Cover image for Ungentlemanly acts : the army's notorious incest trial
Ungentlemanly acts : the army's notorious incest trial
Barnett, Louise K.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Hill and Wang, 2000.
Physical Description:
x, 287 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 22 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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Central Library KF7642.G43 B37 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



The story of the 1879 trial over the actions of two officers at Fort Stockton in west Texas.

Author Notes

Louise Barnett, professor of English at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, is the author of Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Barnett, an English professor, recounts a court martial of the late 1870s that illustrates the tenacity of social mores at the time: faced with two scandalous charges, the court of the U.S. Army preferred the one that left social conventions intact. Captain Andrew Geddes was charged with seducing the teenage daughter of another officer, Lieutenant Louis Orleman, and filing a false countercharge against Orleman of incest. Despite strong evidence that Orleman was guilty, Geddes, who had his own scandalous reputation as a womanizer, was charged with "conduct unbecoming a gentleman" because he raised the specter of a social taboo. Barnett examines social attitudes toward sexuality, the social dynamics of the military, and the shortcomings of the military justice system. This detailed and well-documented book recounts the cultural and social context of the military and the isolated Texas frontier of the time of this notorious trial of sex and betrayal. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

How do you accuse someone of an unspeakable sin? In post-Civil War America, you did not, if you were smart, for speaking of an unspeakable sin was unpardonable. In 1879, in west Texas, Captain Andrew Geddes accused a fellow officer, Louis Orleman, of having incestuous relations with his (Orleman's) daughter. Orleman countercharged that Geddes had seduced his daughter and planned to abduct her, and that the incest charge was merely an attempt to deflect responsibility from his own devious actions. The result was a court-martial of Geddes; no person in a position of authority seriously considered the possibility that Orleman could be guilty of incest, for Americans of the time, according to Barnett, "preferred to believe--regardless of evidence--that it [incest] simply did not occur...." Barnett, a professor of English at Rutgers, carefully chronicles the trial. Her thesis is that while Geddes was no saint, his trial was a mockery of justice and the unprosecuted charges against Orleman probably contained more truth than those pressed against Geddes. A guilty verdict was set aside by the army's highest judicial officer, the judge advocate general, but the continued hostility toward Geddes within the army led to his ultimate dismissal. The greatest strength of this volume is the way events are placed within historical and cultural context. A real sense of army life on the frontier and how the larger values of society shaped the proceedings are skillfully woven into the narrative. Through a relatively unknown incident, Barnett presents a morality play showcasing late-19th-century social values that have evolved but are still in effect. 24 b&w photos not seen by PW. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Barnett (English, Rutgers; Touched by Fire) examines the army's court-martial of Captain Andrew Geddes and contemporary novels such as Infelice to illuminate late 19th-century American thought on incest. Her book stages the conflict that sent Geddes to trial: he had accused fellow officer Louis Orleman of incest with his teenage daughter, Lillie; but Orleman accused Geddes of attempting to seduce and abduct Lillie. Barnett argues that the army court-martialed Geddes largely because public scrutiny of incest uncomfortably forced Americans to question their views of family, sexuality, and gender roles. She also places the trial in the context of life on a western Texas military fort staffed mainly by black soldiers surrounded by white civilians, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans. This is an absorbing, well-documented book, although more discussion of 19th-century laws and attitudes about incest might have enriched it. Recommended for public and academic libraries with military, gender, or American West history collections.--Charles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Ungentlemanly Acts One BEGININGS 1 SCANDAL T oday, Americans are accustomed to the image of the court stenographer, clacking away at a machine that will spew forth a printed transcript of a trial almost immediately. But in 1879, transcripts were still copied out in longhand. For army courts-martial, these transcripts were boiled down into bare-bones abstracts, which provided an official printed summary of the proceedings. Each abstract listed the name of the defendant, the accusation, the verdict, and the sentence. Accusations were broken down into two parts: charges, which were general ("conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman," for example), and specifications, which described exactly what was done, where, and when. In the case of Captain Andrew J. Geddes, whose trial lasted for the extraordinarily long period of three months, an exception was made. Geddes was tried for "conduct unbecoming," but in the space where specifications were usually listed in the printed record appeared the phrase "not fit to be specified." What abhorrent crime had Geddes committed? What deed so horrifying that the Army's official record could not mention it? In the answer lies the true irony of this case. Geddes had accused a fellow officer, Lieutenant Louis H. Orleman, of an unspeakable offense--but instead of investigating Orleman, the Army tried Geddes for speaking of Orleman's alleged crime. And as it turned out, there would be a great deal in the proceedings against Captain Geddes that would not be fit to be specified.     