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Splitting Headaches

June 2024
4min read

The Ten Most Scandalous Divorces in American History


Although desertion provided adequate grounds for divorce in Connecticut, William Thrall decided to allege adultery as well. Hannah Thrall, who risked losing rights to his substantial property, fought back in kind. For the next several years, members of the tightly knit community of Windsor paraded through an austere New England church giving lurid testimony. Neighbor stopped talking to neighbor, and relative to relative. The court finally refused the divorce on the grounds that a husband whose behavior drives his wife away is himself the deserter. In 1739 William died, leaving Hannah a 36-year-old widow with a hefty nest egg and a flaming past that set the standard for American divorce scandal.


When Stephen Lufkin charged his wife with adultery, and William Haskell testified that he had indeed had sexual relations with Tabitha Lufkin, the court not only granted Lufkin his divorce but also took note of Haskell’s testimony that Tabitha had said that if he refused her, she would find “Some other Man For She Did not Love her Husband Lufkin.” Since there is no record that either Tabitha or Haskell was punished for the crime of fornication, we can assume that the no-love defense had entered American law.


The defendant was Fanny Kemble, the toast of both the British and American stage. The plaintiff was Pierce Butler, of a Philadelphia family that, in former President Martin Van Buren’s words, “for three generations has been the curse of every woman connected with the name.” The celebrity divorce had arrived. Fanny countered her husband’s long list of grievances with a narrative citing a few of his many infidelities; the judge refused to admit it as evidence, but the press didn’t share his scruples, and the newspaper accounts turned the tide of opinion in Fanny’s favor. Fearing that Butler was squandering her daughters’ inheritance, she withdrew her defense and accepted his terms anyway. Settlement by financial attrition would become an American tradition.




Another well-known actor, Edwin Forrest, drove his lovely British-born wife from his house (literally, in a carriage); she then sued for divorce, and in an orgy of accusations, friends, acquaintances, and servants lined up to testify. Some said Mr. Forrest frequented houses of ill fame and had been seen leaving his leading lady’s hotel room early one morning. Others swore that in her husband’s absence Mrs. Forrest had turned his home into “a common resort for some of the most notorious roués and libertines of New York.” The jury found him guilty of adultery and awarded her a handsome $3,000 a year.


In October 1869, as the recently divorced Abby Sage McFarland prepared to marry Albert D. Richardson, a well-connected former Civil War correspondent, her ex-husband, Daniel McFarland, burst into the offices of the New York Tribune and shot Richardson in the stomach. America’s most popular clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher, married the dying man to the divorced woman, outraging both press and public. Then 2,000 women crowded Apollo Hall in New York to petition the governor to commit the acquitted murderer to an asylum. McFarland, they argued, should be either hospitalized if insane as judged or hanged if not.


Upton Sinclair always maintained that he sought no publicity for himself. His wife, Meta, made no such disclaimer. After he had sued her for divorce and named the latest in her long line of lovers as corespondent, she told reporters she was eager to have others learn from her experience. Soon the tabloids were trumpeting the case and Meta’s father was telling the World that his son-in-law was “an unripe persimmon.” Though the scandal made good newspaper copy, Sinclair’s graphic account of watching his wife and her lover couple and then finding solace in another woman’s bed never found a publisher, which clearly contradicts the plus ça change theory of history.



In a suit that packed all the raw kick and unpredictable aftereffects of bootleg booze, James Stillman, president of National City Bank, charged his wife, Anne, and an Indian guide at their Quebec lodge with adultery. She counterattacked by accusing James of being the father of a former Ziegfeld Follies girl’s illegitimate son. Before long, people began noticing that Anne’s blue-eyed, blond-haired child bore less likeness to the Québecois guide or her husband than to Fowler McCormick, a teenage grandson of puritanical old John D. Rockefeller. After five years and almost a million dollars, the attorneys negotiated a reconciliation, and the Stillmans lived happily ever after—until, a decade and a half later, in a surprise love-conquers-all ending, the 50-year-old Anne divorced James and married 29-year-old Fowler McCormick.


Though Leonard Rhinelander grew up in a tony Madison Avenue mansion, he suffered cruelly from his mother’s violent death when he was 14, his father’s icy arrogance, and his own stutter. No wonder Kip, as he was called, fell immediately in love with the darkly lovely and entirely adoring Alice Jones. But Kip’s father was less susceptible to the charms of his new daughter-in-law, who’d once worked in the laundry room of the New York Athletic Club. When the tabloids screamed SOCIALITE MARRIES NEGRESS , the senior Rhinelander sued for an annulment on the grounds that Alice had misled his son. While Rhinelander’s attorneys portrayed Kip as “backward” and “brain-tied,” the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses, politicians squared off in the Senate restaurant, and Calvin Coolidge refused to comment. The jury denied the annulment, but the trial, which featured Alice’s forced disrobing in a New York Supreme Court jury room, was a perfect marriage of national prurience and racial prejudice. (For more, see “The Time Machine,” page 85.)


Ingrid Bergman didn’t just deceive a husband and abandon a child; she betrayed an entire nation, and post-World War II America was not about to let her get away with it. Before she fell in love with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini, the Saturday Review wrote: “The cleanliness of her spirit is truly next to godliness.” When she left her physician husband and small daughter to live with Rossellini in Rome and bear his son out of wedlock, five and a half million American clubwomen voted to boycott her films. Federico Fellini called her “an American saint,” but the nation made her a martyr, and Bergman rose to the role: “I am glad that all those other women, in small and big towns all over the world, who suffer because of their ‘sins,’ will take on a little more courage because of me.” Ilsa Laszlo could not have said it better.



Headlines told of sexual high jinks with a trumpet, and the wife’s “first step toward … autonomy” was to pose for Playboy . More than a mere divorce, the split between the Palm Beach heir Herbert Pulitzer, Jr., and his wife, Roxanne, was an expression of the Zeitgeist . He accused her of a lesbian affair; she insisted she’d merely agreed to a ménage àtrois he’d been demanding, and said they had celebrated with 50 lines of cocaine laid out to spell “Happy Birthday, Rox.” The judge cited her “gross, moral misconduct” and his “painful hurt” while giving him custody of their twin boys. More than three centuries after colonial courts had decreed a wife’s adultery grounds for divorce, but not a husband’s, the action was still not equal opportunity.



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