Historical lecture tells of love, betrayal and intrigue
The calendar was turned back to the 1890s Thursday evening, June 25, to relive a scandalous trial involving a famous Kentucky Congressman, his jilted mistress and the lurid affair’s mysterious connection to Wiscasset.
Dr. Elizabeth De Wolfe, professor of history and chairman of the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of New England, kept the audience on the edge of their seats for more than an hour. Her lecture at the Nickels-Sortwell House Barn at 121 Main Street was sponsored by Historic New England.
Using a PowerPoint presentation with many rare 19th century photographs and illustrations, De Wolf narrated a fascinating story of love, betrayal, deception and intrigue. All of which was played out in colorful detail in the national press of the day.
De Wolf said the story began when Civil War veteran, Col. William C.P. Breckinridge of Kentucky, a five-term Democratic congressman, became involved with Madeline Pollard, an ambitious college girl.
The Breckinridge name was well known in 19th century American politics. William’s grandfather had been had an Attorney General, while a cousin, John C. Breckinridge, had been vice president under James Buchanan.
The affair with Miss Pollard, age 17, and 30 years younger than the Congressman, began with a chance meeting on a train. The pair become romantically involved. Breckinridge pays Maddie’s tuition and uses his political influence to get her a minor job working in Washington, D.C.
The story sounds like a modern day soap opera. After the Congressman’s wife dies and Maddie becomes pregnant, Breckinridge promises to marry her. But he then reneges and secretly marries a distant cousin.
Maddie, eager to publicize her pending engagement, publishes a wedding announcement in The Washington Post without Breckinridge’s knowledge. The wedding announcement creates quite a ruckus and in the ensuing excitement, Maddie suffers a miscarriage. Realizing she’d been lied too and used all along, she then sues the Congressman for breach of promise.
In building the case for the defense, the story takes a strange twist and a young girl from Wiscasset becomes involved. Enter Jennie Tucker, the youngest daughter of Captain Richard Tucker Jr. and his wife, Mollie.
Jennie, 28, also known as “Jane,” is hired by the Breckinridge legal team to spy on Maddie Pollard and dig up something they can use against her at the trial. According to De Wolf, Tucker’s connection with Breckinridge was through an attorney she’d worked for in Boston.
De Wolf spent many, many hours researching the case, pouring through hundreds of pages of records at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. She also had access to Tucker’s diaries.
Born in Wiscasset in 1866, young Jane, said De Wolf, longed for adventure and financial independence. She also had a bit of a temper.
De Wolf noted Jane lived in an age of American history when more employment opportunities were opening to women, but before women had won the right to vote. When the trial finally began in the spring of 1894, the jury was made up of all men.
Jane found Maddie Pollard living at a Washington, D.C., convent where she befriended her and then secretly funneled information about her to the Congressman’s attorneys.
De Wolf discovered that Miss Tucker used an alias during her undercover work and called herself “Agnes Parker.” She even wrote a book about her experience that she published under her assumed name, an original copy of which was only recently discovered in Lexington, Kentucky.
Following the trial, Jennie “Jane” Tucker eventually returned to Wiscasset where she resided at Castle Tucker on Lee Street. She never married and lived a long life. She died at age 98 in 1964.
Following her lecture, De Wolf graciously answered questions about her research and the book she’s writing about the Breckinridge affair which she’s titled: “The Congressman, the Mistress and the Girl Spy: Scandal and Secrets in the Gilded Age.” She hopes to have her book completed in the next two years.
De Wolf has published several books, including the award-winning, “The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories” (Kent State University Press, 2007).
De Wolf’s lecture was sponsored by Historic New England, which maintains the Nickels-Sortwell House on Main Street and Castle Tucker on Lee Street. Both have recently reopened for the summer.