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Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "Powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  592 ratings  ·  146 reviews
The woman--and her illicit affair--that rocked Victorian America

When Madeline Pollard was a teenager, she began an extended affair with the Kentucky Congressman William Breckinridge, one of the most influential men in America. Breckinridge was married, and he once declared women's chastity "the cornerstone of human society." He seduced Pollard, and when his wife died, he a
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published November 13th 2018 by Sarah Crichton Books
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 ·  592 ratings  ·  146 reviews

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Start your review of Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "Powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington
Jill Hutchinson
This book has a dual purpose: an overview of women's rights in the late 19th century; and an infamous trial which demonstrates the effects of that discrimination.

"Fallen women" was a term used for unmarried women who had a sexual liaison before marriage and heaven forbid, a child as a result of that liaison. Men took mistresses and the public averted their eyes but a woman was chastised and irredeemably ruined. And they had no recourse until one brave female decided to take legal action against
Dec 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A must-read for any one who cares or is interested in women's history. ...more
Valerity (Val)
Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the ‘Powerless’ Woman Who Took On Washington

A look at things in Victorian America for women. A Kentucky lawyer and politician makes promises he won’t keep and plays fast and loose with young women while his wife is at home. When he’s finally brought up short and one files a lawsuit against him for breach of promise, he tries to brush her off, using his power and prominence to quiet her. Madeline Pollard files a lawsuit after Colonel
Aug 14, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-history
There are more non-fiction narratives of bullying being published. Or so it seems to me. While reading this book, I also tore through an appalling account of present-day avarice-led bullying by lawyers and executives in Silicon Valley. This micro-history is a bullying story of the old-school, with Kentucky Congressman and revolting hypocrite William Breckinridge struggling mightily in 1894 to shut down the woman he first seduced when she was 16 (so she said, there is some disagreement). He then ...more
Anita Ojeda
Jul 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
When Jennie Tucker heads to Washington D.C. with the promise of a lucrative position, she has no idea what her employer has in mind for her. A single woman nearing her thirties, Jennie comes from a good family that has a beautiful home, but no money to maintain it—or her.

In Victorian America on the east coast, economic necessity forced more and more women to enter the work force when they failed to marry and their parents could no longer support them. But entering the work force carried a horri
Nov 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
An absolutely fascinating read w (sadly) contemporary overtones. This was incredibly well researched book, enlivened by the original source quotes. Colonel Breckinridge complained about: "women doctors who are abortionists, women type-writers who are treacherous" and "ladies who attend conventions, deliver speeches and shriek for all sort of things which they call reform." The good news is that he was brought down. The bad news is that there are many like him on twitter today.

Breckinridge was a
Jan 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
What a fascinating history, one involving feminism, politics, law, and the ever-present double-standard in American society. Miller does a great job introducing to readers a wide cast of characters in this complex story, providing the background for each individual and ensuring that the reader is clearly able to distinguish between everyone and their roles in the case. I loved this book!
Feb 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019-read
“The world seemed to be shifting under his feet, as were ideas about who was fit to sit in judgment of whom.” - Patricia Miller, Bringing Down the Colonel⁣

If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably seen this book appear on my various TBR pictures since December. I’ve been wanting to read it since I heard it discussed on @bookriot ’s non-fiction podcast, For Real, and because it was the @belletrist book of the month in November, but after a wait to get the library book, it kept getting push
Sugarpuss O'Shea
I absolutely LOVED this book! It's part courtroom drama, part tawdry affair, part spy potboiler, part history, part woman's rights saga--In other words, it has EVERYTHING!!

