Carole Owens: Jilted gentleman establishes a precedent


STOCKBRIDGE >> It happened in Berkshire County this month. That is this month 142 years ago. It was first reported in The Berkshire Evening Eagle; then the Boston Herald, and finally the New York Times.

On March 3, 1874 in Berkshire Superior Court, a man filed a breach of promise suit against a woman and claimed damages of $10,000. It was unprecedented.

Breach of promise suits were not unusual. Throughout the 19th century into the early 20th century, there were many breach of promise suits but they all had two things in common. First they were invariably filed by women against men. Second the suits were for substantial sums of money — $100,000-$500,000 — not $10,000. The larger amounts reflected a woman's expectation that as a wife she would be supported by her husband. In breaking his promise to marry her, a woman was harmed emotionally and financially.

This was a suit filed by a man. His name was George F. Butler, formerly from Lenox, and at the time of filing, living in Sandisfield.

Met in Lenox

Butler sued Susan B. Richards nee Chadwick, of Newton Massachusetts. When he estimated his damages at $10,000, he did not use the words emotional distress or pain and suffering, but that is what he meant.

Butler v. Richards was a unique case. This was news! The papers reported it and the public argued the merits. Here were the facts.

Butler and Chadwick met 12 years earlier in that "quiet and romantic place," Lenox, Massachusetts. Mrs. Chadwick, a widow, and her beautiful daughter Susan, visited Lenox for the summer. They boarded at a house wherein Butler's mother entertained summer guests.

George thought Susan a pious and exemplary young woman and he was much interested. He escorted her to church services. He escorted her to a revival meeting taking place in Lenox that summer.

George was a well-turned-out young man, and he was careful to be well-conducted. He was intelligent and entertaining. The couple esteemed and enjoyed one another. It was a foregone conclusion that they would meet again the following summer.

The Chadwick women returned the following summer and rented Fanny Kemble's house, the Perch, in Lenox for an extended stay. Again George and Susan met, went out together, and enjoyed it. Their summer visits to Lenox became a fixed part of the Chadwick routine. Then two things happened.

According to George, Susan gave him her promise to wed, and Mrs. Chadwick awoke to the notion that these two were becoming more than casual summer friends.

The Chadwick women were welcome in the best social circles and were possessed of great wealth. Mrs. Chadwick was adamant: her daughter was not to marry the son of a Berkshire farmer; she was not to marry the son of their former landlady.

In private, Mrs. Chadwick forbade the union. Under her mother's influence, Susan denied the promise. They left Lenox. A notice in the newspaper shows the widow and daughter sailed to Europe. They never returned to Lenox.

Holding fast to what he knew to be her promise and oblivious to the rest, George waited. He waited patiently for years. As George waited, Susan was courted by a man more agreeable to her mother's taste. They married. George awoke to the breach of promise only when he read of Susan's marriage to another. Then he filed suit.

There is no follow-up to the Berkshire Evening Eagle story. There is no follow-up in the Herald or the New York Times. In this unusual case, what was the verdict? Did it set precedents?

Unfortunately for George, Susan married a lawyer. On March 19, 1874, Attorney Richards arrived in Pittsfield to"attend to his wife's interest in the case."

Tough case to make

Richards made short work of Butler's claim. He won the point that assertion was not fact and no fact supported George Butler's assertion of a promise. He convinced George and his attorney that the suit would fail and perhaps that George was making a public spectacle of himself. If any settlement was made, it was made out of court.

Butler remained in Sandisfield, buying the Hull property for $1,000 in the hopes of improving his lot and selling it in the same year for $500. No clear wins for George F. Butler (future postmaster of Sandisfield). Richards returned to Newton to enjoy the marital bliss with Susan that Butler had hoped for.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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