1925 Seventy-five Years Ago

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On November 9, in White Plains, New York, proceedings began in the trial of Alice Beatrice Jones, who was being sued by her husband, Leonard Kip Rhinelander, for annulment of their marriage. The groom was the scion of one of New York City’s oldest and wealthiest families, while the bride was the daughter of a New Rochelle cabdriver. They had secretly married the previous fall, and when Rhinelander’s father found out, he quickly sent a lawyer to whisk the youngster away. Now the Rhinelanders were trying to annul the marriage on the grounds that Alice had hidden a terrible truth: She was “colored and of colored blood.”

The charge would be difficult to prove because on two occasions before their marriage Rhinelander and Alice had shacked up in a New York City hotel, the first time for a week and the second time for two weeks. Rhinelander admitted that he knew his wife’s skin was “dark” and had seen her father, who was considerably darker, but he said that he thought they were Spanish or perhaps that her father was a white man with jaundice. (Alice’s parents had emigrated from Britain, where her West Indian father and white mother had been servants on an estate.)

The trial lasted more than three weeks, with the high point coming on November 23. First some particularly explicit letters from Rhinelander to Alice were read (a reporter characterized one of them as “obscene throughout most of its length”). The judge had invited the female spectators to leave the courtroom beforehand, and when only a quarter of them did so voluntarily, he ordered the rest to be removed. Later that morning, before a small group in the privacy of the jury room, Alice removed part of her clothing to reveal the color of her skin, since her face was lighter than the rest of her.

This incident gave rise to one of the strangest episodes in the history of American journalism. No cameras were allowed in the jury room, which created a problem for the pictureheavy New York Graphic , a short-lived newspaper published by the eccentric self-improvement guru Bernarr Macfadden. The Graphic ’s resourceful editors responded by inventing the “composograph,” a low-tech version of today’s Photoshop retouching software. First they photographed a group of people with a bare-backed female model in a mockup of the jury room. Then artists cut the heads from photos of the judge, the jury, the lawyers, and Rhinelander and pasted them over the heads of the people in the picture. The Graphic sold an extra 100,000 copies that day.

As the trial drew to a close, White Plains sportsmen offered odds as high as five to one that Rhinelander would win, based on the belief, it was reported, “that a jury of twelve white men would not compel Rhinelander to maintain the responsibilities of husband to the daughter of a mulatto taxi driver.” In his closing statement, Rhinelander’s attorney, Isaac Newton Mills, a former state senator and state supreme court justice, appealed directly to such sentiments. “There isn’t a father among you,” he said to the jury, “who would not rather see his son in his casket than to see him wedded to a mulatto woman.”

Mills portrayed Rhinelander as a confused and backward youth who was preyed upon by Alice. Though just a few years older, he said, Alice was much more sophisticated, since “women of her race mature quickly and often are mothers at fifteen.” Mills portrayed Alice as a “vampire” whose mother had “sent her two younger daughters out to capture white husbands for themselves.” The Johnnie Cochran tactics were not successful; after 12 hours of stormy deliberations, the jury found for Alice. The Rhinelanders proceeded to dissolve their marriage in Nevada, then known as a haven for easy divorces, with Alice receiving a payment of $31,500 plus $300 a month for life.