10 Tales of Mischievous, Dangerous, and Illegal Love Letters

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Turn-of-the-century newspapers loved love letters. Legal dramas and criminal cases played out on the front pages like romantic serials, and the plots often hinged on letters sweet, bitter, true, false, forged, stolen, bought or sold. “The locked desk is a fiction of novelists,” notes the Omaha Bee (1903). “Be assured of this, that if other people don’t read your letters it is because they don’t want to, not because they don’t have a chance.” Or, as another newspaper noted: “Never make love through an ink bottle.”

In these ten turn-of-the-century news stories, love letters are at the very heart of crimes, misdemeanors and the very popular “breach of promise to marry” lawsuits:

1. Katherine Poillon + W. Gould Brokaw (1903)

The Headline: Jilted Widow Sues New York Millionaire for $250,000. Mrs. Katherine Poillon, Who Brings the Suit for Breach of Promise, Claims that W. Gould Brokaw, the Defendant, Offered Her $50,000 to Settle It – Was Long Engaged to Him, She Declares, but Money and Family Pride Came Between Them – Two Hundred Fifty Love Letters Said to Back Her Assertions. [The (St. Louis) Republic]

The Lovers: A few literary theorists have posited that W. Gould Brokaw was an inspiration for Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby – Brokaw was a wealthy playboy with a rambling estate in Great Neck, a home he dubbed “Nirvana.” Katherine Poillon first hit the New York newspapers when she and her sister, Charlotte, pummeled a few Central Park mashers in self-defense. (Charlotte’s pugilism eventually earned her the title of “female boxing champion of the world.”) The Poillon sisters, labeled “Amazonian,” often dressed in men’s suits, lived in hotels by skipping out on their bills (landing them in jail on Blackwell Island for three months), and sought out the wealthy men of New York for temporary and profitable liaisons. Though only divorced, Katherine considered herself a widow, hence a bridal gown of “gray crepe de Chine” she was to wear for her wedding to Brokaw.

The Letters: Katherine was quoted: “I slept with those letters under my pillow and dreamed of their contents – the loving words they contained, which I held to be eternal truth. And yet their vows were writ in sand, or so it seems.”

The Verdict: Katherine’s engagement ring had been loose on her finger; Brokaw took it to the jeweler to be fixed, then refused to return it. Katherine sued for breach of promise and settled for $17,500, about half of which was to go to her attorney – however, Brokaw reportedly made it difficult for her to collect.

Katherine Poillon, Brokaw, Rumpus

2. Durie Heithier + George A. Alexander (1898)

The Headline: Grief Crazed, She Cannot See Her Child; Durie Heithier’s Mother Collapsed at the Receiving Hospital and Had to Be Restrained in a Padded Cell; The Wounded Girl Has a Slight Chance to Recover – She Bitterly Denounces George A. Alexander – Calls Him “Coward and Liar” – His Love Letters Belie His Statements Assailing Her Character [San Francisco Call]

The Lovers: Durie Heithier, of Sonoma, shot herself, having been rejected by her lover, George Alexander, of Oakland. Her mother, so overtaken when she saw Durie at the hospital, was drugged and locked up. Durie was interviewed for the article (“her voice was eager, strong, despite her life is hanging by a thread”); she refutes George’s assertion that she “hounded” him and demanded money. “I gave him all, my soul, my life. I’ll not deny that now, and I hoped and prayed to have him love me as I cared for him. And he led me to believe that he did, until I discovered he was deceiving me, and that has worried me until I am nearly crazy.”

The Letters: The newspapers classified George’s letters as being in an “erotic vein,” though they quote this rather desperate excerpt as evidence of that eroticism: “I think of you always, dear one. You are in my dreams at night and my thoughts in the day time, and, love, if you only knew how much I love you. But how can I tell you? I can’t. But you believe me, sweetheart, don’t you?”

The Verdict: George gained notoriety; he coolly admitted guilt to a limited degree only, saying the girl was to blame for loving him. The article ends with: “She was in love with him and often said that if the stories of his fickleness that reached her ears proved true she would kill him or herself.”

