"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 11, 2015

Rawson vs. Rawson; or, When Divorce Becomes Target Practice

One of the livelier divorce cases of the 19th century--oh, hell, in any century--was the Great Case of Rawson vs. Rawson, a story of marital unhappiness that had more shoot 'em ups than a Quentin Tarantino Film Festival.

Our story begins around 1885, when Stephen W. Rawson, a wealthy Chicagoan who was President of the Union Trust Co. Bank, met an attractive woman named America "Meckie" Slaymaker Lee.  She was a department clerk in Washington (where she was said to have been involved in "some highly sensational incidents,") twice-divorced and the mother of two children. She was, we are told, "something of a watering-place belle."

Rich, susceptible, middle-aged man meets pretty young thing in need of money and security for herself and her youngsters. It will not surprise anyone that in March of that year, they married.

It will also probably not surprise anyone that the marriage was not a success. Three months after the wedding, Banker Rawson was thinking divorce. Here is where things began to get complicated. If you believe one side in this domestic conflict, Mr. Rawson could not find any grounds for divorcing his wife, so he "employed a number of detectives to antagonize her,"and, in June 1887, filed for divorce on cruel and wholly trumped-up charges of infidelity.

If you believe the other side, of course, the poor man was simply trying to free himself from the clutches of a gold-digging vixen who only married him for his money, and then thanked him for his generosity with the most blatant infidelities. She was, he insisted, "a disreputable, devilish-tempered adventuress." Rawson claimed that his wife's divorce from her first husband, John Slaymaker, was illegal, thus rendering the Rawson marriage invalid. Mrs. Rawson promptly filed a counter-suit, alleging cruelty and refusal to support her, and husband and wife traded public insults in the most time-honored fashion. Mr. Rawson filed bills. Mrs. Rawson filed cross-bills. As a contemporary paper reported breathessly, "there have been rejoinders and sur-rejoinders, affadavits, depositions, and traverses until the accumulation is far beyond any precedent in even a Chicago divorce case. Both parties to the suit have had detectives watching each other, and whenever a detective saw a chance for an affidavit one was immediately added to the pile."

Then, on October 16, Meckie's 17-year-old son, William Ralph Lee, walked up to Mr. Rawson as his stepfather was leaving church and shot him five times. After his arrest, the young man said, "He tried to ruin my mother as well as my sister and I couldn't stand it."

When told the news by a reporter, Mrs. Rawson snapped, "I am glad of it. He deserved it...I intended to do it myself."

Young Lee--who remained not only unrepentant, but thoroughly nonchalant, throughout the legal proceedings against him--pleaded guilty and was given 18 months in jail, the maximum sentence allowed for those under 18 years of age. His mother was charged with complicity in the crime, but the case against her was dropped for lack of evidence. Meanwhile, her 12-year-old daughter Dot sued Rawson for slander, due to his claim that the marriage between Meckie and Charles Lee had been invalid, thus implying the girl was illegitimate.

Although the banker's condition remained precarious for some weeks, he eventually recovered from his wounds, and the Great Rawson Battle commenced anew.

Mrs. Rawson, it seems, decided that not quite enough blood had been spilled. On June 2, 1888, a courtroom in Chicago was scheduled to hear the latest round of the divorce case. The onlookers got a far different show, instead. In open court, while the docket was being called, Meckie walked over to where her husband's attorney, Colonel H.C. Whitney, was sitting, and shot at him. She chased him across the courtroom, emptying her Smith & Weston before she was captured. Whitney had been shot twice, in the groin and left leg. There was a "fearful struggle" before the hysterical woman was subdued.

Whitney, whose injuries were not life-threatening--mother and son were enthusiastic, but inefficient assassins--said afterward that he had been expecting something of this sort, as Mrs. Rawson had threatened to kill him. With, it must be said, some justification, he added that Mrs. R. was a dangerous woman who should not be allowed to run at large. Her lawyer, a Mr. Payne, retorted that his client was "an outraged woman," whose attack on Whitney was "only an effort to avenge shameful injury...no woman had a more just cause of quarrel against a man who scarcely deserves the name than Mrs. Rawson had against Mr. Whitney."

