11 Jaw-Dropping Scandals from the Turn of the Century

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Debauchery, skullduggery, and other –erys were rampant in late 19th and early 20th century society. Check out 11 scandals that caused more than one decent citizen to nearly drop her hand fan.

1. The First Trial of the Century 

Evelyn Nesbit arrived in New York City in 1900 as a 15-year-old ingénue, climbing the social ranks and forging a modeling career. She also attracted her share of inappropriate attention, including untoward advances from 50-something Stanford White. When Nesbit’s husband, Harry Thaw, learned of White’s sexual impropriety years after the fact, he did what any gentleman would do: He shot White dead in front of hundreds of witnesses. Thaw was no prize himself—he had a reputation as a cocaine fiend and woman-beater—but the public nonetheless sided with him over White, who was married at the time of his indiscretion (Nesbit, who would marry Thaw later, was not then attached). Thaw was committed to a mental institution before being released in 1915.

2. The Preacher and the Parishioner 

An incendiary speaker, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher was quite possibly the most famous minister of 19th century America. Despite all the goodwill equity he had built up over the years, the public was aghast when Beecher was accused of sleeping with a married parishioner in 1872. The woman’s husband, Theodore Tilton, sued Beecher in 1875 for the act of “criminal conversation” and demanded $100,000 in restitution. The jury found him not guilty; he resumed his pulpit, and spent the next decade campaigning for presidents and commenting on public affairs.

3. The Affairs of Lady Mordaunt

The collective skirts of Victorian society were practically blown off by the news that married socialite Lady Harriet Mordaunt had been carrying on with the Prince of Wales and other partners in 1870s Warwickshire. Mordaunt confessed to her husband, Charles, after her child was suspected of having syphilis. When Charles demanded a divorce, Harriet attempted to evade a separation by claiming insanity, eating coal, and smashing dishes. The ruse worked a little too well: She was hauled off to a mental institution.

4. The Black Dress That Caused Pandemonium 

French artist John Singer Sargent hoped his work would draw notice, but he could never have imagined the hysteria that followed his Portrait of Madame X. An oil painting completed in 1884, Sargent used socialite Virginie Gautreau as his model, depicting her wearing a black dress held up by two narrow straps. Parisian culture took one look at her naked shoulders and wedding ring and assumed the worst. Sargent was demonized: His career in tatters, he headed for a fresh start in London. Virginie was forever shunned by high society.  

5. The Married Couple Handbook 

1877 was not a good year to argue against sexual repression. It was particularly egregious if you happened to be a feminist or an atheist, which Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh were, respectively. The two took it upon themselves to republish a work titled Fruits of Philosophy: or The Private Companion of Young Married Couples, a how-to in contraceptive habits. So damaged were delicate public sensibilities that Besant and Bradlaugh were put on trial. (This was not unexpected, as previous publishers had been arrested; and indeed, getting their case to trial was their goal, in order to challenge a new obscenity law.) A jury found the work indecent but preferred not to hold them responsible for it. (The judge disagreed, sentencing them to 6 months in prison, but that got overturned on a technicality.) Despite warnings, they kept selling the book. The case is credited with raising awareness of birth control. 

6. The One-Piece Swimsuit 

To understand famed Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman’s bravado, you have to have a grasp on how hopelessly proper the beaches of the early 1900s were. Australia had banned daylight swimming or bathing, and female swimsuits were almost religious affairs, covering the wearer from head to toe. But Kellerman rejected this notion, preferring a tighter one-piece suit that left the arms and legs bare. She was arrested in 1907 for subjecting fellow beach-goers in Massachusetts to such horrors.

7. Grover Cleveland’s Campaign Woes 

Cleveland will go down in history as the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, but his first term in office was nearly waylaid by a campaign scandal. In 1874, it was revealed that he had fathered an illegitimate child and was paying the mother support. Cleveland was still able to capture the vote by owning up to the incident—though he was a bit of a glutton for punishment, later marrying a woman 27 years his junior while still in the White House.

8. The Tranby Croft Affair 

Mustaches bristled when a gaming scandal involving the Prince of Wales become the talk of Britain in 1890. The prince was playing at the estate of Arthur Wilson, who hosted a card game that also included army officer William Gordon-Cumming. As the games continued, the party noticed Gordon-Cumming was altering his bet after the cards had been dealt. After some likely exclamations of “I say!” and protracted harrumphing, both Gordon-Cumming and the prince were dragged through public mud. Cheating was bad, but gambling was no better: It was illegal.

9. Mary Pickford, Divorcée 

Silent film star Pickford tested her audience’s adoration of her by committing an unthinkable act: She divorced her husband, Owen Moore, in 1920, and married Douglas Fairbanks less than a month later. The two had tried to keep their affair a secret, as Fairbanks was also married. Once word got out, Pickford’s career might have been derailed if not for the fact that Moore was reported to be abusive. Pickford’s action evolved from scandalous to courageous, and her reputation emerged unscathed.

10. The Rainbow Trial 

D.H. Lawrence, author of the controversial Lady Chatterley’s Lover, also faced criticism for an earlier novel depicting sexual acts, 1915’s The Rainbow. Publisher Methuen was nervous off the bat, fearing the UK’s Obscene Publications Act of 1857 would bring trouble; they even resorted to edits without Lawrence’s knowledge. After an outcry and trial, all copies were burnt and their sale prohibited. 

11. The Dancing Marquis 

Henry Paget may not have invented the phrase “spoiled brat,” but he certainly did enough to cement its definition. After his father died in 1898, Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, inherited property that earned roughly £110,000 annually (today, that would be equivalent to £55 million). He proceeded to spend his windfall on complete frivolity that captivated the public and press: He collected silk gowns, covered his bedroom in velvet, and even modified his car’s exhaust to spray perfume. He was so material-minded that his wife, Lilian, demanded an annulment, allegedly because he preferred to cover her naked body in jewels rather than make love.

Paget went on to build a playhouse so he could perform with a hired repertory company: His specialty was a fluid, vaguely erotic dance routine. By 1904, his spending had so far outpaced his bank account that he sold most of his belongings to pay off his debts—not even his parrot was safe from creditors.

The Newport Bellacourts have never met a scandal they didn’t like. Tune in to Comedy Central Tuesdays at 10:30/ 9:30c on Comedy Central and on the Comedy Central app to see what they're up to next.

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