Durie Heithier illustration, Rumpus

3. Isabelle Turner Nick Gilligan (1900)

The Headline: LOVE LETTERS READ IN COURT – Full of Tender Love and Religious Sentiments. – THEY NUMBER THIRTY – Implores Gilligan Not to Kill Himself. – SHE TRIES TO ELEVATE HIM. – He Had Evidently Threatened to Go Away for Good, and She Begs Him Not to Go, but to Stay and Lead an Upright Life – Judge Hinton Reads the Missives to the Jury. [The (Richmond, Va.) Times]

The Lovers: Nick grew up as a farmhand on the plantation owned by Isabelle’s father – Nick and Isabelle were playmates as children, and fell in love as teenagers. When Isabelle’s father discovered the affair, he sent the 16-year-old Isabelle away to school. Nick, in his heartbreak, turned bad (he “drank, cursed, and swore,” according to Isabelle’s mother, and stayed where he “ought not to”), and though Isabelle returned, and they resumed their romance, Nick shot and killed Isabelle’s father. He confessed to the crime, but claimed it was in self-defense – Isabelle’s father had caught them together, he said.

The Letters: The young lovers exchanged their secret letters by leaving them for each other in the hollow of a tree. Nick, in hopes of gaining sympathy from the court, turned the letters over – but this gesture only served to cast him further as the villain. Nick was criticized by newspapers for making the tender love letters public, even as those same papers giddily published them. Isabelle’s letters further portrayed Nick as troubled and dangerous – she frequently begged him not to kill himself. “If you want to kill me with a broken heart,” Isabelle wrote (often signing her letters as “Your own ‘Sweet Pig’”), “just keep on doing as you are. Oh, if you write me such notes as you have this morning it will put me in my grave…Isn’t my love something to live for? Please don’t write me any more such cruel notes.”

The Verdict: The case consistently filled the courtroom with spectators, and local hotels couldn’t accommodate all the out-of-town visitors. And much hinged on Isabelle’s purity and faith, as if Nick might have been less guilty of his crime had the letters revealed a girl of a wanton nature. While Nick tried to implicate Isabelle, national sympathies were for the young woman, who claimed that the affair ended before Nick shot her father, and that she had been in her room at the time of the murder. It seems Nick even claimed to have been intimate with Isabelle, but “two Richmond physicians testified that Gilligan’s statements reflecting on Miss Turner were absolutely false.” In the end, Nick was found guilty of murder in the second degree, partly due to Isabelle’s testimony. On the day she took the stand: “Miss Turner, accompanied by her mother, Mrs. Agnes Turner, both heavily veiled and dressed in black, arrived about 11 o’clock and retired to their rooms in a hotel. Mrs. Turner is in poor health.”

Gilligan, Richmond VA Times, June 24 1900

4. Captain White + His Third Wife (1898)

The Headline: HIS THIRD WIFE WANTS READY MONEY – Captain White of Round Valley in the Toils Again. – Marriage Bureau Love Letters That Fill a Trunk. – Officers Appalled at the Number of Women Who Answered the Ad. – TO BE EXAMINED IN COURT – The Cattle King Will Be Compelled to Give an Account of His Resources. [San Francisco Call]

The Lovers: The third wife of George White (“the well-known Round Valley cattle king”) is attempting to get the money entitled to her from the divorce settlement. The former Mrs. White (unnamed in the article) believes her deadbeat ex is hiding bonds, so she demands investigation of safe deposit boxes, and a trunk in the possession of Mrs. Whitney, “the spiritual medium by whom Captain White swears. He thinks she has shown him the fountain of eternal youth and brought him to a happy marriage with his fourth wife.”

The Letters: “When [the sheriff] took off several layers of tissue paper and perfumed tapa cloth from the promising bundle he found it was a bunch of loving epistles from girls and widows who had answered the cattle king’s advertisement for a wife, inserted some months ago in Wedding Bells. ‘There were enough letters from women to fill this room,’ said Mrs. Whitney yesterday, ‘and the Deputy Sheriffs consumed fully an hour pawing over them and hunting for the alleged property.’“

The Verdict: The attorneys recognize White as an “artful dodger”; but he claims he’s penniless, and all his property is owned by his nephew.

 

5. George Johnson, aka Ferdinand Singhi All the Ladies of New Haven (1898)

The Headline: “KING OF MASHERS.” – A Gay Young Dude Who Had Quite a Collection of Female Admirers. [The Hartford (Ky.) Herald]

The Lovers: George Johnson was arrested in New Haven, Connecticut, for addressing young women “without the formality of an introduction.” Dozens of love letters filled his pockets, and a diary detailing “his flirtations and adventures” with New Haven women. “All of his correspondence showed that the girls, as a rule, were ready to marry and support him. …  In appearance Johnson is rather striking. His face is not particularly handsome. His complexion is dark and his eyes are blue. His height is close to six feet. He would probably tip the scales at 160 pounds. His hat was a soft drab felt, and his trousers, fitting tightly to the leg in the most approved style, were of a heavy striped cloth. His shirt was pink, with white lines running perpendicularly. The collar was a high turnover. He had evidently made of the art of careful dressing the closest study.”