Nothing in the extensive professional experience of Civil War veteran General E.O.C. Ord, commander of the Department of Texas, could have prepared him for the document that arrived at his San Antonio headquarters in April of 1879. The sworn and notarized deposition of Captain Andrew J. Geddes of the Twenty-fifth U.S. Infantry baldly accused First Lieutenant Louis H. Orleman, an officer of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry, of incest. Both men were stationed at Fort Stockton, a small frontier post in the still wild and sparsely populated region of West Texas. Ord regarded Geddes as one of his best field officers, but his deposition was shocking, even unprecedented. In an army where officers often preferred charges against each other to settle disputes, the matter of Geddes's charge was extraordinary. Geddes stated that he had spoken out only in self-defense because he had learned that Orleman was bringing charges against him. To defend himself against these charges, he had to expose the relationship of "criminal intimacy" he had accidentally discovered between the thirty-eight-year-old lieutenant and his eighteen-year-old daughter, Lillie: I would state that on Sunday March 2nd 1879 ... I saw Lt. L. H. Orleman, 10th Cavalry, having criminal intercourse with his saiddaughter ... . I heard from the adjoining quarters (the same being of [sic] those of Lt. Orleman, and divided from mine by a partition wall) a voice which I recognized to be that of Miss Lillie Orleman, saying, "Papa, please don't. I'll call Major Geddes,a if you don't quit" and ... in the most piteous and pleading tone, "Oh, Papa, for God's sake don't. Major Geddes is Officer of the Day and will hear us" and other expressions in which my name occurred. Having had my suspicions aroused before this that something was wrong, I went to the window of said room and looked in, and there saw Lt. Orleman in bed with his said daughter, having criminal intercourse with her. On the following day, March 3rd 1879, Miss Lillie Orleman confessed to me that her father, Lt. Orleman, had been having sexual intercourse with her for the past five years, or since she was thirteen years of age, and that he had placed a loaded revolver to her head, threatening that he would blow out her brains if she did not consent to his horrible desires. Miss Orleman begged me repeatedly and implored me on bended knee to save her, and take her from this terrible life of shame that she had been leading since she was thirteen years of age. This I consented to do, with the full knowledge and consent of her father; I having told him, at her urgent request (March 12th 1879, I think) that I had discovered his infamous crime, I made full preparations to take her away, either to her home in Austin, or to my wife--in the latter case, with the understanding that she (my wife) should be made aware of my reasons for so doing, and that Miss Orleman should herself tell to my wife her sad story. Geddes's deposition concluded, aggressively: I would state that I was not alone in my suspicions that criminal intimacy existed between Lt. Orleman and his daughter. Mr. JosephFriedlander of Fort Stockton and myself, together with Lt. Orleman and his daughter, went from Fort Stockton to Fort Davis and return[ed] in an ambulance and while on the road we saw Lt. Orleman fondling with the breast of his daughter, and heard her appealing to him to desist. I respectfully submit that if this unfortunate affair is to be brought before a Court (which on account of the young lady, I deprecate beyond measure) that he who is guilty should be tried, and I believe a Court of Inquiry would determine as between Lt. Orleman and myself that he should be the party who ought to be tried.1 As departmental commander, General Ord had complete latitude in determining how to proceed, and the unusually sensitive nature of the issue might have given him pause. He could have considered Geddes's deposition a privileged document and handled the matter quietly. Well before the events of Geddes's affidavit, Orleman had applied to retire from active duty for reasons of ill health. He and his daughter would soon be leaving Fort Stockton, and with their departure the scandal surrounding the episode might have been contained. As Geddes intimated, a court proceeding was bound to be agonizing for Lillie Orleman. Vindication of her innocence would be a Pyrrhic victory at best. But Ord chose to order a court-martial, not of Orleman, but of Geddes, on the charges Orleman had preferred. Orleman claimed that Geddes had libelled him with a false accusation of incest as part of his attempted seduction and abduction of Lillie Orleman. Why did General Ord so quickly conclude that Orleman's charges had merit and Geddes's did not? Before the trial both sides were represented only by competing stories. But acknowledging the possibility