The majority of breach of promise claims involved women who had suffered financially through a man’s thoughtless or selfish behaviour. They often sought to recover money wasted on preparing for a wedding that did not take place, or to recover income lost through giving up a job or disposing of a business in the expectation of soon being a married woman.
Some cases were more scandalous as at least one of the warring couple had lapsed from accepted standards of conduct. A woman could hope for generous damages when a man behaved badly. This tempted some poor (and not so poor) women to lie. Fear of being ordered to pay a punitive sum led some men to brand women as extortioners who were spinning a yarn. There are claims where it is impossible to decide which of the pair gave the more accurate account of their relationship. A claim from 1876, was one such case. This, and a few similar cases, remains disturbing because one of the pair undoubtedly lied, in circumstances that still have resonance.
Widowed Susannah o’Sullivan was in her mid thirties and a lady’s maid, living in Essex. In 1875 John Fenn, a local auctioneer struck up a conversation with her in the street and offered marriage. Unsurprisingly, Susannah did not take this seriously, but the ice had been broken and over the coming weeks, the couple spoke if they saw each other. According to Susannah these chance conversations included invites to her suitor’s house, an offer she never took up. Fenn eventually proposed again and this time she accepted, even though he said the marriage would be in two years time.
As an engaged woman Susannah was prepared to visit her fiancé’s home and went there on Sunday afternoons. On the third occasion, she alleged that after drinking some wine she was unable to resist the liberties Fenn was taking with her. Fenn’s version was that Susannah arrived feeling unwell and wine was given medicinally.
A worldly woman knew that allegations of being rendered insensible by a fiancé and then assaulted could lead to good damages being awarded for breach of promise. For a woman who wanted money, a false allegation could be worth the risk. Susannah made a poor impression in court, and floundered under questions from Fenn’s barrister who indicated that she had been a willing participant in any misconduct. Her case may also have been harmed by her statement that she wanted compensation for the attack rather than the broken engagement. Fenn did not speak in court and could not be cross-examined by Susannah’s barrister.
It was the jury’s prerogative to decide who they believed. They had the advantage of seeing both parties, and hearing the evidence. The jurors decided that Susannah had not proved that Fenn had ever offered to marry her and found for the defendant. The jury saw Susannah as a calculating woman, and the press described her claims as ‘laughable.’ Yet a worldly man of means knew that an insincere offer of marriage could entice a naive woman into indiscreet situations, such as visiting his house. He knew that delaying to announce an engagement deprived her of the corroborating evidence she needed to bring a breach of promise claim against him, however badly he behaved. He also had enough money to employ an experienced barrister to pull her story to pieces and rubbish her in the witness box. One of this couple was playing for high stakes. Were the jury right to conclude that Susannah was calculating and not naïve? The answer can never be known.