You’re an Illinois woman in the middle 1800s and you find yourself pregnant after your sweetheart — who promised marriage — left. Your reputation and chance of finding a husband are ruined and you have to depend on your family for support.
What to do?
Sue the cad’s sorry behind.
In those days, dumped pregnant women or their fathers (or whomever was considered the woman’s keeper and therefore her “master” in the law’s eye) sued men for breaking their promise of marriage, for “seduction,” and “bastardy;” each was a separate case.
If the woman wasn’t pregnant, the woman or father would only sue for the engagement break, or “breach of promise.” If found guilty, the man would pay — sometimes a lot.
The original purpose of these cases was to let the daughter’s father, usually a farmer, be compensated for the loss of his daughter’s help on the farm during her pregnancy, according to Stacy Pratt McDermott,
assistant editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. The law was a holdover from
17th-century British law, adopted by Illinois’ first General Assembly.
“But in the 19th century, in Abraham Lincoln’s period, that starts to change,” she says. Women start suing their alleged suitors to put pressure on the guy to marry them, to save their reputation and to get compensation for their heartache and support for their baby.
Lincoln and his partners handled nine seduction cases and at least seven breach of promise cases, according to The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln, Second Edition (Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2009).
In 1854, Lincoln helped Betsey Ferguson of Tazewell County sue her former suitor, a man named Fleming, for refusing to marry her. She requested $5,000 in damages. She had lived in Scotland and Fleming promised to marry her in the U.S. He left money for her trip here, but claimed she arrived too late which justified his marriage to Ellen Ferguson instead. The parties settled.
In an 1851 Edgar County case, Lincoln helped a woman sue her former betrothed for breaking their engagement and sought $2,000 in damages. However, the man claimed the woman told him she wouldn’t marry him “because he was a half-brother of a negro and her fickleness would make him unhappy,” according to the Lincoln Papers’ Web site. The woman won and was awarded $400.
The best anecdote comes from a Champaign County case and is described on the Web
site of WILL-TV. (It was written by retired Bloomington attorney and Abraham
Lincoln Bicentennial Commission member Guy Fraker.) He said Lincoln represented
the woman, who was suing her former honey for breaking his marriage promise.
Somehow, Lincoln got the two to settle by agreeing to marry, but “As soon as the ceremony was over,” Fraker writes, “the husband turned and said, ‘We are married, now; you can do as you please but you’ve seen the last of me,’ and he disappeared for good.”
Breach of promise cases continued into the 1900s. A high profile, unusual one occurred in 1914 when Illinois State Auditor James Brady was sued — by his wife. Brady was a former telegrapher and bartender, according to the Illinois Comptroller’s Web site. Mary Quinlan Kuhn secretly married Brady in Michigan, just two days after she’d divorced her first husband. For some reason, the marriage wasn’t valid in Illinois, which means Brady had to marry her again in this state for it to be valid here. He refused. She sued him. The case was dismissed after the parties reached a settlement.
Some men throughout the country, especially older, wealthy ones, claimed that greedy, unscrupulous women would twist their words and blackmail them with threats of breach of promise lawsuits. (According to his Sept. 9, 1890, New York Times obituary, this happened to former U.S. Senator Isaac Christiancy of Michigan. It says he felt forced to marry the young girl he fancied after she threatened to sue, and “lead a sorry life of it for two years” until he divorced her.)
In 1947 Illinois lawmakers agreed that such cases had “been subject to grave abuses and…used as an instrument for blackmail by unscrupulous persons for their unjust
enrichment,” according to the Breach of Promise Act, which is still part of Illinois law. So
they changed the law and made these cases tougher to prove and limited the type
of damages the guilty would have to pay.
Contact Tara McClellan McAndrew at email@example.com.