1887 New York Scandal on New Year's Day
Typical New York Brownstone
Dr. And Mrs. John Frederick May had 4 daughters, the oldest of which were already engaged to be married and the younger two still not ready to be courted. Second daughter, Caroline, was all but engaged to a wealthy but socially inferior man. The May’s were part of a prominent New England family, originally from Boston, but now living in New York. Dr. May was financially comfortable but not wealthy, so some new money into the family would be nice. But there were grave concerns about her suitor, James Bennett, Jr.
Bennett was a bit of a bouncer, a derogatory term, popular at the time, for a crude person who comes into wealth, with no social graces but with pushy ways. Bennett’s father had died 4 years before leaving his son his newspaper, The New York Herald. Along with the paper he inherited millions of dollars.
Bennett, who was 15 years older than Caroline, had a reputation as a ladies man and eccentric. Bennett was a devotee of yachting but also cock fighting. Many people did not consider him a respectable escort for a girl from a good family, such as Caroline. But Caroline let him pay her court. He had been stringing her along for 3 years.
New Year’s day was a traditional day for society to pay calls on family and friends .The women of the house would stay to entertain and the men would go from house to house paying calls. The gentlemen were give New Year’s greetings, chat a little and maybe have a snack or a drink, before going on to the next house.
James Bennett, Jr. was expected to pay a call and , in the late afternoon , he eventually arrived. It was immediately obvious that he had imbibed quite a bit. He walked into the brownstone’s front parlor and soon did something that forever barred him from New York society. His relationship with Caroline was immediately broken off and eventually, Bennett had to flee to Europe and run his own newspaper from a distance.
What did he do that was so shocking that Mrs. May screamed, Caroline fainted and the other male guests threw him violently outside into the snow. Everyone in society knew what happened but it was considered too shocking to talk about. It wasn’t until decades later that an enemy of Bennett’s newspaper wrote out an account of the matter and distributed it to the general public that the full facts were known.
Responding to a liquid call of nature while in the presence of a lady of high character to whom he was paying attention, he simply retire behind the parlor door and let fly—unusually decent in him in retiring thus far. To put it simply, Bennett pissed on the parlor room wall in front of the family and guests. Some say he was more polite and actually pissed into the fireplace. But he was thrown out of the house and society.
Julius L. Stewart painting of Bennett on yacht
A couple days later Caroline brother attacked him with a horsewhip. Bennett then challenged Frederick May to a duel. This 1887 duel is believed to have been the last duel fought in the United States. They both missed. Bennett soon moved to Europe, only returning to New York when necessary for business.
The May family also came in for some criticism; what did they expect when they allowed Caroline to be courted by such a dubious character. Her brother’s duel was also seen as making an exhibition of the family. But the May family survived the scandal better than Bennett, who settled into English society. Although, it must be said, Bennett didn’t seem to mind that much and he was popular in European society.