Strong Passions

From The Wall Street Journal:

Peter Strong’s marriage to his young wife, Mary, had not been particularly happy over the previous few months. Now they were dealing with the death of their 14-month-old daughter. Peter, a bon vivant living off inherited wealth, is anxious to rekindle the romance with Mary. Instead, his wife’s response shocks him. She pulls away, sobbing. “Oh, forgive me, forgive me.” Then she confesses that for the previous two years she has been having an affair with his widowed younger brother, Edward.

In “Strong Passions: A Scandalous Divorce in Old New York,” Barbara Weisberg describes a case from the 1860s that has all the elements of a soap opera—powerful families, a tearful confession, adultery, abortion and the fate of two innocent little girls.

Peter and Mary would never again share a bed, but at first there was no talk of a divorce. “Whatever a couple’s miseries,” Ms. Weisberg writes, in mid-19th-century America “legally ending a marriage was viewed as an abhorrent act, especially among members of the Strongs’ social class.” In New York, divorce was especially difficult because the courts accepted only one cause—adultery—and it would have humiliated both Peter, who had been cuckolded by his own brother, and Mary, who would be branded a “fallen woman.” A wife divorced for adultery would have had to surrender custody of her children. By all accounts, Peter and Mary were equally devoted to their daughters, 7-year-old Mamie and 21/2 -year-old Allie.

Perhaps the Strongs might have managed a quiet separation, during which they would jointly raise their daughters. But then Mary admitted that she was pregnant, and that the paternity was uncertain. Peter was enraged. At this point, either Mary had a miscarriage or Peter secured an abortion. Relations between the couple deteriorated rapidly, and two years after Mary’s confession, Peter filed for divorce. Members of Manhattan’s upper crust were appalled. Mary retaliated by bolting, taking Allie with her and disappearing completely. Meanwhile, Peter was indicted for manslaughter for the murder of his wife’s unborn child.

Ms. Weisberg, a former television producer and the author of “Talking to the Dead” (2004), reconstructs the events that led up to the Strong divorce almost entirely from a few court documents plus the newspaper articles that covered the subsequent court cases. There are no personal papers remaining from any of those involved, except for a few laconic journal entries by Peter’s cousin, the diarist George Templeton Strong. This means the author had no access to the unfiltered voices of the main actors in this family saga, and she has struggled to bring them to life. Nonfiction accounts of long-dead individuals always require a degree of speculation, but “Strong Passions” has more than its share of words like “probably,” “perhaps,” “likely” and “undoubtedly.”

Instead, Ms. Weisberg devotes two-thirds of her book to the overlapping narratives heard in court from an extraordinary number and range of witnesses—“a governess, a detective, a judge’s daughter, an undertaker, an abortionist’s spouse, a laundress and Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle.” She writes that “the series of dramatic incidents that precipitated the divorce suit were clouded by a divergence in bitterly contested versions of what had occurred.” Was Mary a victim or instigator of her affair? Did she admit guilt or deny the accusations against her? Was Peter a brutal villain or a gentle and put-upon husband? Did he have an affair with the abortionist? How many of the witnesses were bribed?

Despite the dramas described in court, Peter was acquitted of the criminal charges for lack of evidence, and the jury in the civil-law divorce case deliberated for 45 hours but remained deadlocked. There was therefore no divorce. George Templeton Strong declared that “the public is sick of this horrible case.” He went on to observe that some commentators found neither Peter nor Mary “particularly admirable,” and as such the two seemed “so well matched” it would be “a pity to divorce them.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)