Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Great Breach of Promise Case

The November 1888 trial, Wiedemann v. Walpole, certainly seemed to garner a fair amount of coverage in the prestigious London Times as we've seen over the last two days in this space [Click here or here]. Still, despite the numbers of words and columns dedicated to the trial, it's been fairly clinical. Apparently not all of the coverage was like that.

One very interesting aspect of the coverage we've seen is that nowhere in the Times was it ever mentioned what exactly was at stake. It seemed as if it were academic: Valerie Wiedemann wanted Walpole to simply admit he'd breached a promise of marriage and subsequently libeled her in letters. The fact, however, is that £10,000 was the amount of the damages. That must have seemed like an awfully lot of money to lose to Robert Walpole, father of Lady Dorothy Mills, who somehow never even found his way around to paying the £52 he owed the private detective he'd hired to ditch Wiedemann for him, finally settling that debt out of court after six years.

The Bush Advocate, a New Zealand newspaper, offered contrasting coverage to its readers on 15 January 1889 in an article entitled, "THE GREAT BREACH OF PROMISE CASE.—Miss Wiedemann's Evidence.—Extraordinary Scene in Court." If you are interested in reading it in its entirety, click here. For my purposes, though, some excerpts that show the first Wiedemann v. Walpole trial in a slightly different light will be highlighted here [my emphases throughout].

Take, for example, their introduction of the plaintiff: "Miss Valerie Wiedemann is a German by birth, and the daughter of a Silesian pastor. She is a tall, rather slim-built lady, aged about three or four and thirty, although the trouble and bitterness of the last six years of her life have doubtless unduly aged her appearance. She is decidedly foreign in her looks, sharp-featured and dark-haired. She could hardly be said to be a beautiful woman, but bore undisputable traces of having been distinguished looking and attractive in happier days. Her manner was engaging, but her conversational powers were marred by the imperfect grasp she has of the English language."

That 'imperfect grasp of English' would soon play an important role in the outcome of the trial.

The article continues: "She was dressed in brown satin, with a tulle-draped toque hat to correspond, her style being distinctly suggestive of the Eastern life that brought her introduction to the defendant. She fidgeted nervously with her black gloves while she gave evidence, and pulled at a long brown ribbon which, in her agitation, she had probably torn from her costume."

The description of Walpole is less detailed: "Robert Horace [Walpole] is the nephew of the present earl [of Orford]. He has been in the navy and a captain of the militia, and is reputed to be very well off, notwithstanding the anxiety of his mother that he should marry a rich girl. He is, of course, a descendant of the famous Sir Robert Walpole, and the even more famous Horace, the statesman and letter writer of the last century."

The essence of the testimony is distilled here: "It appears that in 1882 the Hon. Robert Walpole was engaged in some service in Bulgaria, and at the end of December, he found himself in the Hotel de l'Angleterre, Constantinople, where Miss Wiedemann was staying. He fell violently in love with her, according to her story, and seduced her under circumstances which the judge said would constitute a rape if true as detailed by the weeping defendant. It was then that the promise of marriage was made."

The word 'rape' never appears in the Times coverage.

The next line is most interesting: "Shortly after, however, the defendant gave the plaintiff the slip by putting her on a vessel for Cannes, and failing to turn up himself in time to catch the boat."

We know from the Times articles that Walpole intended to meet her in Cannes—where he then never 'turned up'—but what really interests me is the use of the term "gave the plaintiff the slip." It implies underhanded dealing with Wiedemann, something, remarkably, Walpole never really goes to any length to deny in this case. The upshot seems to be that he met Valerie in Istanbul, seduced her [whether or not it was consensual seems to be no real bone of contention in the proceedings], conceiving an illegitimate child, and put Miss Wiedemann on a ship, along with a check for £100 and his rings, to the very location in which his mother was staying in an expensive resort.

Walpole consequently went to even great lengths to even further 'give her the slip': "Then it was alleged he sent after her a private inquiry agent under the assumed name of Captain Darlington, who led her a lively dance over the Continent, to keep her out of the way of her lover and it was insinuated in cross-examination that he importuned the plaintiff and attempted to do her wrong. This, however, he emphatically denied, pointing out that it was impossible in such a big hotel as the Paris Hotel in the French Capital."

And we all know that if there's any importuning to be done, a hotel far from home is the last place one would want to do it!

Anyway, here's an observation from Wiedemann's time in the witness-box: "The plaintiff's volubility and inability to understand the procedure of the counsel caused some irritation to manifest itself early in the demeanour of the judge, whom she interrupted over and over again, drowning by her excited declamation his more quiet and graver tones."

As the action proceeds to its crescendo, we find the following exchange: "The awkward pause that followed this rather bold independence of the learned counsel was broken by the plaintiff's indignant declamation. 'No human being has the right to put such questions after six years have elapsed, and no gentleman should put them,' she shouted at Sir Edward Clarke. 'You refuse to answer, then,' said the judge. 'Entirely,' said the plaintiff with a stamp of her foot, at the same time giving emphasis to her resolution by bringing her hand down heavily on the rail of the witness-box."

After a few more verbal barrages among the participants, the article continues: "Here, the fair, but irascible, plaintiff was, after some persuasion, induced to go and speak with her counsel, Mr. Cock. He consulted with her for a few minutes, gesticulating in a manner which plainly indicated the emphatic way he was putting his views before her. The attempt, however, was fruitless. 'I have given my advice,' announced the learned counsel, 'but rather than answer questions pertaining to this matter she would retire from the case.'"

Finally, after a brief description of the proceedings during which the judge ordered the jury to find on behalf of the defendant, the article concludes: "The judge ordered all letters and photographs in the case to be impounded, presumably in view of some further proceedings, and then left the court to cool down before going on with the next case on the list."

I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be the next learned counsel or defendant coming into the courtroom on that day!

The judge, despite his anger at the moment, had the wisdom to impound the evidence in case of "further proceedings." there would certainly be further proceedings.

Boy, would there ever be!

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