Modern has recently acquired the Report of the Proceedings in the Cause of Mary Alice Orford, versus Thomas Butler Cole, Esq. for a breach of promise of marriage…, published in 1818 following the trial on March 30th of that year.
This sensational case was, according to The Times, “the subject of general conversation throughout the country of Lancaster for several months… We do not remember any former occasion when the public curiosity was more excited.”
The plaintiff summarized the situation thus: “The declaration states, that in consideration that the plaintiff promise to marry the defendent, he, the defendent, undertook to marry the plaintiff; but that instead of doing so, he had married another woman. The plaintiff pleads the general issue.” The defense argued that the defendant was truly “the meanest reptile on earth” but concluded that Miss Orford had not lost much in losing her fiance to another woman. The jury ruled on the side of Miss Orford, who was awarded a £7,000 settlement.
Aside from being an intriguing example of proto-feminism, the book has an equally intriguing association. It belonged to book collector Frances Mary Richardson Currer (1785-1861), one of the first famous female book collectors in Europe. Currer added several pages of her own manuscript notes to the book, agreeing with the defense that, “no one can think that Miss Orford sustained any loss of happiness, by her loss of Mr. Cole.” Currer also lists several similar cases between Mr. Cole and other local women, one of whom claimed Cole attempted to leave her at the church door, ” ‘No, no Mr. Cole, as we have got so far we will go on’, or words to that effect…As might be expected after living a short time together most unhappily, she left him…”
*2009-109. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
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