of incest by bringing charges against Orleman would have officially validated and magnified a scandal that would have haunted the Army, and the Department of Texas, for years to come. Fortunately for Orleman, this course of action was unthinkable because incest itself was unthinkable in America in1879. It was far easier for General Ord to believe the familiar kind of wrongdoing set forth in Orleman's accusation: that Geddes's charge was an act of retaliation after his effort to seduce and abduct Lillie Orleman failed. Ord was the single most powerful figure in the trial--although he had no role in the actual court proceedings. It was up to him to rule that a court-martial would take place, on charges that required no "oath to accompany their filing nor a formal pretrial investigation to test their validity."2 He chose the officers who composed the court, appointed the judge advocate who prosecuted the case, and reviewed the verdict and sentence, which were merely recommendations to him. Until 1920, the departmental commander had the power to reverse acquittals or return "inadequate" sentences to the court for augmentation.3 Too many acquittals were considered incompatible with military discipline. As military historian William Generous writes of that period, "charges could be made almost capriciously," and the verdict of a court-martial would be reviewed "by the very commander who levied the charges, convened the court, and appointed its members and officers."4 Under these circumstances, command influence was unavoidable. The judge advocate, who presented the Army's case, was also supposed to represent the defendant, but in practice he usually functioned as a prosecutor. The judge advocate had to approve defense applications for witnesses--an enormous power, although his decisions could be overruled by the court--and he joined in the court's deliberations. That giving the judge advocate such a dominant role in the proceedings might lead to abuse seems to be the message of one military authority on court-martial procedure. Stephen Vincent Benet, whose Treatise on Military Law and the Practice of Courts-Martial was a widely invoked manual, wrote about the judge advocate in a cautionary tone: The court is not required to decide points of law and fact according to his advice or opinion. He is a mere prosecutor, not a judge; and the members of the court, and they alone, are, by their oaths, to administer justice according to their consciences, the best of their understandings, and the custom of war in like cases--and not according to the understanding and conscience of the judge advocate.5 Benet's phrasing suggests that overactive judge advocates might rather easily usurp the prerogatives of the court. As late as the 1950s, another military writer recalled a Judge Advocate Basic Officers' Class in which students training to be judge advocates were taught that they were officers first, lawyers second, and their commander was their most important client.6 A commander could always, if he so desired, "exert great influence over the results of courts-martial."7 In general, courts-martial during the frontier army period (roughly the post-Civil War era to 1898) were characterized by the kind of procedure that may be found today in a small-claims court--an assembly-line approach marked by haste and standardized responses. It was always difficult to round up enough officers for a trial session. Continually downsized by Congress, the postwar army was spread too thin to perform any of its duties adequately--to police the still volatile South during the early years of the period, to oversee thousands of miles of frontier, to train adequately, and to conduct courts-martial. Commanders of understrength units were loath to give up their officers to court-martial duty for long periods of time, and, as one anonymous voice indicates, the officers themselves tended to regard this service as a tiresome duty: The worst of our dreary routine Upon the bleak frontier, If to meet in solemn conclave And these stupid cases hear. 8 In 1879, the year that Geddes came to trial, there were 2,127 army officers to handle 1,673 courts-martial, at a time when the full strength of the Army was only 26,389.9 Probably because there were so few officers available, a member of the court or the judge advocate was also allowed to appear as a witness in a court-martial. Since many offenses now handled by administrative punishments had to go through the court-martial procedure back then, the sheer volume of trials, "often for trivial offenses, was staggering," and the time involved correspondingly great.10 Given that the overwhelming number of cases resolved themselves into desertion or some form of alcohol-induced offense, the members of an army court often gave in to the temptation to dispose of each case quickly. (Incidentally, having been court-martialled himself did not disqualify an officer from subsequently serving on a court.) In spite of the rigid hierarchy that automatically conferred presidency of the court on the highest-ranking officer, and the formulaic language, some aspects of court-martial procedure were astonishingly casual. For one thing, few officers knew anything about law, and--it might be said--not by accident. As General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman wrote, It will be a grave error if ... we permit the Military Law to become emasculated by allowing lawyers to inject into it principles derived from their practice in the civil courts ... . The objects of the civil law are to secure to everyone all the liberty, security, and happiness consistent with the safety of all. The purpose of military law is to govern armies of strong men, so as to be capable of exercising the largest measure of force at the will of the nation. Sherman envisioned the contrast between the two systems of jurisprudence in terms of soft and hard, "happiness" versus "force," or peace versus war. As the image of strong men capable of exercising force and the threat of emasculation insinuate, an unstated formulation of Sherman's ruminations might be femaleversus male. Civil law can concern itself with individual rights, but military law--because of its special mission--must be made of sterner stuff. "Civilian lawyers," Sherman remarked, "are too apt to charge that army discipline is tyranny."11b Another commentator, General Alfred Terry, spoke in favor of legal expertise when he addressed an 1876 congressional hearing on the subject of military judicial reform. "As a rule," General Terry observed disapprovingly, "the officers who are empowered to convene courts are no more versed in the law than the officers who compose them." Terry, a lawyer himself, came to a conclusion opposed to Sherman's: In view of the despotic character of all military institutions, of the powers necessarily given to the superior over the inferior in rank, it would seem that a precise and definite construction of the law, an exact and systematic administration of it, would be even the more necessary.12 For Terry, the very nature of the military demanded safeguards. For Sherman, this same nature demanded something more coercive than the civilian judicial system.     Geddes was charged with two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentlemen--one for an attempt to corrupt and abduct Lillie Orleman, the other for accusing her father of incest--and one count of "false swearing to the prejudice of goodorder and military discipline." This charge simply restated the incest accusation charge, focusing on Geddes's affidavit. According to the first charge Geddes, "a married man, did by persuasion, advice, threats, and other means, endeavor to corrupt Miss Lillie Orleman ... to his own illicit purposes." He was also accused of plotting to abduct her. The second charge stated that Geddes did, by wilfully and falsely accusing said Lt. Orleman of the heinous crime of incestuous intercourse with his said Orleman's daughter ... and by threatening to make the same public, attempt to force and coerce said Lt. Orleman into giving his consent to the departure of his daughter ... with the said Captain Geddes, and did subsequently further attempt to obtain this consent just mentioned by promises, then and there, made to the said Lt. Orleman to keep secret his accusations hereinbefore mentioned if said Lt. Orleman permitted the departure of his said daughter Miss Lillie Orleman with the said Captain Geddes; and all this on the part of the said Captain Geddes with the intent to corrupt the said Miss Lillie Orleman to his own illicit purposes. Charges in army courts-martial of this period tend to be rhetorically overblown, using a ritualized and excessive language that is often tempered in the court's final written disposition of the case. Having such singularly promising material at hand, the author of the final specification against Geddes (probably the judge advocate, the officer who prosecuted the case for the Army) expressed his moral outrage at some length. Geddes had "wickedly and maliciously" devised and intended "unlawfully and unjustly to aggrieve, oppress, injure, defame and falsely accuse" Lieutenant Orleman. Then the specification repeats the whole sequence of condemnatory words, this time marshalling them against Geddes's behavior toward Lillie Orleman. Geddes had hoped to have the matter settled without a court-martial by entering a plea in bar,c but this was rejected. He then pleaded not guilty to all charges. In commenting on the charges at the beginning of court proceedings, Judge Advocate John W. Clous invoked "the great unwritten law of the Army" that any matter that may be considered conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman is a proper subject for trial. "Conduct unbecoming" was the military's charge for any misbehavior that did not fall tidily under one of the Articles of War. Such behavior was instead governed by "the custom of the service, a usefully vague concept."13 In fact, the notion of the proper behavior of an officer and a gentleman embodied an idealistic view of the officer corps. Major General John M. Schofield, in his annual report for 1875, was matter-of-fact in asserting that "it is not necessary even to refer to the generally recognized high standard of honor among military men."14 This high standard was routinely invoked in courts-martial, where the label "conduct unbecoming" was attached to whatever actions someone believed it applied to. In his opening statement to the court, Judge Advocate Clous immediately addressed the issue of conduct unbecoming: An officer of the Army has higher obligations than the ordinary citizen--he is responsible to a far more comprehensive code than that found in the laws of the United States, the common law or the laws of the several states. He must at all times conduct himself as a gentleman should and whatever is unbecoming a gentleman is of necessity unbecoming an officer. Trying to abduct a brother officer's daughter, he went on to say, qualified as conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. As characterized by the prosecution, Geddes was not acting in good faith in bringing an affidavit to departmental headquarters;instead, he was making "counter accusations of such a frightful and heinous nature, and with such a force as to secure himself the vantage ground of accusor instead of becoming the accused."     