AMERICAN sexual mores were changing in the opening decades of the last century. Men and women were becoming more prudish, less open about sex, more concerned about its control than its expression.
The proportion of young women conceiving children before marriage kept dropping each decade, from about one in three at the start of the century to one out of every five or six by 1840. Increasingly, early pregnancy was regarded as a stigma for a women's character. By the 1840s, Americans began to listen to lectures on chastity and not laughing at them. The first written works on contraception were widely circulated, albeit formally denounced, by religious leaders.
Perhaps it was because of the change in sexual attitudes that Baltimore was fascinated with a week-long trial centering on seduction that took place in November 1837. It was a breach of promise of marriage suit. The fledgling daily, The Sun, which ha started publication a few months earlier, filled its front page with columns of details. The paper gave editorial notice that it was crowding out other issues, like the outbreak of troubles in Canada, to provide the fullest coverage of the Baltimore County Court trial.
In the days before objective rules of reporting, The Sun' reporter wrote that the trial showed, "a scheme of heartless villainy almost unparalleled." The plaintiff was Louisa Wallis. "She, it is true, was not longer in the fresh bloom of youth for she had numbered 25 summers," The Sun reported, "but she still possessed some beauty, for the dissipation and excitement of city life were unknown to the inmates of her mother's cottage."
The mother, Mrs. Ann Wallis, was the star witness in the trial, "a widow lady" who lived in the village of Darlington, in Harford County.
"She was once in affluent circumstances but misfortune and reverses had deprived her of all her property, and at the time of her husband's death, she found herself reduced to poverty," the court account stated. Though she was related by kinship or marriage to some of the wealthiest residents in the county, Mrs. Wallis preferred her independence and "resorted to her needle" to support herself and her younger children.
She leaned on the help of Louisa, her oldest, unmarried daughter to keep her small business and the household going. "This family's domestic bliss was soon to be blighted," the newspaper reported. "The viper that was to sting was already fostered in their bosom."
Dr. John Sappington, a widower, was only a few years older than Louisa. He had settled in Darlington. He was considered skillful professionally, engaging enough to win the confidence of the most respectable families in the county. There were tales that he had once been guilty of "an act of heartless seduction," but this "did not render him any the less popular with the fair sex." Pleasing and handsome, Sappington was a ladies man. His growing and lucrative practice helped make him a good catch.
From the first of his visits to the Wallis' household, the doctor paid strong attention to Louisa. In the spring of 1830, Mrs. Wallis testified that he asked, in the presence of Louisa, if he "might have her daughter." The widow told him that Louisa was her "mainstay," and without her, she would have to give up housekeeping. She said the doctor responded that as he was going "into housekeeping" in the spring, she could live with him.
Mrs. Wallis regarded the doctor as "the accepted suitor." His visits were more frequent and more private. In September 1831, Sappington brought some clothes to the widow "to be made up" as he intended to "stand up before the parson in them." It was at this same time that Louisa began feeling poorly. The doctor advised a trip to Baltimore for her health. Mrs. Wallis said she was told the doctor would to follow to make plans for a wedding.
Louisa went to Baltimore not "the innocent, virtuous girl" that her mother believed her to be. "Her ruin had been effected, and her frailty would soon be made manifest to the world," said The Sun. other words, she was pregnant.
The doctor followed. When he returned to Darlington after several days, without Louisa and still unmarried, Mrs. Wallis became hysterical, sobbed and begged for "tidings" about Louisa. "Depend upon my honor," Sappington said. "Be satisfied."
Louisa's disappearance was so similar to another "transaction" with the doctor and another young lady that Mrs. Wallis' relatives and the county itself feared the worst. As Sappington wouldn't disclose where Louisa was staying, the Wallis clan had placards published describing the doctor's "perfidy" and calling for the girl's return. In January 1832, Louisa prematurely gave birth to twins. Both died within a week.
On the day they were buried in Baltimore, Sappington sent Louisa back to Harford County and then vanished for eight months. Public indignation was too high for him to continue his practice.