Friday, August 6, 2010

Mistakes, Misapprehensions, and a Mistrial

Over the last few days, we've taken a look at the sensational trial that must have been a brick through the glass of Robert Horace Walpole's married life. We don't have a great deal of evidence concerning what young "Robin" Walpole [as he was nicknamed] was like as a youth or young man. We do know of his mother's concern that he marry a rich girl, though, and have some hints of his inability to manage his financial affairs in the form of letters he'd written as a Royal Navy midshipman about difficulties in those areas.

Walople [pictured on a New Zealand commemorative coin, above right] seemed to have found a perfect mate: Louise Melissa Corbin, an American girl, raised in the spas and great cities of Europe by her perennially ailing mother, and potential heiress to the fortune of multi-millionaire D. C. Corbin of Spokane, Washington.

After decades of spending huge amounts of money caring for his wife and children on the Continent, there wasn't much reason to think that he wouldn't spend more to maintain a similar lifestyle for his daughter Louise, married to an English gentleman who was heir to the Earldom of Orford and styled the Countess of Orford [as pictured, right].

Dreams of vast amounts of Corbin money must have begun to dissolve when Louise and her mother apparently started receiving letters from Valerie Wiedemann during the period of their engagement, and messages and events continued into their marriage, which occurred in Paris on 17 May 1888. One event described in the court proceedings, seemingly having occurred in January 1888, stood out: "A portrait of Mr. Walpole's fiancée was put in which had been defaced by the plaintiff, who had written across it 'Horrible, honourless girl,' and added that she would meet her one day when she should hear her curse, which would follow her to the end of her d-----d existence."

Presumably "d-----d" represents "damned." That curse, and the suggestion of violence implicit in the defacing of the portrait, must have been at the very least a bit eerie for Louise, and at most, horribly frightening. I can't believe she'd have been subjected to any remotely similar treatment during the time spent with her mother at costly European spas, and even if one were to write off the act as that of a crazy woman, one still has to concede that it was Walpole's lust for, intercourse with, and subsequent cowardly rejection of the crazy woman that had caused that entire Fatal Attraction-like scenario to spring into being.

The situation must have affected the relationship between Walpole and his wife, Louise, who, at the time of the trial, was great with child. That child would become our Lady Dorothy Mills, and the fallout from the events of the courtroom couldn't have escaped affecting the environment, and perhaps even the manner, in which young Dorothy [left] was reared.

Would the problems of "Robin" and Louise go away after the conclusion of the trial, in which the jury found in Walpole's favor after a chaotic finale? Hardly. Lady Dorothy was born on 11 March 1889 in Kensington, London.

She was a still a newborn when the following article appeared less than two months later in the London Times on 8 May 1889:

This was an application for a new trial of a case, tried before Mr. Baron Huddleston and a special Jury on November 28 and 30 in last year, in which the plaintiff, Miss Valery Wiedemann, claimed damages from the defendant, Mr. Robert Horace Walpole, for breach of promise of marriage and libel. The case, from its extraordinary and very unusual nature, aroused considerable interest, and the proceedings in the Court below were fully reported in The Times of November 29 and 30. It appeared that the claim was made by Miss Wiedemann, who was in 1882 temporarily employed as a governess to the daughters of an hotel- keeper at Constantinople, against the defendant, a gentleman then staying there. She alleged that they saw a good deal of each other, and that the defendant had seduced her, as narrated at the trial, under a certain amount of violence and under a promise to marry her; that the defendant had given her at the time his signet ring and £100 to enable her to come on and meet him at Cannes, where the mother of the defendant was; that in consequence of Mrs. Walpole, his mother, disapproving of the engagement, the defendant employed a private detective to watch the plaintiff, and the libel complained of was in letters written to the detective by the defendant about the plaintiff. Eventually a child was born, and it appeared from an affidavit now sworn on this application that the plaintiff was very ill and delirious at the time, and that though she thought at one time that the child had been looked after by other people, yet the fact was that the child died very shortly after its birth. It appeared that in the course of last year the defendant had become engaged to, and had married, an American lady now his wife. The plaintiff, in consequence, had written letters and postcards to the defendant and his friends that he ought not to marry, and stated that she was the mother of a child by the defendant.

