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The Parson And The Bluestocking
The spinster thought she’d been proposed to; the young minister thought not. Their courtship and quarrel rocked devout New Haven
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
Doctor Taylor heard MacWhorter out sympathetically. Having endorsed the young man in the community, he chose not to take sides but rather to make peace between the parties and hush things up. With this purpose Taylor called on Delia, bearing with him MacWhorter’s peace terms. Quite simply they were as follows: if Delia would abstain from defending her “delicacy” and withdraw her accusations, MacWhorter would suppress his “evidence” against her. If not, he would be forced to vindicate his honor by bringing a charge of slander against her.
The Bacon family, as one man, indignantly rejected such a course. Taylor’s olive branch might as well have been gunpowder thrown on the conflagration. The Bacons would not hold their tongues, would not bargain, and would have the case tried.
The hearing was convened in Jeremiah Day’s house (he had just resigned the presidency of Yale in the hope of spending his last days in peace). Twenty-three exasperated divines met together to try one of their own in a case of ill-considered coquetry. The parish clergy, headed by Bacon, lined up for Delia; the university theologians, for Taylor and MacWhorter.
Ponderously the inquiry lumbered on its way while the Day parlor shivered under oratory bedizened with classical allusions and ominous references to the Old Testament. Henrietta Blake, from the perspective of Cornwall Bridge, whither she had discreetly decamped following the receipt of a severe letter from Doctor Bacon raking her for having let her eyes fall on Delia’s letters, fairly glistened with moral indignation as the mails brought her almost daily accounts of the trial.
“Poor Mr. MacWhorter!” Miss Bacon had remarked, among other things, that “Hettie Blake is doing her prettiest to obtain Mr. MacWhorter,” Henrietta wrote her sister, Mary. Then came, one supposes, a Dickensian toss of curls, an enchanting moue .
“Now I think it very likely that I was doing my prettiest to Mr. MacWhorter. I’m sure I hope I always do to everybody and if I wasn’t doing it to him I was making an exception which I don’t suppose I did.”
Sarah Thacher, Hettie’s cousin, added a postscript: “All that I have to say is !!!!!!! ??????? … What is Miss Bacon made of? If I were a medical student I should wait anxiously for her demise in order to procure a post mortem analyzation. As to Mr. MacWhorter, his evidence seems to come out strong enough but I am not prepared to swallow whole all his simple negations. What a disgusting concern … Do you seriously believe that anybody tells the truth nowadays?”
The committee ruled that in view of Leonard Bacon’s demand for impeachment, the burden of proof lay with him. His faction resorted to comparing Taylor to John King, the London blackmailer of women, while the defense retaliated by hinting that Delia had tampered with the correspondence made available to the court. Further, a witness was heard from who testified to the happiness of also having received proposals of marriage from Delia. Benjamin Silliman, Sr., who had seen her letters, saved her from the imputation of forgery. In the matter of the second charge Delia was able to prove that the surprise witness had proposed to her some years earlier and had been rejected.
Delia trembled and wept when giving her testimony; MacWhorter maintained an ineffable calm. He did not attempt to deny what could not be denied. He merely stuck to his original story. He was not responsible for Delia’s misconstruction of his intentions. His behavior was perfectly consonant with that appropriate to a minister of the gospel. The issue was clear enough. Justinian himself could not have tried either Delia or MacWhorter for going to stay at a resort in Vermont, although both were guilty of doing so.
The decision when it came showed frenzied footwork. Eleven of the members found for Delia, twelve for MacWhorter. On the one hand it was agreed that the licentiate had been “in a greater or less degree imprudent in his conduct.” “But,” rumbled the clergymen, “by which we do not intend to imply that what the aforesaid licentiate has reported of the relative of the complainant is true.” They further advised that a committee of three should be appointed “to give with Christian and paternal kindness such admonition to him as in their view the case may require.”
MacWhorter’s Pyrrhic victory was a rout for Delia. Nothing short of his impeachment could have saved her mangled fame. She felt herself ruined.