Mrs. Rawson, of course, was immediately indicted for attempted murder. It was reported that she was very surprised that her action had not met with approval. She told a very peculiar story about the circumstances which had led up to her act. She claimed that several days previously, a Mr. Hobbs told her that he had married Ida Hamilton, a woman who had initially testified in favor of Mrs. Rawson in the divorce trial, but subsequently went over to the enemy camp. Meckie said Hobbs told her that Hamilton confided to him that one of Mr. Rawson's detectives had had a falling out with the banker, and was now ready to turn over to Mrs. Rawson everything he knew about her husband's machinations against her. Supposedly, Hobbs told Meckie that Ida Hamilton had been bribed to testify against her, and that Mr. Rawson was fully prepared to pay off the jury, as well, if necessary.

"When I learned that," Mrs. Rawson said, "I was nearly distracted."

Between the civil and criminal cases they were spawning, the Rawson household was certainly keeping the lawyers busy. While Mrs. Rawson awaited her trial, the divorce attorneys reached an amicable settlement. Mr. Rawson would settle $40,000 on his wife, and agreed not to contest her charge of desertion. He would retract all the charges he made against her in his bill, and all civil litigation would also be withdrawn.

By this point, there was probably no price Mr. Rawson would not pay to be out of this marriage.

In January 1889, Meckie Rawson went on trial for shooting Whitney, who was, by that time, in an insane asylum--dealing with the Rawsons, it must be said, would probably be too much for anyone's sanity. The courthouse was packed with sensation-hungry Chicagoans, and they certainly got their money's worth. The prosecution kicked things off by reading the Grand Jury testimony of one of Mr. Rawson's attorneys, LH. Bistee. He said that Matt Hogan, one of Mrs. Rawson's detectives, told him that she had tried to hire Hogan to poison her husband's gin. After Hogan refused the job, she enlisted her former husband, Charles Lee--who was an army deserter and professional gambler--to do the deed. Supposedly, Lee was on his way to Chicago when his son beat him to the punch. The Grand Jury testimony of Ida Hamilton was also read. She said the defendant was "profane and violent," and that before her marriage, she was angry at Rawson for not paying her son William--who was employed in his stepfather's bank--a higher salary. "She said that she would get even with the old Spoopendyke." (You heard me. Spoopendyke.) "She would marry him, make his money fly, and then get rid of him."

The real fun came when the defendant herself took the stand. Finally given what she had most wanted--full rein to tell her story--she spoke nonstop for five hours. Whenever the hapless prosecuting attorney tried to get a word in edgewise, Mrs. Rawson would brush him off with "Keep quiet!"

She said that when Mr. Rawson proposed to her in 1885, he told her he wanted a woman "who would paralyze the westsiders." "I did paralyze them, too!" she laughed.

Chances are, the courtroom onlookers were pretty paralyzed by this point, as well.

According to Mrs. Rawson, trouble arose early in their marriage, when she wished to dismiss a maid, Bridget Quigley. When she demanded her husband fire the girl, he replied, "Madame, you can leave the house if you don't like it." When she "saw the look of triumph spreading over that girl's face," she knew her marriage was a failure.

She gave her account of the notorious "sleeping car trip," which the banker had used as evidence of her adultery. She said that while on a journey to Kansas with her husband, he had introduced to her a real estate agent named Solomon. "Mr. Rawson left me in the car with Solomon for a short time. The real estate man, who sat in the same seat with me, was very fat, and as I am no fairy we were pretty close together. Mr. Rawson said I had been in a compromising position with Solomon and made the matter the subject of an affadavit."

Mrs. Rawson also informed the courtroom that her husband colored his hair, and the dye from his whiskers would stain her lips when he kissed her. "I can tell you just where he bought his dye."

What this had to do with the attempted murder charges against her, God only knew, but her audience must have found it immensely entertaining.

Returning to the shooting, Mrs. Rawson said, "I expect you'll ask me where I got my pistol." She explained that she was living alone, "and was in constant danger of being annoyed and entrapped by Mr. Rawson's detectives." Everywhere she went, "there was Rawson with a lot of affidavits. He had affidavits from his coachman, his hostler, and some more of his hired people. He had one from his physician. It was paid for. I know it was, because I got one myself once. You can get them for $5."

