The Summer 2017 issue of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society is now available on Project MUSE, https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/36391
VOL. 115, NO. 3 | SUMMER 2017
More Than a Congressman’s Mistress: Ambition and Scandal in the Life of Madeleine Pollard
By Elizabeth De Wolfe
Although Madeleine Pollard was somewhat of a celebrity in her day, few know her name today. Like Monica Lewinsky, Pollard was known only as the mistress of a politician, thanks to an 1894 trial in which she sued Kentucky congressman W. C. P. Breckinridge for breach of promise (he had promised to marry her but backed out, tarnishing her virtue, she claimed). But, Pollard was not one dimensional; she was much more than a congressman’s mistress. From fragmentary evidence, Elizabeth De Wolfe has reconstructed Pollard’s life before, during, and after the 1894 trial that made her famous. De Wolfe presents a portrait of a young woman who had big dreams but, because of her gender, few options in life. Despite coming from humble beginnings in rural Kentucky, Pollard founds ways to become upwardly mobile. She attended college, she wrote poetry, she hobnobbed with the political and literary elite of the east coast, and she almost, perhaps, married a congressman. After the trial, which she won, her reputation was tarnished, but she lived a full life, mostly as an expatriate in Britain.
Confronting a Petty Tyrant: Patriarchy and Protest at Millersburg Female College, 1880–1884
By Charles L. Davis
The Reverend George T. Gould ruled Millersburg Female College in Bourbon County with an iron fist. As president and owner of the college—and as a man—Gould believed it was his right to run the college for young women as he saw fit. By the early 1880s, though, his behavior had become more erratic and his rule over the college more autocratic. Despite living in a patriarchal society, several women decided to speak out against Gould. By 1884, several female teachers and students had complained about him. Unfortunately, none of their complaints were taken seriously by anyone with authority in the community. Finally, when it became known that Gould had had an affair with a twenty-year-old student, Kentucky’s Methodist leaders tried Gould for “immorality,” ultimately expelling him from the Methodist ministry. As author Charles Davis makes clear, women in the Gilded Age were largely powerless in the face of patriarchal and managerial authority of men like Gould. The oppressed often internalize the ideals of their oppressors, and Davis demonstrates the power of the patriarchal ideal for the women in Gould’s life. None of the women actually challenged the patriarchal system itself; they simply demanded that the patriarch of the college act more appropriately.
The Skirted Sheriff: Florence Thompson and the Nation’s Last Public Execution
By Carrie Pitzulo
As Carrie Pitzulo points out, it was not entirely unusual for a woman to replace her deceased husband after he died while serving in public office. What makes Florence Thompson’s case so unique is that when she replaced her deceased husband as sheriff of Daviess County in April 1936, she became part of a nationally significant case. The case itself was, unfortunately, also not that unusual, especially in the South: a black man was accused of raping and murdering a white woman on flimsy evidence. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to be executed by hanging. What brought national attention to Owensboro in 1936 was the convergence of two parts of this story: a female sheriff might oversee an execution by hanging, a practice that had been banned in every state except Kentucky. Should a woman—a mother—kill a man, even if it was part of her official duties as sheriff? Ultimately, Rainey Bethea was executed by hanging, but Thompson did not pull the lever. But, as Pitzulo notes, Thompson’s presumed role in the execution opened up a national debate about gender roles during the Great Depression. Although women could vote and many worked in jobs outside the home, some people still questioned their presence in the public sphere and many expressed their anxiety about a woman doing the ultimate “man’s job.”