Sunday, March 6, 2011

March 13, 1872 --- A Blackmailer's Triumph

A lengthy libel case involving the wife of Sir Travers Twiss, the Queen's own Advocate-General (right), comes to a shocking conclusion. At the opening of the day's session, her counsel announces that "Lady Twiss has determined not to appear again in court. She has, I am informed, left London. I am therefore regretfully compelled to abandon this prosecution." The official record laconically notes that this causes a sensation.

Alexander Chaffers, a seedy Lambeth solicitor, had made the claim that Lady Twiss was not, as she maintained, the orphaned daughter of a Polish general, but rather, one Marie Gelas, a carpenter's daughter and a former London whore. In her previous life, he insisted, Lady Twiss had frequented the notorious Argyll Rooms, where she met her future husband whom she wed in 1862. With this bit of information, Chaffers had been blackmailing the couple for several years and, apparently displeased with either the size or timeliness of the payments, he finally wrote the Lord Chamberlain to complain that such a woman should have been presented to the Queen.

Lady Twiss charged him with making an "obnoxious, false and malicious" libel. At Southwark Magistrate's Court, lawyers for Lady Twiss attempted to trace her antecedents with the help of witnesses from Brussels and Poland. But the highlight of the fortnight's proceedings came when Lady Twiss herself took the stand. Chaffers, acting as his own counsel, cross-examined her "in a most painful and extraordinary manner."

With the outcome of the action far from certain and with public sympathy so strongly in her favor, the decision by Lady Twiss to bolt is a great shock. The Spectator declared that most Londoners felt "a sensation of personal pain."  Mr. Chaffers gains little in victory; there are cheers in the courtroom as the magistrate predicts that the accuser will "for the rest of [his] life be an object of contempt to all honest and well-thinking men." The Times declares. "Even upon the assumption of her guilt the conduct of her assailant merits the condemnation of every generous mind."

In a week's time, Sir Travers resigned his post and retired to Fulham, devoting his life to legal scholarship. Lady Twiss never returned to London. Her downfall is complete. Buckingham Palace, made her a non-person; her name was struck - ex post facto - from the guest list at the Queen's levees.

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