With the 100th anniversary of woman's suffrage around the corner, I've been reading quite a bit about the battle for the ballot. This book puts so much into context. It really paints the picture of why women like Susan B Anthony & Lucretia Mott & Lucy Stone were necessary--vital for the rights we take for granted today. It's h
Dec 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing

BRINGING DOWN THE COLONEL is a nonfiction account of Madeline Pollard’s lawsuit against Colonel W.C.P. Breckinridge for abandonment (he had a shotgun marriage with another woman while engaged to Pollard) in 1893. Sadly, DC didn’t have seduction laws, which many other states had at the time. Pollard’s aim is to make Breckinridge have his share of the blame, shame and consequences. This lively account explores a ten year affair that Pollard believed would end in marriage. Instead, it ends will thi
Steve Majerus-Collins
Jan 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, biography
That I stumbled across this volume by Patricia Miller is a sign that 2019 may be unusually kind to me. It is a delightful blend of history, politics and sex, a tale from the end of the 19th Century told in amazing detail and a keen appreciation for what it all meant. Miller makes a good case that the fall of Colonel Breckinridge at the hands of his mistress, Madeline Pollard, proved a turning point in the shift for American women and American values. It's a good read and fine book. ...more
Apr 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Excellent biography/history of late 19th century sex scandal. I'm not sure much has changed since then ... ...more
Melinda Borie
Jan 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
I don’t remember anymore where I heard about this book but I’m glad I did. Part courtroom drama, part lurid affair details, part examination of the historical context of breach of promise lawsuits and changing sexual mores, this is a thrilling read.
Feb 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Nov 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

This was really very informative and entertaining. The history supplied begins in Colonial times unto the 40s and follows the lives of some extraordinary women after a harrowing trial.
Nov 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating and engaging read that I would especially recommend to anyone with even a vague interest in U.S. history, women's history, the history of sexuality, political history, or law (I'd recommend it to anyone, but that vague interest might inspire them to pick up the book).

Miller provides a lot of context for social norms at the time, which is an incredibly important piece of the story-without those details, it's hard to understand why people might have acted the way they did. I
Molly Niemi
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
“The real combatants, though, were two worldview about women and sex. One was the hierarchical, predatory southern ethic, which held that any woman who wasn’t protected by her father and domestic isolation was fair game and became part of a debauched class necessary to protect the purity of respectable women… The other was the more egalitarian ethic of the western elite- the descendants of the pious but fair minded Puritans that increasingly saw men and women as equals and men as responsible as ...more
Aug 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Thoughtful, detailed history. Fascinating story. I learned a lot reading this--so many modern applications.
Over a century before the onset of #metoo, a previously unknown woman brought a breach of marriage suit against a powerful Washington politician. This was no small thing since she would be required to reveal her status as a “fallen woman.” Nevertheless, she took him to court in 1893, won the trial in 1894, ended his career the same year, and was consigned to the footnotes of history. Long before the likes of Harvey Weinstein graced the tabloids with accounts of disgusting behavior, Patricia Mill ...more
Lucan Melkonian
Jan 24, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is an (unfortunately) all-too-familiar story: “Powerful Political Personage vs. a Marginalized Maiden of Modest Means” (see: The People of the State of New York vs. Strauss-Kahn, etc., etc.).

Though I would not consider myself an expert in the early women’s rights movement or the current world that surrounds feminist discourse, I am a film development professional who can recognize good storytelling when I see it. This expertly composed historical account is about the original #MeToo moveme
Jan 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Where to begin? An astonishing book that immerses us in the late 1800’s in the United States. It’s a history lesson, a snapshot of the times (post Civil War) and a page turner. It goes all the way back to the Puritans to lay some surprising groundwork about the treatment of women and to explore societal beliefs about marriage, families, and sex.