Mr. COCK, Q.C. (with Mr. P. Davis and Mr. Evans Austin), appeared for the plaintiff. The plaintiff's view was from the beginning to the end that she was anxious to say nothing whatever at the trial about the child, believing that it was being cared for by strangers to avoid disgrace to the family. At the trial, as was natural, the plaintiff was in a very excited state, she thought she was hardly treated, and certainly was in a state of great agitation, and, as she stated in the affidavit, she had not slept the night before the second day of the trial; and then came the cross-examination by the Solicitor-General. The learned counsel then read from the shorthand notes of what took place at the trial, to the effect that when the plaintiff was asked about the child she declined again and again to answer any question on the subject, though ordered to do so by the learned Baron under pain of being committed for contempt of Court, and eventually, after she had conferred with Mr. Cock, her counsel, she persisted in refusing to answer any question relating to the child. Upon that Mr. Baron Huddleston ruled that they were proper questions to be asked and that she must answer them, and if she refused to answer it would be contempt of Court and he would have to order her into custody. The plaintiff still refused to answer, whereupon the Judge said, "Then you will be nonsuited. You must answer the questions or retire from the case." The plaintiff left the witness-box and conferred with her counsel, but still refused to answer the question. On the Judge asking Mr. Cock what he was going to do, he said,—" If your Lordship insists on these questions being answered, the plaintiff says she must withdraw from the case." Thereupon the Judge said to the jury, "Gentlemen, I direct you to find a verdict for the defendant. " There is no authority (said the learned counsel) that we can find on this point. [MR. JUSTICE MATTHEW. —There could not have been any authority on the point before the Act of Parliament alIowing litigants to be witnesses was passed. I never heard that when a witness refused to answer a question the Judge should decide the question and withdraw the case from the jury. It is a question to he taken into consideration by the jury. MR. JUSTICE GRANTHAM. —Committing for contempt of Court is very different from stopping the case.]

The COURT called on
The SOLICITOR-GENERAL (Sir E. Clarke, with Mr. Graham), for the defendant. —The Judge was right. Every one tried to induce the plaintiff to answer the question, and she utterly declined. The position the learned Judge took was: —"You are here as a witness and you are asked a right and proper question, and if you refuse to answer it I shall treat it as a contempt of Court;" but' after consultation with her counsel the plaintiff, rather than submit to be treated for contempt of Court, elected not to Proceed further with the case. The plaintiff had made contradictory statements from time to time—now that the child was alive, again that she knew nothing about it, and lastly that it died at, or very shortly after, its birth. [MR. JUSTICE MATTHEW. —There is no doubt about the materiality of the question. The plaintiff was bound to answer. But the question is whether the plaintiff understood what would take place if she did not answer. It appears that she thought the case could not go on if she refused to answer. MR. JUSTICE GRANTHAM.—Of course, if she had given her evidence-in-chief and then left the court the Judge would point out to the jury that she declined to undergo cross-examination, and that it was probable, under those circumstances, they would not believe her story.] The plaintiff is entitled to withdraw from the case at any time; here, after consultation between the counsel, solicitor, and the plaintiff, the plaintiff declined to go on with the case. From the circumstances, the probability was that, after her different accounts she would elect to retire from the case rather than have to acknowledge she had written falsehoods in the letters and postcards. If there should be a new trial I ask for terms.

MR. GRAHAM followed.—This case would raise a dangerous practice if it is held that a client, seeing his case was going against him, mxy retire from the case, and then come to the Divisional Court to have it reinstated. The counsel had authority to withdraw from the case—"Furnival v. Bogle ' ("Russell's rep.," 142); "Harvey v. Croydon Union" ("L.R." 26, Ch.Div. 249); "Attorney-General v. Tomline" (" L.R." 7, Ch.Div. 388). The questions are— (1) Had the counsel authority to do what he did; and(2) did he withdraw from the case? It is submitted that both questions should be answered in the affirmative.

The COURT came to the conclusion that there should be a new trial.

MR. JUSTICE MATTHEW. —It appears to me this application must be granted. I need hardly say that there is no one whose opinion on a question of practice has more weight with me than Mr. Baron Huddleston. This is merely a question of practice. The question is whether the Judge was justified in directing judgment for the defendant. It is contended on the one side that that was what took place; on the other the contention is that the plaintiff withdrew from the case. The questions put to the plaintiff were perfectly proper ones; she declined to answer them. The Judge said she must answer, and then said, quite rightly, that she would he committed for contempt if she continued to decline; then she consults with her counsel, and it appears to me that the impression conveyed then was that the case could not go on if she did not answer the question. I have no doubt that there was a misapprehension in this case. I think there must be a new trial. Then as to terms, there can be none imposed. There was clearly a mistake and the costs must be costs in the case. '

MR. JUSTICE GRANTHAM.—I am of the same opinion. As there is to be a new trial, the least said the soonest mended; but I desire to say one word—I do not think we are deciding in any way against any of the authorities cited. It is clear that the plaintiff did not understand what the result would be if she did not answer the questions.

So there would be a second, "new" trial, the first having been essentially declared a mistrial. This also must have come as a gut-punch to "Robin" and Louise, and the house where the new baby was being nursed must have been full of anxiety. Walpole, who'd seen the world as a midshipman, a captain of the militia, and as a secretary to foreign dignitaries, must have been aching to escape the confines of London and its courtrooms.

Where does "Walpole v. Wiedemann" go from here? Those are events for another day…

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