Voltairine de Cleyre, “Courting” (1890)



Philadelphia, Pa., Sept. 15, ’90.

A friend and myself undertook that serious affair the other day, and the results being peculiar I want to take the public into my confidence. People usually prefer privacy on such occasions, but we got into a roomful all intent on the same errand. Specified, the errand was this: The famous “Kreutzer Sonata” was to be tried. Tolstoi, voice by Robert Arundel, was to justify himself before Judge Arnold; the prosecuting attorney, over the heads of a few poor itinerant booksellers, was to tear the asceticism of Galilee in rags, and the public was anxious.

But, as usual, the legal disputants wanted delay, and instead of the shade of Tolstoi cowled and gowned, there in broad daylight walked the ghost of the Markham letter. Or was it its ghost? Anyhow in the broken voice and the shadowed eyes of the mournful mother whose grandchildren were the subject of the legal wrangle, one saw the form of a dead woman brutalized on her dying be by her inhuman master.

This man, named Wallington, was fighting for the custody of his three children. Their mother, whose suffering life ended some few months ago, with the dying words: “O mother! You’ll never know what I suffered from that husband,” had borne him five children in eight years. The oldest of these he had endeavored to outrage. There in the crowded court room, before the insulting taunts of the opposing lawyer, shrouded in her black robe of sorrow, the mother of the dead woman related the soul-sickening story; and the lawyers said, “Speak out; speak plain.”

O, when the women are dead how they like to harrow up the things that murdered them! And they told her to “be calm, be calm”!

Dr. Pratt testified that the conduct of this brute in sexual matters had undoubtedly hastened the woman’s death. When asked of what Mrs. Wallington died, Mrs. Caldwell replied” “Well, there never was anything in particular. She died of a complication of difficulties.” And there sat the judge and the lawyers, and the mixed audience, with many children, horror-struck by the fearful story, but not once was it mentioned that Mrs. Caldwell was “obscene.” I am sure no man looking at her white, tear-marked face would have had a lascivious tendency aroused, and no child become desirous of being outraged because it heard the hideous revelation. I am not so sure that the women present were made more patient slaves thereby; I am almost certain of the reverse. Anyhow it was all very plain, and nobody was sent to prison. Mr. Wallington was told he could not have his children till he had more money to support them with, and the crowd dispersed.

My friend and I came out musing on the delicate irony of “events” which had put the case of Wallington on the list with the trial of the “Kruetzer Sonata”; that the same judge who royally disregards the sexual murder of a mother and bases his denial of the care of children upon lack of funds, will in a week be requested to pronounce the teachings of Jesus—absolute continence—obscene!

Voltairine de Cleyre.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “Courting,” Lucifer the Light-bearer, New Series, 8 no. 45 (October 10, 1890): 1.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.