The story features a famous extramarital affair (him, not her) between a young woman and a prominent Kentucky politician. It went on for 10 years. After
Scott Wilson
May 05, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Pretty interesting case about a women scorned who fought back. William Breckinridge is a powerful politician who comes from a very respected and powerful family. He had a long affair with Madeline Pollard in which he had promised to ultimately marry her so when Breckinridge is suddenly a widow Madeline thinks its her time to have Breckinridge all to her self but he marries somebody else. Madeline is livid and sues Breckinridge in court court which was very risky at the time because she had to ad ...more
May 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This author has done the reader the great service of exhaustively researching this breach-of-promise court case from the cusp of the 20th century, and distilled it into an eminently accessible account that touches on issues of gender inequality, sexual politics, abuse of power by politicians, voting rights, social class, economic disparity - sound familiar? I was amazed at how women of 1890's America were fighting for causes that I would have thought particular to my lifetime. The realization is ...more
Denise Cormaney
Feb 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Powerful men taking advantage of women young enough to be their granddaughters? Society judging them completely differently, holding the women to an unfair set of standards? Women are supposed to be pure and undefiled, while men can’t be blamed for wanting a little action on the side?

There’s nothing new under the sun; just new people doing it.

This is a timely book in the #metoo era. Then, like now, women were preyed upon by powerful men with little to no consequence. Then, like now, women have l
Apr 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Madeline Pollard came of age at a time when women had very few choices in life. After a difficult childhood her hopes of attaining a university education were dashed. Young and vulnerable, she was seduced by a politically prominent older man. A sexual encounter outside of marriage meant automatic ruin for a woman. The man just got a pat on the back for his conquest. The tryst went on for many years and eventually raised Ms Pollard's hope of marriage to her lover. It was not to be. She sued him f ...more
Dec 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction

I'm surprised how much I enjoyed this, to be honest - I was excited to try it but I'm not the biggest fan of nonfiction, so my expectations weren't high. I enjoyed the tone and language a lot - it wasn't bogged down by long academic sounding sentences that I could barely understand, and there were even a few times that I laughed out loud at the authors sarcastic and ironic tone. I thought she painted a well rounded picture of the time and culture, and provided some other previous examples of
Mar 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
WOW. Didn't go into this with many expectations, just thought it would be a dry historical read (which I love, but from a different place in my heart), but this is hits SO MANY WICKETS for me: a Victorian-era sex scandal working its way through the American legal system, with ruined women and society attitudes just as much on trial as the (male, white, rich) defendant. This is a nonfiction version of a sensation novel. It is amazing in its dedication not just to the court case at the center of t ...more
Sex! Scandal! Spying! This book has it all. I was expecting a salacious retelling of one of the most notorious breach-of-promise cases in history. I got that, but I also got a well-researched explanation of how the sexual double standard in late-1800s America came to exist in the first place. (Did you know that when the Puritans caught a fornicating couple, which was often, the man and the woman had to suffer equal punishment, and that punishment was much less if the couple were already engaged? ...more
Cathy M.
Jun 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A little slow at the beginning but once it gets to the lead up to the trial and the trial coverage, it was a very good read.

And where have we heard this before?

"...the hierarchical, predatory southern ethic, which held that any woman who wasn't protected by her father and domestic isolation was fair ame and became part of a debauched class necessary to protect the purity of respectable women." And, "...the more egalitarian ethic of the earsten elite -- the dexcendants of the pious but fair-min
Rachel Hope
Oct 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic book! I assigned this to students in my "Sex and Power in American History" course at the University of Victoria, and I'm so glad I did. The story of the Pollard-Breckenridge trial offers a fantastic window onto the history of the sexual double standard and the emerging feminist challenge to that double standard during the late nineteenth century. Miller's narrative is gripping, the subject is timely, the analysis is spot-on, her synthesis of the history of American sexuality is excell ...more
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Patricia Miller is an award-winning author and journalist whose fascination with the untold stories of women led her on a 10-year journey to unearth the story of the Breckinridge–Pollard scandal. Her work on the interplay of politics and sexual morality has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation, Huffington Post, and Ms. Magazine. She received a master’s degree in journalism from New York Uni ...more

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“The notorious conduct of congressmen and public men in Washington is a national disgrace and the women are now thoroughly awakened on the subject and are determined to demand a better order of things.” 0 likes
“Gentlemen of the jury, take this case and dispose of it,” he said as the courtroom burst into laughter.” 0 likes
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