Gilded Age Scandals
October 10, 2008 9:30 AM   Subscribe

Scandals Of the Last Century? Does anyone know of strange stories, remarkable escapes, unbelievable coincidences, and headline-grabbing scandals from about 1880-1905?

For a yet unnamed project, I need a juicy story from the Gilded Age. I already have Evelyn Nesbitt and the Spanish Main. Set in New York is good but not necessary. Any books or other resources I should check out?
posted by The Whelk to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This would be more "expose" than "scandal," but how would Nellie Bly's journalism work do? Particularly her 1887 undercover assignment in a New York mental institution. Not only did she fool the mental health professionals, but rival newspapers ran stories about the mysterious crazy girl. Then when her story broke, the resulting grand jury investigation led to an $850,000 budget increase for the department in charge of care for the mentally ill.

The next year she went on a round-the-world trip. Oh, Nellie Bly, you were awesome.
posted by bettafish at 9:47 AM on October 10, 2008

Of course there is Jack the Ripper. You may also enjoy Erik Larson's book called "Devil in the White City," about the Chicago Worlds Fair during that time. There were numerous hushed up scandals involving Edward VI, both during his time as prince regent and as King -- the classic quote from him is, "Put another pillow under your ass and stop calling me Your Majesty."

Finally, you may enjoy a book called, "The Father of Forensics" about Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who solved several scandalous murders using the emerging science of forensics.
posted by jfwlucy at 10:15 AM on October 10, 2008

There are a few juicy New York scams, like George C. Parker and his seminal "I've got a [bridge/park/arena/etc.] to sell you" con. Another good one is Steve Brodie and his fake attempt at jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and surviving.

Oh, and another good one, though it's a tad outside your specified timeline: Sober Sue, the woman who cannot laugh. She was shopped around to various New York comedians throughout 1907 as the most hard-core stoic in the city, one who even the most talented comedian couldn't make laugh. All the top players performed free shows in which they tried to prove their mettle against her and failed. And the reason they failed was a little surprising...
posted by Rhaomi at 10:20 AM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, man, this is my WORLD here. Ten years ago I was the dramaturg for a production of a play called "The Woman," written in 1911 by William DeMille and which concerned a sex scandal in congress. (BIG fun, by the way -- plus we did it right BANG after the Clinton scandals and right SMACK in the middle of the Chandra Levy crisis, and right BANG when Jim Jeffords switched parties and threw the balance of power in the senate -- we had immaculate timing.)

One of the things they wanted me to do was to come up with a list of corrupt politicians as part of the set dressing (long story) -- most of what I found concerned the Credit Mobileier scandals, which happened before your cutoff date.

But there's plenty of stuff from the era you're looking for:

* First up, this site is a GREAT overview about the election of 1896, which by all reports was seriously wacky.

* During Grover Cleveland's first presidential campaign in 1885, his opponent dug up the dirt that Cleveland had some years earlier knocked up a woman and then paid to have the kid adopted out to someone else. Cleveland's opponents began picketing at his campaign stops, chanting, "Ma, ma, where's my pa?"

Cleveland handled the problem very wisely -- by fessing up. Yeah, he'd gotten a woman pregnant and didn't marry her -- but okay, it was in a rowdier era from his past, and he'd since wised up and reformed. Moreover, the woman was having a lot of problems with alcoholism at the time, and couldn't have taken care of the kid, so in addition to having him adopted out, he also paid for the woman to go to a sanotarium and dry up, and she did, and was doing much better, and the kid was being well cared for. So yeah, he'd made a mistake, he wasn't proud of it, but he'd tried to make amends, and that's all any of us can do if we screw up, right?

People were IMPRESSED by his candor and Cleveland actually ended up getting support. And so his supporters began responding to the "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" chant with, "He's going to the White House, ha ha ha!"

* Senator Arthur Brown, a former U.S. Senator from Utah, was shot by his mistress in 1897.