The Letters: “If the bundle of love-letters may be taken as a criterion, Johnson may rightly be considered the king of American mashers. His varied experience includes a brief term upon the stage, and in Lowell he appears to have been considered a matinee idol. A girl from that city writes fondly of her meeting with him at a matinee. A Hartford young woman writes that she is glad that the walls of ‘No. 14’ cannot talk. … A Troy girl warned him not to fall in love with her chum, as she wanted him herself. At the end of the letter were a number of crosses with this written after them: ‘Kisses, a baker’s dozen.’ The best girl of the lot from a letter-writing point of view was one that lived in Lowell, Mass. She wrote a number of soft letters signed ‘Julia,’ and appears to be the favorite. Portraits of her in two poses were taken from him. She is a handsome girl with dark hair, large, beautiful eyes and a pleasing figure. In one of the pictures a pug dog was posed with her.”

The Verdict: He told police he was from New York State, but would not reveal his parents’ address. “He claims to have once been a student at Phillips Andover Academy.”

 

6. Henry Brown + Miss Minnie Denzinger (1901)

The Headline: Sent His Lady Love Fifty Letters Every Day [Akron Daily Democrat]

The Lovers: Henry, described as “a good-looking young fellow” sent Minnie “a swarm of love letters,” to her annoyance; as if to encourage more letters, the newspapers published her address: No. 326 East 11th St. in New York.

The Letters: Henry sent Minnie 1,800 letters in five weeks.

The Verdict: Minnie had Henry arrested. “The Magistrate decided that no sane man, no matter how much he was in love, would write a girl that many letters. He accordingly committed him for examination as to his sanity.” At the time of publication of the article, Henry was in “the insane pavilion at Bellevue Hospital.”

 

7. Miss Martha Smith + Dr. Howard Lowry (1899)

The Headline: MISS SMITH WINS – DR. LOWRY CONFESSES JUDGMENT FOR THE $25,000 ASKED. – WAS A SENSATIONAL FINALE – CELEBRATED BREACH OF PROMISE SUIT’S SUDDEN TERMINATION. – Dr. Lowry Says He Surrendered to Prevent Innocent Parties Being Dragged Into the Case – Understood He Feared Evidence About to Be Sprung. [The Kansas City Journal]

The Lovers: Howard Lowry was a married dentist in Kansas City; Martha Smith his assistant. When Howard’s wife died, he began to “pay small attentions” to Martha. He eventually promised to marry her, and she remained committed to her employer/sweetheart in his eight years of widowhood. But then along came Sadye Anderson, and Howard called off his engagement to Martha in order to marry his new love. Martha sued. Many of the newspaper articles about breach-of-promise lawsuits made a special point to verify the beauty of the wronged women. “Nine out of ten of the courtroom spectators pronounced her good looking,” we’re assured by the Kansas City Journal.

The Letters: Martha traveled frequently for her job, peddling Howard’s medical inventions to other dentists, leading to much correspondence. His letters revealed his intentions to make her his wife, and also such titillation as: “I am dying for one of your sweet amorous kisses. They are the elixir of love,” and “Be a good girl and don’t get into mischief or I’ll spank you.” This letter offers insight into his longing: “My Darling Little Redhead: — Your nice letter with the pretty lock of Titian hair came to me this a.m. Was quite disappointed not to have gotten it Monday morning. Don’t you know it seemed an endless time not to have heard from you from Saturday morning to Tuesday morning? Was so anxious to hear from you that I went to the postoffice Sunday morning at 10:30 o’clock in the hope of getting a letter from you. It was thoughtful and kind of you to send me a lock of your hair. You don’t know how I love and appreciate it.”  The later letters exposed a rather chilly cooling-off period, dealing only with business matters. At one point, he suggested she seek other employment because sales of his inventions had been so slow.

The Verdict: The judgment awarded Martha the $25,000 she sought; the dentist lamented that this would leave him with nothing. The El Paso Daily Herald quoted him, after the trial, depicting him in his office: “I hope she will leave me some things. Those pictures of my father and mother, for instance.” And we’re told that Martha is in a dining room a short block away, sitting “straight and severely prim at the table. There was nothing exulting in her expression, and nothing to betray that anything unusual had happened to her.” When the reporter tells her what Howard said about the photos of his parents, “a lump came into Miss Smith’s throat and more than a suspicion of moisture into her eye… ‘He knows me well enough to know that I wouldn’t think of taking those pictures.’” When asked if she felt sorry for him now that “she had Dr. Lowry at her mercy,” she said “I mustn’t tell you. You want me to discover to you the very inmost workings of my soul.” This quote leaves a different impression than the statement she made in the courtroom when asked about her present feelings for the dentist: “I wouldn’t marry him for $10,000,000.”