The Geddes court-martial would go on for the extraordinary period of three months, with court in session every weekday between the hours of 10:30 and 1:30 or 2:30, May through August, the hottest part of the year in San Antonio. As Major General Irvin McDowell reflected on court-martial custom, the early hour of adjournment was a relic of older times: [A] great inconvenience and delay in the administration of military justice ... [is] the limitation now imposed by law on the hours of session of courts-martial, making it illegal to sit after three o'clock p.m ... . The restriction has ceased to have any justification; and is simply a relic of the past which is the cause of much inconvenience and delay.15 The court met in departmental headquarters, a building erected for the Army by the well-known Maverick family.16 When Geddes first entered the courtroom on May 19, 1879, he found himself in a familiar situation. Seven years earlier he had been the defendant in a completely different kind of case, one involving financial transactions. Cleared of intentional fraud by the court, he was nevertheless dismissed, only to be reinstated through the decision of the Army's first Judge Advocate General, Joseph Holt.d In reversing the decision and restoring Geddes to his duties, Holt had written, "It is hoped that he will profit by the lesson of this trial, and that his future career will exhibit the samescrupulous regard for his obligations as an officer of the Army that testimony to his previous reputation seems to show him to have observed in the past."17 After the 1872 verdict, but before the Judge Advocate General had ruled, Geddes addressed a plea for clemency to Secretary of War William Belknap. "I am proud of my state and proud of my profession," he wrote. "If I were to be dismissed, it would be as if my whole life were ruined."18 These were prophetic words. BYRON AND STOWE Although the decision to prosecute Captain Geddes rather than Lieutenant Orleman may seem more than a little odd to observers in our day, a publishing event in 1869 reveals attitudes toward incest that explain the Army's action. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin and a woman known for her stern sense of moral duty, published a magazine article stating that the celebrated poet Lord Byron had committed incest with his half sister, Augusta Leigh.19 In response to the outcry that followed, Stowe turned her "True Story of Lady Byron's Life" into a substantial book, Lady Byron Vindicated: A History of the Byron Controversy from Its Beginning in 1816 to the Present Tïme. 20 This famous and widely acclaimed American author had expected that her revelation would provoke a furor, and she hoped it would divert sympathy from Byron to his wife. She never imagined that the episode would destroy her own reputation.21 The title of Stowe's book indicates her compelling motive--to defend a woman she first met in 1853 and came to regard as a friend. When she returned to England in 1856 Stowe was summoned to Lady Byron's sickbed, where she found the elderly woman preoccupied by her doctor's pronouncement that sheshould not live much longer.e During the months that followed, the two women were often together until, on a memorable day in early November, Lady Byron took Stowe aside for an interview lasting many hours in which she confided the secret behind her separation from her husband after a year of marriage: he had committed incest with his half sister Augusta and fathered Augusta's child Medora. The revelation was not proffered as mere scandalous gossip: She wanted Harriet's advice. Some publishers were about to bring out a cheap edition of the poet's works and in the promotion meant to revive the old story of Byron's having been driven to exile and death by the cold, mercenary heart of his wife. Should that wife keep silent any longer?22 With her characteristic moral fervor, Stowe at first intended to advise immediate publication. Her sister Mary persuaded her otherwise, so that the advice Stowe ultimately gave Lady Byron was to trust "discreet friends" to publish the truth after Lady Byron's death. No one knows what Lady Byron thought of this advice: she neither answered Stowe's letter nor spoke out about her late husband. Byron had ridiculed his wife publicly during his lifetime, and, after his premature death in Greece in 1824, many of his supporters characterized Lady Byron as a cold and uncongenial wife. Her failure to respond with her own version of their separation had naturally given her husband's side of the story some advantage. By 1869 both Byrons were dead, but the recent publication of the memoirs of Teresa Guiccioli, Byron's Italian mistress, revived the old complaints about Lady Byron. When no English friends rose to tell the story as Stowe had heard it from Lady Byronherself, Stowe jumped into the fray with her usual zeal for a good cause, in this case defending a blameless and high-minded woman who had been abused by a monster of depravity. "Reverence for pure womanhood is, we think, a national characteristic of the American,"23 Stowe wrote confidently, failing to realize that, even among the