Weird History
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How Madeline Pollard Sued A Congressman For Seducing Her - And Won

Updated June 14, 2019 43.1k views12 items

American scandals from the 1800s rocked the new nation, from Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings to the Whiskey Ring, which siphoned off millions in liquor taxes. The most shocking early American political scandals also include the Breckinridge affair, involving an impoverished orphan suing a congressman for seducing her.

Madeline Pollard was only 17 years old when she became intimate with the much-older congressman, William Breckinridge. For 10 years, Breckinridge paid Pollard's tuition, got her jobs, and promised to marry her. But when his wife passed, Breckinridge backed out of the promise and secretly married his cousin.

An outraged Pollard filed a lawsuit against her former lover for breaking his promise to marry her. No one thought Pollard would win her case - until she surprised everyone with her testimony in court. During an era when a first lady damaged her reputation when she posed for a handbag ad, the Breckinridge affair shocked the nation. Pollard admitted she carried on a relationship with a married man for a decade, even giving up two children for adoption. But instead of accepting the Victorian label of a "fallen" woman, Pollard insisted that the congressman was also accountable.

Pollard's daring case stands out as an example of how women influenced politics before they had the right to vote and before women could even sit on a jury.

  • Pollard Was A Teenage Orphan When She Met Breckinridge

    In April 1884, Pollard was 17 years old when she met Breckinridge for the first time. Though the politician was 30 years older than Pollard, who was still a student, the two struck up a correspondence. At the time, Pollard lived in Cincinnati, OH, where she attended a girls' school.

    Breckinridge told Pollard he could give her advice; she asked him how to manage her school debt. In response, Breckinridge asked Pollard to meet him alone. The two began a physically intimate relationship. 

  • Photo: J. Soule Smith / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During Their Affair, Pollard Gave Two Children Up For Adoption

    As their relationship continued, Breckinridge told Pollard he wanted her to transfer to a school closer to his home in Lexington, KY. He offered to pay her tuition and living expenses if Pollard attended the Sayre Institute.

    Behind his wife's back, Breckinridge met with his mistress dozens of times. When Pollard became pregnant in 1885, she gave up her child to an orphan asylum. Two years later, Pollard became pregnant again and gave up another child for adoption.

    Pollard explained that she gave both children up "because [Breckinridge had] asked me. He said that if I kept them it would be traced to him and they would be known as his children. A woman can't do more than that."

  • Photo: USCapitol / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Breckinridge Moved Pollard To DC And Promised To Marry Her

    In 1887, Pollard was pregnant for the second time, and Breckinridge was still a married man. To continue their relationship, Breckinridge asked Pollard to move to Washington, DC. The congressman pulled strings to get Pollard a job working at the Department of Agriculture. The pair continued to see each other several times a week.

    The relationship changed in 1892 when Breckinridge's wife passed. Since he was no longer married, Breckinridge promised he would marry Pollard. During Pollard's third pregnancy, Breckinridge said he would acknowledge the child as his own, and the couple began discussing baby names.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When Breckinridge Secretly Married His Cousin, Pollard Was Fed Up

    Pollard had been with Breckinridge for nearly a decade when they finally set a wedding date: May 31, 1893. Pollard was expecting her third child and ready to marry the congressman - but Breckinridge apparently got cold feet. Merely a month before the wedding, he married his cousin in secret.

    Pollard flew into a rage when she learned about the marriage. She then had a miscarriage days before her planned wedding date. Fed up with Breckinridge, Pollard filed a lawsuit against her lover for breaking his promise to marry her.