which made headlines nationwide, including Missoula.
The 47-year-old Kentucky Democrat met Madeline V. Pollard, a 17-yr-old college student, in the spring of 1884. She was quickly seduced and pregnant. Another pregnancy followed in 1888. The congressman convinced her to give up both children.
In the summer of 1892, Rep. Breckenridge’s wife (his second, by the way) died, and he promised to marry Pollard.
By May of 1893, young Pollard was pregnant again, with “’ol Brecky’s” assurance of a December nuptial. But Pollard miscarried and, unbeknownst to her, Breckenridge suddenly married his cousin.
It took a while, but Pollard – upon finally hearing that little tidbit – sued the old codger for breach of promise and $50,000.
The trial took place in Washington, D. C., with Judge Andrew C. Bradley immediately ruffling feathers by ordering all women out of the courtroom. A few days later, a number of attorneys engaged in fisticuffs in the hallway. If that wasn’t enough, rumors abounded that members of the defense team were carrying guns in the courtroom. Bradley ordered them all to sign papers, swearing they would never do such a thing.
Congressman Breckenridge, “a foremost orator in congress (and) lecturer on morality and kindred subjects at various institutions,” seemed above it all, smiling nonchalantly as witness after witness described the affair.
Pollard testified that Breckenridge had promised to marry her and she promised to marry him, adding, under cross-examination, “I agreed to give myself, soul, and body and life to that man. I promised and, up to the 17th of May 1893, I was faithful to him.”
“Up to that time your life had been pure?”
“You knew Col. Breckenridge was a married man?”
“He told me so.”
“You knew he had a wife and children?”
“He told me so.”
“You knew you were losing your respectability and standing?”
“I did not then.”
“How soon did you realize it?”
(Weeping) “Not until it made me an outcast – until he had made my life too hard to bear. He ruined me; but I loved him then. His slightest wish was law to me then.”
“But you knew your course was all wrong?”
“Breckenridge was a man who could make anything seem right with arguments.”
The congressman denied any promise of marriage, telling the court, “There is not a scintilla of truth in that statement; not a shred. Under no circumstances, and at no time was there any such agreement.”
The trial went on for weeks, causing the Missoulian to editorialize, “(We are) tired of the whole disgusting business. The earliest evidence in the case was sufficient to brand the defendant as a leprous, lecherous monster and the plaintiff as a designing adventuress.”
On the afternoon of April 14, 1894, the jury ruled for Pollard, awarding her $15,000 in damages. Two days later, Breckenridge, shaking hands with his colleagues, returned to his seat in the House of Representatives.
The Missoulian decried national press reports that “the people of Kentucky (remained) as closely allied in the bonds of friendship and admiration to Congressman Breckenridge as before the recent public airing of his disgraceful conduct.”
The local paper concluded, “The Kentuckians of Missoula, and they are certainly a representative class, take exception to these insinuations by the press and stoutly deny that they are in any way in sympathy with the hoary headed old roue and his lecherous practices.”
Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.