“Mrs Jongers cast off the writ and trampled on it”: two versions of a 1903 incident at Christopher Street Pier
The very first thing that I stumbled across when I began researching Louise D’Aubray McAllister (b. 1874) on a whim one idle evening was this New York Times article, dated 19 June 1903, detailing a dramatic set of events among the crowds at a Manhattan pier:
Three days later, on 22 June, the paper printed the shorter follow-up below. Note the circled paragraph: this is the Times quietly sneaking in a correction, clarifying that its breathless account of the incident had been wrong on some crucial points. No kidnap took place at the pier that day, after all, and there had never been any plan for the little girl to travel with her mother and stepfather on their honeymoon trip. However, Louise’s ex-husband Alexander C. Young did have form for this sort of thing, and did go on to snatch their daughter from her grandmother’s care in a separate incident very soon afterwards.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d hit a startlingly productive seam of sensational stories relating to this branch of the family. They’re such very distant connections – Louise was my 2nd cousin 3 times removed – that I hardly think of them as relatives at all, but they’re no less interesting to me for that. Alexander Young is a particularly colourful figure about whom I’d like to write more (probably not here, though. He was many things, but he wasn’t a woman).
Quantities of newly digitized historical newspapers are becoming available online all the time, and it can be interesting to look at the varying ways in which different papers cover an incident. I recently found another version of this story in the St Louis Republic, dated 21 June 1903 – after the first NYT report, but before the correction. The Republic takes a very different approach to the initial (incorrect) story of the kidnap attempt at the pier, putting a kind of proto-Daily Mail/Fathers4Justice-style spin on it.
Observe the contrasting perspectives at work: while the Times casts Louise and her new husband as relatively dignified victims of Young’s shouty, uncouth behaviour during what, we are told, was his fourth (!) attempt to kidnap his daughter, the Republic does everything it possibly can to make Young into a wronged hero. So the Times has “Snatched Baby at Pier: Alexander C. Young Took His Child From Its Mother”, while the Republic chooses to run with “Regained Child at Ship’s Pier: Recently Divorced Woman About to Take Little Girl Away With New Husband”. Damn those divorced women with legal custody! What’ll they try next?
The Republic‘s account opens with a description of Louise walking up the gangplank in front of a hissing crowd, “leaving behind her 3-year-old daughter, who had been taken from her on habeas corpus proceedings”. The implications that the crowd disapproved of Louise, that she was calmly abandoning her child at the last moment after having planned to travel with her, and that Young’s service of a writ had achieved a legitimate goal, are clear (and, it seems, completely invented). Next, the paper snidely suggests that Louise has “figured prominently” in the divorce courts “during the last ten years”, making no mention of the fact that her only divorce – from Young, who’d himself had two divorces, though this too is left out – was granted on grounds of his adultery and misbehaviour.
Then there’s the explanation that Louise has married again. To an artist, no less. And he’s French. Both papers give most of this information, but it’s only in the Republic‘s version that you get the feeling some eyebrow-waggling is being conveyed between the lines. And let’s not overlook the disorderly conduct, ascribed by the Republic to Louise and her husband rather than to Young: “So violent were the protests of Jongers and his wife that the uproar attracted the attention of the crowd on the pier, and the police were obliged to step in and restore order.”
The battle for little Louise rolled on for quite a while after this mostly-imaginary incident hit the headlines. It was widely reported, and most of the coverage that I’ve read tends towards either condemning Young’s behaviour, or describing events in a way that flatters neither parent. Sometimes there’s a bit of a sardonic “see how the rich live!” tone. But the attitude that colours this Republic piece, so keen to present Louise in the worst possible light, is rarely seen and does set it somewhat apart from the rest. Whether the paper’s editorial stance was a little backward-looking on this point, more than usually attached to a disapproving view of divorced women that was gradually being left behind by many people, I don’t know.
This page has a useful, brief account of changing laws and trends in US divorce and child custody disputes over the years. William O’Neill’s 1965 article “Divorce in the Progressive Era” from American Quarterly is worth reading as well if you’re researching the issue. No doubt there’s other, newer research to be found as well, and I’d be glad to hear from anyone who can point me towards it.
Header image: View to the south from Christopher Street Pier c.2008, sourced from Wikipedia (public domain).