Dr Howard Lowry, Rumpus

8. Anonymous Pittsburg Man Anonymous Pittsburg Woman (1905)

The Headline: A Man’s Love Letter [Hartford (Ky.) Republican]

The Lovers:  “He was not afraid of the law. He had a square jaw and was a born fighter. But when it came to having his letters read in court he wilted. So would most men if similarly situated. That is where the girl gets even with the man who ‘trifles with her affections.’”

The Letters: The writer editorializes: “Did you ever write love letters? Did you ever see them long afterward, and turn from their foolishness in a perfect spasm of self-derision? A man’s love letters are about four times as foolish as a woman’s. She is a specialist in love business. He is an amateur. There is nothing so awful to a man as being laughed at. The woman is used to it. Besides, she is an actress by nature, and can brave it out. But the man, poor, defenseless brute, has to turn pink, red, purple and gray. And all his life people will remember the squashy wording of those love notes.”

The Verdict: The case was a breach-of-promise suit “of tremendous proportions.” The man stopped at the door of the court “and shelled out a gorgeous check bearing five figures.”

 

9. Bessie Moore (alias Annie Everman) + Frank Kelso (alias Thomas Givney) (1901)

The Headline: RAIDED BY THE POLICE – One of Five Suspicious Characters is Taken in Custody. – STORY REVEALED IN LOVE LETTERS – Authorities Believe the Suspects Are an Organized Band of Smooth Crooks – Newspaper Clippings Throw Light on Case. [The Omaha (Neb.) Bee]

The Lovers: According to the article: “Bessie, it seems, loved not wisely but too well, the object of her adoration being a notorious crook…” In a jail break, Frank jumped from the window of a New Orleans cell, only to break both his legs, leading to a life of pain and disability. Though recaptured, he was eventually released, and made a career of “shaking down” folks, though still on crutches. While in jail in Boston, Texas, Frank corresponded with Bessie, who lived in St. Louis – Bessie, as Annie Everman, married Frank in the Bowie county jail.

The Letters: After their marriage, “love letters continued to be exchanged between them, but, fervid as her missives were, they could not dispel the gloom of Kelso’s solitary cell. His letters to her breathe a spirit of despondency and hint at suicide.” In a letter to a Boston, Tex., newspaper, Frank asserts that he was never guilty of any crime, concluding with his grim intentions: “When you read this I will have started on that long journey of rest from which there is no return.”

The Verdict: Bessie found her way to Omaha, where she became a suspect in the case of a man robbed of $45 “in an east side wine room.” Police followed her to a rooming house, and rifled through her Saratoga trunk. In the trunk Bessie had kept all her love letters, and all the clippings about her late husband, including news of his crimes and his published suicide note, and photographs of his coffin covered in flowers. Omaha police found this criminal association and poor romantic judgment sufficiently condemning, and the widow was arrested.

 

10. L.N. Washburn + Lovers Everywhere (1899)

The Headline: HE OPENED LETTERS – Trusted Baggage Man Finds Himself in Trouble – HAD A PECULAR MANIA – ENJOYED TENDER LOVE EPISTLES BEST OF ALL. – Estimated That He Has Opened and Read 30,000 Letters Sent Through the United States Mails – From Some He Took Money – He Confesses His Guilt. [Salt Lake Herald]

The Lovers: L.N. Washburn was the baggage man of a Michigan Central train running between Chicago and Grand Rapids; he was charged with robbing mail sacks of portions of their contents. He lived in New Buffalo “and is said to be the only support of two elderly sisters.”

The Letters: He wasn’t in it for profit; he claimed he only took about $200. In some cases, the letters were so pathetic, he even put the money in an envelope, addressed it in his own hand to the intended recipient, and returned it to the mail. “Washburn acknowledged further that he greatly enjoyed reading the love letters and others of a touching nature. This form of mania, he said, had continued for over eighteen months.”

The Verdict: Washburn was put before a federal grand jury. “When the postal officials had finished relating the details of his arrest and the methods to which he had resorted to take the letters from the bags, he admitted everything and asked to be sent to the penitentiary immediately.”


Timothy Schaffert grew up on a farm in Nebraska and currently lives in Omaha. He’s the author of four previous critically acclaimed novels. His novels have been a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, twice an IndieNext Pick, and a New York Times Editor’s Choice. He currently teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. More from this author →