The week before the shooting, Mrs. Rawson barely slept, and she was in such a condition, she didn't know what she was doing at times. The night before the near-murder, she heard a voice crying out, "Kill him, kill him!" over and over. The next morning, "in a dazed condition," she started for the courthouse to confront Mr. Whitney.

Mrs. Rawson did not care to be cross-examined. Whenever the prosecuting attorney asked her questions she found unpleasant, she gave him "a piece of her mind," in such a "short, incisive way with the result as a rule that that particular line of inquiry was abandoned."

It was undoubtedly a good thing the defendant was weaponless when the servant girl, Bridget Quigley, took the stand. As one reporter noted "it was at once evident that no love was lost" between her and the defendant. Miss Quigley calmly described Mrs. Rawson as a greedy woman of few morals. She denied that the defendant had wanted her to leave the household; on the contrary, Meckie had offered her a raise if she would stay. Mrs. Rawson, she went on, was "addicted to the use of profane and vulgar language, and proceeded to give alleged samples of it, which were of a character to preclude their publication, and which were in fact so shocking as to call out a protest from Judge Tuthill."

Mrs. Rawson, as can be imagined, did not take this quietly. Miss Quigley's remarks were "punctuated occasionally by exclamations from Mrs. Rawson to the general effect that the witness was drawing on her imagination for her facts to a most astonishing degree. Mrs. Rawson also took occasion, sotto voce, that the sealskin cloak and laces with which Bridget had adorned herself withal were the price of her shame."

As there was no question whatsoever that Mrs. Rawson had shot lawyer Whitney, the only real issue before the court was whether or not she was sane at the time. As always with "expert witnesses," both sides were able to present testimony favorable to their side. Doctors for the prosecution said she was in her "right mind" when she pumped Whitney full of lead, while doctors for the defense said she was not.

All in all, the results of the trial were not particularly surprising. After only a short period of deliberation, the jury acquitted Mrs. Rawson. The official verdict found her "guilty of assault, but insane and irresponsible at the time." Our heroine left the courthouse a free woman.

After thanking the jury individually, Meckie glared over at the prosecutor, State Attorney Elliot, and shouted, "How much did Rawson pay you?"

Elliot laughed and said nothing.

This only seemed to incense the lady further. "I'll find out all about this," she warned. "You've abused me shamefully during this trial and I'll hold you responsible for it."

Wisely, her friends hustled her out of the courthouse at that point. They knew by now that when Meckie Rawson set out to hold people responsible, that usually meant bullets were about to start flying.

One journalist covering the trial summed up the verdict in these words: "The trial brought out the fact that Mrs. Rawson was a woman of ungovernable temper, a regular she-devil when she got fully aroused, and a woman of adventurous predilections. Even during the trial she was a terror to the court, lawyers and jury, whose outbursts the judge was unable to prevent or subdue. The jury evidently concluded that the easiest way to get rid of her and save the state any further trouble with so ugly a customer was to call her temporarily insane and let her go."

Can't say any fairer than that.

After Mrs. Rawson's acquittal, her daughter Dot told a Chicago paper that her mother had written a play about her ill-fated marriage, in which, of course, she planned to play herself. It's safe to say the American stage lost out on a memorable experience when these plans came to nothing. Instead, Mrs. Rawson went on a tour of Europe. After he was released from prison in August of 1889, her son William caught up with her on her travels. It was said that in Italy, she became engaged for the fourth time. The bravery of some men almost defies belief.

Unfortunately, that is the last bit of information I have been able to find about this singularly stormy petrel. In 1906, Stephen Rawson died at the age of 69 after a long illness. As for that other Rawson victim, Henry C. Whitney, he evidently recovered both his health and his sanity. He had been a friend and associate of Abraham Lincoln, and his 1892 book "Life on the Circuit With Lincoln," was highly regarded. Two years later, he published "Marriage and Divorce: The Effect of Each on Personal Status and Property Rights."

Very disappointingly, the name of Rawson never appears once in the volume.

1 comment:

  1. The verdict in Mrs Rawson's trial demonstrates that, despite beliefs, justice in the old days was sometimes ludicrously lenient. I don't suppose the world was lucky enough for her fourth marriage to be to a man nicknamed 'the Italian Bluebeard' or some such thing?


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