Friday, April 7, 2017

Give my love to all my friends, and my best wishes to my enemies – The Slander Case of Margaret Bailey

In December 1856, Margaret Bailey, a 25 year old Bovina native living in New York City and working as a milliner, received a rather startling letter from her brother-in-law, James Cathels:

Margaret – I hope you will excuse me for the liberty I am about to take with you, concerning your character and conduct of late in New York City. There has a report reached the ears of your friends here, that you have fallen from the paths of virtue and chastity, to that of a common ---; such is the report.  By the request of your friends, I write you this, and ask you the following questions:  At what places have you worked since you came to York, and what houses have you lived or boarded at?  Please give us the name and number; their general reputation.  Have you cards printed with your name and number of your bed-room on them; have you ever given such cards to gentlemen from Delaware county; has said gents staid or stopped or had the use of you as a common ---.  Is this report true or is it a base lie? Such is the story; now tell us if it is true or false? I do not believe it, your friends don’t believe it; if it is all false, it is a base and damning slander on your character, and you have your remedy, for we know the person that has told it, and they are frequently responsible for heavy damages. Now, Margaret, if your conduct is all straight since you lived in York, and nothing can be proved to the contrary, you can get a handsome bill of damages, but if your conduct is not straight – enough said.

This letter, as can be imagined, upset her greatly.  It impacted her work and she became so unwell that she needed to go into the care of a doctor.  She wrote a letter to her friends, William and Agnes Miller in February 1857:

New York, 121 West 27th St., [Feb]15th, 1857

Mr. & Mrs. Miller—I received your letter and have neglected answering it until now.  I was glad to hear from you all. I am always glad to get a letter from old Delaware, but I am sorry to say that they have not been of the pleasantest nature of late to me. I have been informed of the slanderous report concerning my character, and from some of my friends I learn that some of my false friends have been the beginer of the most of all that has been said, and from my knowledge of some of the characters in your village that it is nothing new for them to secretly slander their most intimate friends. But I trust that I have some true friends still left to speak a word in my behalf. I understand that some of my female friends think that I have read and knew too much for to be very virtuous, but for my own part, I think my knowledge is very limited compared with some of the ladies of the celebrated Brushland, for it was from them that I heard most of my information.

First. I am accused of not being virtuous, but I defy any person to bring proof to that effect, and if I am spared to return to Bovina, I will have it brought to an understanding, for I will have all face to face, for I do not suppose they will give me any other way of doing much about it, for they are so used to the work, that slander in Bovina is done in an underhanded way, so as they cannot be disturbed; but some of them has been brought in trouble, so as there has been some untruths told to make a way of escape, I am not ignorant to some of them.

Second charge against me is, that I left in such a manner.—I really do not know how I was to leave; must I have it published in the public papers, or what must I do. If they want an explanation upon my leaving, they can by going to Mrs. Bayruther; she wrote to me, which was the reason of my leaving at the time that I did, although I intended to come to the city in a very short time, at all events. And they go so far as to say even more, which is not worth while to mention, but they may go on, but there is a day of reckoning coming, and perhaps not so far off as they expect; and they will not get a card with my name and number, as represented is my practice. In conclusion I will say, I hope they will reap their reward.

Ag. write soon  Tell me all the news. I am well, and hope that you are all enjoying the same blessing. Give my love to all my friends, and my best wishes to my enemies.

She’s upset about what is being said, but from the tone of the letter, it is not clear whether or not she realizes yet that the source of these rumors is Mr. Miller. The slander seems to have started during the winter of 1856 when Margaret’s father, William Bailey, came to Miller’s blacksmith shop. When Miller asked him the whereabouts of Margaret, Bailey explained that she was “at Mrs. Abbotts” in New York City.  Miller said he understood that this was not the case and that she was instead at a whore house.  He told Mr. Bailey he had better get her out of New York and back home.

As the story began to spread and further details were shared, Margaret realized that Mr. Miller was the source of the slander and, urged on by her father, took him to court.  The trial took place on January 18, 1858 in Delhi. There followed a day of conflicting testimony as to whom Mr. Miller told his information and what other information he and others shared about Margaret’s situation and reputation. During the trial, the above referenced letters were read into the court record. 

Some witnesses testified that Miller said that a Mrs. Elliott had told his wife that she had seen a gentleman distributing her card, giving the address and the number of her bedroom.  The gentleman had been with her the night before and suggested that other men call on her.  Margaret’s sister Jane testified that Miller also told her these tales, including the fact that Margaret got $100 for men to stay with her.  Others testified of hearing Miller tell about catching Nathan Hilton in bed with Margaret Bailey at Hamilton’s hotel in Bovina after a dance there.  Miller denied spreading these tales, saying that he only told Mr. Bailey “in a friendly manner and told no one else.” He said he took him aside in the shop to have a private conversation. 

After all the testimony, the jury retired to consider its verdict.  It took them until 2 o’clock the next morning to come to their verdict, announced later that day, in favor of the plaintiff, Margaret.  She was awarded $275.

What happened between the Miller and Bailey families after this verdict is unknown. William Miller died in 1882 at the age of 58 in Hobart (his wife died in 1914).  Margaret Bailey married Mathew Shaw and died in 1892 at the age of 61.  She is buried in the Bovina cemetery. 

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