Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 7, 1897 --- The Russell-Scott Scandal

Earl Russell, the grandson of Lord John, the former Prime Minister, and the brother of Bertrand, the future philosopher, wins his libel suit against his embittered mother-in-law.  Lady Maria Scott had printed and circulated a charge that the Earl had been guilty of homosexual conduct, including a claim that he had buggered a cabin boy on his yacht. 

It is the latest act in a long-running and squalid marital scandal.  The Earl married Mabel Scott in 1890.  They separated within months.  In 1891, the Countess filed for divorce on grounds of cruelty.  During the trial, the Scott family claimed that the Earl had been sent down from Oxford after "immoral relations" with his math tutor.  That claim was unproven and the divorce was denied.  The couple remained apart. 

As a legal ploy, in 1895, the Countess filed an action for restitution of her conjugal rights.  Again, the action failed.  Then the pamphlets began to appear.  At her arrest, Lady Scott - the Countess' mother - exulted, "Thank God, it has come to this."  Alas, at her trial for libel, one of the vital witnesses to the alleged cabin boy events turned up dead.   Lady Scott made no apology for the pamphlet; she had done it "for the sake of a good, sweet, honest and suffering woman."  Justice Hawkins was unimpressed.  He called the pamphlet "a cruel libel, persistently published" and ordered Lady Scott to serve a jail term of eight months.  The Countess Russell collapsed in court, and began shrieking at her estranged husband.  The Times calls the whole scene "miserable" and prays for a "a healing silence that may fall on all concerned in this painful case."

In 1900, the Earl skulked off to Nevada for a quickie divorce and returned to England with a new wife.  Bertrand was dumbfounded, he thought the second wife was a fat as the first wife had been beautiful.  The Nevada divorce, as it turns out, was not recognized in England and the Earl was charged with bigamy.  He served a month in jail.  In 1901, the Earl and (first) Countess Russell were at last legally divorced.  In all, the Earl was married three times, although his last wife left him alleging "behavior of a secret nature that made it impossible for a decent woman to stay."

[Sketch from the 1891 divorce trial, Penny Illustrated Paper]

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