* Warren G. Harding was apprently causing all sorts of trouble when he was a state politician in Ohio -- he was having an affair with a woman named Carrie Philips, who was enough of a potential scandal that when he ran for president, Harding's handlers actually paid her to move to Japan throughout the campaign, and then paid her off to stay there when he actually got elected. (My favorite story about Philips is that Harding's wife apparently knew all about this, and when Philips came to see Harding one day, Harding's wife stood on the front porch and THREW FURNITURE at her to drive her off.)

Harding was also linked with a young woman named Nan Britton -- Nan was the daughter of an Ohio political colleague, and was apparently obsessed with Harding from the time she was a pre-teen (she even pasted pictures of him in a scrapbook like girls do with pop stars today). He met her when she was about ten, and then met her again when she was "barely legal" - by this time he was running for president -- and he started having an affair with Nan. She even followed him to the White House and claimed that the two of them regularly had sex in the coat closet of the Oval Office. She became pregnant in 1919 and promised to keep it secret if Harding supported her -- no one knew about it until Harding's death in 1923, when Nan finally went to Harding's executors and said, "okay, my daughter is a Harding, and he was paying us child support, so you'll keep doing that, right?" To which his executors, of course, said "no way," and so she wrote a tell-all book to raise money.

...I'll dig up my old research over the weekend and see what else I can find.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:29 AM on October 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

EmpressCallipygos, I think I love you.
posted by The Whelk at 10:43 AM on October 10, 2008

I love the Judge Crater story.

A bit past your timeline though.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:53 AM on October 10, 2008

This is perhaps a little later (1910) but the case of Hawley Crippen was supposed to be one of the first media circuses. He and his lover killed his wife in England and then sailed to the U.S., but were caught because law enforcement was able to use wireless telegrams.
posted by sutel at 11:08 AM on October 10, 2008

EmpressCallipygos, I think I love you.

Honey, I'm just getting warmed up.

(In all seriousness -- I do have the writeups I gave the cast and crew about this and the guide we wrote for the audience, but I won't be back at home to get it until Sunday -- I can send you more info if you can hang on a couple days, but wanted to at least give you what I could remember off the top of my head. I KNOW there was something else about Woodrow Wilson but can't remember specifics right now.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:18 AM on October 10, 2008

This is perhaps a little later (1910) but the case of Hawley Crippen was supposed to be one of the first media circuses. He and his lover killed his wife in England and then sailed to the U.S., but were caught because law enforcement was able to use wireless telegrams.

Yes! And there's the whole book about this -- Lightning, by the same author as Devil In The White City.

Oh -- and a good book for the general feel of New York City proper in that period when it comes to sleaze is Luc Sante's Low Life, which covers this EXACT period (plus a couple extra years at either end). Sante gets into everything from politicians to drugs to prostitution to the social workers to the "bohemian scene" of the turn of the century.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:21 AM on October 10, 2008

Does the scandal on today's Wikipedia home page count?
posted by quadog at 11:23 AM on October 10, 2008


Yes! yes it does!
posted by The Whelk at 11:37 AM on October 10, 2008

The Crippen (and Marconi) book by Larson is actually Thunderstruck. Not bad, but not as good as Devil in the White City (or Isaac's Storm either, though I'm not sure if the destruction of Galveston by a hurricane counts as a scandal.)
posted by sevenless at 1:32 PM on October 10, 2008

Oh, wait I completely forgot. The Crippen scandal get even better. Police impropriety, overzealous expert witnesses, government pressure, you name it. The PBS special is still probably being shown this month.
posted by sevenless at 1:35 PM on October 10, 2008

jfwlucy, do you have a reference for your claim Edward VI said "Put another pillow under your ass and stop calling me Your Majesty"? It sounds very American to me.
posted by dance at 1:40 PM on October 10, 2008

The Dreyfus Affair was a pretty big deal, but is France too far afield?
posted by Paragon at 3:01 PM on October 10, 2008

Sin in the Second City, including the death of Marshall Field Jr. in 1905. Book at Amazon.
posted by lukemeister at 4:20 PM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Does the scandal on today's Wikipedia home page count?

For those reading in future days: it´s the Cleveland Street scandal.
posted by yohko at 9:24 AM on October 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

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