I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The 1886 divorce trial involving Lord and Lady Colin Campbell involving unmentionable testimony had London gasping for every last salacious detail. Nothing beats high society airing its dirty laundry in public.
The Cast of Characters
Any marital melodrama worth its salt involves a triangle, so here are the participants in this sordid affair.
- Lord Colin Campbell was the fifth son of the Duke of Argyll. He could not have won a more privileged status in the lottery of life. He went to the best school, the best university, and was handed a commission in the army. In 1878, he became a Member of Parliament, although this had more to do with connections and shenanigans than popularity among his constituents who, apparently, hated him.
- Gertrude Elizabeth Blood also came from privilege although not as blue-blooded as her husband-to-be. Her family was among the landed gentry of Ireland although she spent a large part of her childhood in Italy. The family had ambitions to elbow its way into the British aristocracy.
- The third member of the triangle was syphilis.
It was understood and accepted that young men from the upper echelons of society had certain – um - physical needs that had to be satisfied.
Young women of the upper classes were expected to walk down the aisle as virgins, or at least to have the appearance of virginity. So how was a young Jack-the-lad supposed to mollify his urges?
It was left to the unfortunate women who worked in the sex trade to take care of the needs of randy gentlemen. In Victorian Britain there was an abundance of brothels ready to cater to every predilection.
The downside of this commerce was the acquisition of incurable diseases.
Cupid Fires His Arrow
In 1880, Gertrude (23) and Colin (27) became engaged.
Apparently, Gertrude’s mother, Mary, was overjoyed at the prospect of her daughter marrying into a top-of-line family. My Heavens, wasn’t young Colin’s brother, John, married to Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise? Perhaps, an invitation to the palace might be in the offing.
However, Gertrude’s father, Edmund, had his ear to the ground and he was picking rumours about his son-in-law to be that he didn’t like the sound of. He questioned the young swain.
(Here, the reader’s indulgence is asked for as the following dialogue is made up, but it carries the gist of what passed between the two men).
George Blood: “I must ask you Sir, do you have a loathsome disease? Yes or no.”
Lord Campbell: “No, no, Sir. A slight inconvenience of the plumbing system. Bit of ointment. Clear up in no time.”
The rascal was lying; he had syphilis and he knew it.
The Infection Spreads
However, the marriage was delayed as Colin Campbell underwent treatment. Eventually, in June 1881, the bells rang out to announce the wedding of Lord and Lady Colin Campbell.
The consummation caused Gertrude to come down with a dose of the clap. The nature of the ailment from which she suffered was kept from her, and, as a Victorian lady she would have no idea that such things as venereal diseases even existed.
Gertrude went to stay with her sister and mother as she recuperated, while Colin fumed at being cut off from his conjugal rights.
She was very beautiful and witty and attracted a large circle of friends, some of them men, while her husband brooded at the marital home. Colin tried to put a stop to her social life, but she ignored him.
At some time in 1882, the syphilis flared up again and physicians revealed the nature of her illness to their patient. Papers were filed for a “judicial separation” on the grounds of Lord Campbell’s extreme cruelty in giving his bride a venereal disease.
The Divorce Trial
Colin was a vindictive character. When, Gertrude moved to Paris he sent agents to spy on her. He wrote threatening letters and generally hounded her. She filed for divorce and he counter-sued for the same thing.
In 1886, the whole messy affair landed in the divorce courts to the delight of the scandal rags. The public lapped up every salacious detail with an epic amount of tut-tting and “Well I never.”
Lord Campbell alleged that his wife had enjoyed the bedroom company of at least four men. He even produced a butler who claimed to have spied the romping through a keyhole. For her part, Lady Campbell produced testimony that her husband had been intimate with a housemaid.
When Colin Campbell’s syphilitic condition was revealed only The Evening News dared printed the shocking evidence and it got sued for obscene libel for its troubles. Other papers simply referred to “Revolting evidence.”
For the jury it was a wash. Its members believed that neither side had proved adultery so no divorce was granted. Gertrude remained married to Colin, in name only, until his death in 1895 from tertiary syphilis at the age of 42. An obituary noted that he lived “neither wisely nor well.”
Sparkling Lady Campbell
While Lord Colin Campbell vanished from society until he turned up dead in Bombay, his wife became a darling of London’s artistic community. She was close friends with George Bernard Shaw who called her a goddess. Shaw wrote of her: “Imagine a lady with a lightning wit, a merciless sense of humour, a skill in journalism surpassing that of any interviewer, a humiliatingly obvious power of reckoning you up at a glance, and probably not thinking much of you …”
But, the incurable syphilis kept returning, and she finally succumbed to the disease in 1911 at the age of 54.
Her obituary in The New York Times said “She was not only distinguished as a writer and art critic, but painted and sang well and was accomplished in sports. In fencing she was recognized as one of the best women experts.”
There was no effective cure for syphilis until penicillin came along in 1947. Early treatments involved bloodletting and bathing in herbs and wine. Then, mercury was thought to be effective but, of course, it caused death by mercury poisoning for some patients. Derivatives of arsenic were equally ineffective.
Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Lenin, and Adolf Hitler are all suspected of having syphilis. The list of those who died from the disease includes: Al Capone, Oscar Wilde, Paul Gaugin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Schubert, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
“What the Butler Saw” is a generic term in Britain to describe machines set up, mostly at holiday resorts, which showed saucy images that amounted to voyeurism. They took their name from the testimony of a butler in the Campbell divorce trial who claimed to see, through a keyhole, Lady Campbell frolicking on the floor with a male companion.
- “Campbell Versus Campbell, In The Divorce Of The Century.” Ciaran Conliffe, headstuff.org, July 10, 2016.
- “Love Well The Hour.” Anne Jordan, Matador, December 2010.
- “Campbell Divorce Case.” paperspast.natlib.govt.nz, November 1886.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor