“Drunken Orgy” and the Perils of Social Climbing, 1909 Style

"A Fondness for Intoxicants"

So there I was in the back room of a small local history museum in North Dakota, watching the frail-looking director heft large bound volumes of early-twentieth-century newspapers on and off the shelf.  My friend and I were on the trail of a confusing 1909 event in a tiny community on the Great Plains that formed the centerpiece of a family story she wanted to untangle.  The details of that event are not at all relevant here, because this is a story about something else and the role serendipity often plays in research.  As the museum director flipped through the volumes, I noticed another headline: “Mrs. Gould’s Life At Home, Drunken Orgy.”  And below that: “Coachman, Carpenter, Footman, Maid, Florist and Clerk All Relate Instances When Mistress Was Intoxicated and Profane.”  My friend, who knows I also work on the history of alcoholic women, met my glance; she had seen it too.  Because I feared distracting the museum director, whose help was essential to us, I said nothing but scribbled down as much information as I could so that I could pursue Mrs. Gould another day.

As I later learned, this article was part of widespread coverage of the divorce proceedings of Howard Gould, son of railroad magnate Jay Gould, and Katherine Clemmons, an actress.  News stories that reported the trial in great detail were reprinted in regional newspapers such as the one I saw in North Dakota (that headline, for example, also appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 17, 1909).  While the reference to “Intoxication” had caught my eye, not to mention “Drunken Orgy,” I discovered as I read more about the case that Mrs. Gould’s drinking was presented as part of a cluster of characteristics and behaviors, including her background and class status, her actions toward servants, her (in)ability to manage money, her alleged pre-marital and extra-marital associations, and even her wardrobe.  Not surprisingly, I cannot conclude from existing evidence whether Mrs. Gould was actually an alcoholic.  But I can analyze this news coverage for what it tells us about early-twentieth-century attitudes regarding women’s alcohol consumption, social class, marriage, and respectability.

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