respectable, her portrait of a faultless Lady Byron might be less appealing than the reading public's image of Byron, the flawed yet attractive poet who had died at the age of thirty-six as he prepared to fight for Greek independence. The accusation of incest produced a firestorm on both sides of the Atlantic. A number of British critics were outraged that an American should meddle in such private English matters: in the Times of London Stowe, who had been much admired in England for Uncle Tom's Cabin, was described as "a stranger and a foreigner." Others took her to task for having violated Lady Byron's confidence. When they turned from such issues to the substance of Stowe's accusation, critics generally exonerated Byron and excoriated Lady Byron and Stowe. One writer asked, "Did she [Lady Byron] believe the hideous tale she told? Was she the wilful fabricator of the monstrous calumny, or was she herself the victim of insane delusions?"24 These appeared to be the only possibilities the press entertained to explain Lady Byron's behavior. In this respect Justin McCarthy's front-page article in The Independent was typical: I am not defending Byron's moral character. He lived at a time and in a society when morality was rare among men. His temptations were unusually powerful, and he often succumbed to them. But I am sure no one will believe him guilty of the hideous crime of incest, merely because Mrs. Stowe says Lady Byron told her so. I do not think Mrs. Stowe has done much to serve the memory of her friend; and I know she has done much to injure her own fame. She has stooped topromulgate a foul and filthy scandal; she has helped to pollute American households with a story of worse than Byzantine abomination. Were it true, its publication would still be inexcusable. 25 [my emphasis] Another article remarked that Byron was "guilty of sins enough in his maturer years." But, it concluded, "he was probably not a beast."26 Significantly, "pollution" ranked high among the charges levelled at Stowe. The "reverence for pure womanhood" that she had expected to elicit for her side of the controversy was deployed against Stowe herself. She was seen as a violator of female purity because she spoke out about incest. When Stowe promised to follow up her article with a book on the subject, one periodical expressed the hope that publication could be prevented: There is no good reason why she or any body else, should be permitted to needlessly poison the public mind, and deprave the public morals. We hope grand juries will interpose to save the world from the polluting influences of this promised deluge of nastiness, if a private sense of decency will not.27 There was a sexist bias to this criticism. In the Spectator's opinion, "a woman should not have stained herself with handling the story at all." The Independent flatly proclaimed that "an offense against Christian charity is more ungentle in a woman than in a man."28 Unlike McCarthy, who was certain that few people believed the story, the anonymous reviewer for the Saturday Review did believe it, but still condemned Stowe for publishing the article.29 True or false, incest was not a fit subject for discussion, particularly among women. Most negative reactions simply dismissed the accusation out of hand. As J. Paget wrote in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine , the tale was "so monstrous, so improbable, so contradictory to all the rules that govern the actions of human beings" that it was impossible to believe. Or, as another writer for the Independent insisted, "The very fact that it is a crime against nature ought to be prima facie evidence against its commission."30 The Savannah Republican reported that near Stowe's Florida residence people jokingly said they wanted to erect two monuments to "the heroes of her most famous novels--Uncle Tom and Lord Byron."31 Other critics pointed out that Stowe's efforts, in contrast to her stated purpose, had only made Byron more popular. The denial that Byron, or indeed anyone, could be guilty of a crime like incest, came exclusively from male writers. In his disavowal James Russell Lowell made a nice distinction. "Incest," he wrote with an assumed expertise, "when it does happen (and it is rare enough) is not the fruit of perverted lust but of thwarted animal passion. It occurs in lonely farmhouses and not in cities swarming with public women."32 How a cultivated man of letters like Lowell could speak so authoritatively is a mystery since at the time virtually nothing was known, let alone published, about incest. The editor of Harper' s was a dissenting voice. He described the indignation against Stowe as "evidence of the universal unwillingness to believe any man guilty of so hideous an offense. But for all that," he continued, "the reception of her statement has not been candid. There has been an evident disposition to insist that it is too horrible to be true, and that that is the end of it."33 Not surprisingly, the prominent feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw the Byron marriage as part of a universal paradigm: the real issue was the relations existing between men and women. From the response of the press, she wrote, "one would supposethat American editors had lived only in the atmosphere of Paradise, wholly ignorant of the facts of life, of the hideous, disgusting slavery in which the women of every class and clime ever have been and are held to-day." The ignorance, she goes on to say, is willfull: "All alike turn from the mirror that so truly reflects the crimes of our present social system, from which they see no escape."34 For Stanton, the controversy was an occasion to preach against "the worst form of slavery, that of woman to man, that has ever cursed the earth." Where men donned the mantle of natural protectors, they were in fact enemies of woman's development, who promulgated "the monstrous thought that woman was made for man!--not for herself, for happiness, and heaven"!35 After her experience of the "many abusive articles" that followed her disclosure, Stowe, too, saw the episode more clearly in terms of a conflict between the sexes: "There are thousands of poor victims suffering in sadness, discouragement, and poverty; heartbroken wives of brutal, drunken husbands; women enduring nameless wrongs and horrors which the delicacy of their sex forbids them to utter." And if these victims are rendered mute by the constraints of their nature, in Stowe's view, their victimizers are not similarly held back. As she describes Byron, hating his wife for knowing his secret, the discovery of which would have brought him "utter ruin, and expulsion from civilized society," he "tried to destroy her character before the world, that she might not have the power to testify against him."36 By the time of her book, Stowe was also able to see a particular version of the double standard that had driven the negative reception of her article: "The world may finally forgive the man of genius anything; but for a woman there is no mercy and no redemption."37 Neither for herself--the messenger--nor for the wronged wife. More than a century later, it is now widely accepted that Byron did have an incestuous relationship with Augusta. To arrive at this conclusion, twentieth-century researchers have consulted large caches of documents that were unavailable to scholars in the nineteenth century, notably, Lady Byron's voluminous record of events, prepared at first to ensure that her husband would not gain custody of their daughter and continued, it would seem, out of a lifelong obsession with the affair that ended her marriage.38 According to a recent biographer, Byron assumed he was the father of Augusta's daughter Medora, who was said to resemble him as a child. The poet referred to her as his daughter, but might have done so without a sense of biological paternity, since he was her godfather. To friends he remarked that Augusta's husband had been away during the time of conception whereas he had been at hand.39 Shortly after the baby's birth, he wrote to Lady Melbourne, his confidante, a manic letter in which he defended his relationship with Augusta: "Oh! but it is 'worth while.' ... I have been all my life trying to make some one love me--& never got the sort that I preferred before.--But positively she & I will grow good." He also noted that "the child is not an 'Ape,' a reference to the superstition that an incestuous relationship would produce a monster. Byron further intimated to Lady Melbourne that the "new situation" (that is, his having fathered Augusta's child) might make her withdraw her support of his proposed marriage to her niece, Annabella Milbanke.40 Annabella recalled that after she had married Byron, he was "continually lamenting her [Augusta's] absence, saying no one loved him as she did--no one understood how to make him happy but her." When Augusta came for a visit, Byron tormented his wife by making his preference for his sister's company apparent, even sending Annabella up to bed two hours earlyand remaining below with Augusta. Lady Byron would ultimately avow that he had confessed to being Medora's father. In 1841 she would also announce this as a fact to Medora, and later to her own daughter, Ada, arranging a meeting of the putative half sisters in Paris. As Medora became increasingly estranged from her mother, and destitute, Lady Byron stepped in to provide financial help.41 The use of documentary evidence is a telling difference between the approach of researchers today and that of the critics who rushed to attack Stowe. For many of the latter, their own revulsion from the idea was reason enough to cast doubt on Stowe's account. For others, the denials of those around Lady Byron were sufficient to negate the accusation. One story featured Lady Byron's longtime personal maid, Mrs. Minns, who had come forward to denounce Stowe's book. Her evidence was that Lady Byron "always spoke well of Mrs. Leigh"!42f The Byron scandal, which became displaced onto Harriet Beecher Stowe, is instructive in the Geddes case although some particulars differ. For one thing, Stowe's accusation partook of the gratuitous: the principals were long dead,g she had not been asked to intervene, and any affair that existed between Byron and his sister was a consensual affair between adults who evidently loved and respected each other. The incest Geddes accused Orleman of was an exploitative and coercive relationship in which a powerful father abused a vulnerable daughter. But there was this common denominator: The easiest attitude for a public that never spoke about such things was to assume that an accusation of incest could not be true. Even if it were, many would maintain, bringing it to light was the greater scandal, a corruption of public discourse. Copyright (c) 2000 by Louise Barnett Excerpted from Ungentlemanly Acts: The Army's Notorious Incest Trial by Louise Barnett All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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