February 14 - 1884: Verdict in a famous "Cape Cod Folks" libel suit

1884: One of the Cape Cod folks gets substantial damages
Sarah P. McLean Greene, the author of "Cape Cod Folks"

1884: Perhaps some of the Cedarville people might have been libeled

On this day in 1884, as reported by The New York Times under the headline,

Verdict for Cradle Bow
One of the Cape Cod folks gets substantial damages -
What the freak of a schoolmarm cost the publishers of her book

PLYMOUTH, Feb. 14 - The "Cape Cod Folks" trial was concluded today with a verdict for the plaintiff on the second count. He is awarded $1,095. The proceedings of the day were full of interest. The plaintiff was not present, but there was a much interested audience. The trial was an absorbing one to Cape Codders and they have discussed the questions involved with much animation. The day was taken up with the arguments of counsel and the charge to the jury. None of these were long or in the least tiresome.

The arguments especially were spirited, and counsel entertained the audience with occasional breezy comments on each others points. Ex-Judge Davis, for the defendants, made the first argument. He commented on the plaintiff's motive in bringing the suit, arguing that the fact that he did not move for trial for a year and a half, and then without notice, tended to cast suspicion upon the motive. He certainly could not declare libel on the publisher, counsel contended. No one would think, he went on to argue, of suspecting that the incidents narrated of Zetta Starbright could be anything else than fiction, or that an author would make use of the names of living persons in such a manner.

Were Centerville people libeled?

Perhaps some of the Cedarville people might have been libeled - though he did not think it libel on "Grampa Fisher" to have it said he dyed his hair; very good people did that. Even the counsel on the other side might dye his hair without injury. But the author only was responsible for these libels, if such they were.

Examples in defense of the author were cited - from Shakespeare, who in "Romeo and Juliet" imparted so great an interest to purely fictitious characters that their tomb is now known to curious visitors; to Sir Walter Scott, and to Longfellow, whose "Miles Standish" was a narrative of which Plymouth especially should be proud. The plaintiff was not ridiculed even in the love scenes, but such things were narrated of him to make him a hero in the eyes of every reader. No immorality, crime, or anything contemptible and mean had been imputed to him. If the plaintiff was made ridiculous by the love-making, then the author must appear equally so.

It was denied that the publisher had not used sufficient care in the matter, or had published the alleged libel with malicious intent. The burden of proof rested with the plaintiff. Suppose the libel be admitted; wherein was he injured? Because he was called a potato bugger? Did it prevent his engagement and marriage after he had brought suit? Had he lost any work by it? There was nothing satirical in the libel at least, even though some of the statements might be questioned on the score of absolute accuracy. The counsel hoped for a verdict that would be just to honorable publishers and no discouragement to budding talent like Miss McLean's.

James M. Brown, counsel for the plaintiff, followed. He held that the purpose of the author in holding up the people of Cedarville to ridicule was malicious. He held that the plaintiff was entitled to full compensation for being branded as "one of the Cape Cod folks and the gawky lover of Sarah Pratt McLean."

Since the publication of the book the whole village had been overrun with prying, impertinent strangers. Counsel contended that they had been entertaining an angel unawares. They took her to their bosom, and she stung them like a viper. Mr. Brown read Mrs. Consider Fisher's letter to the publishers claiming damages, and said that the chiseling out of names that followed the letter was no compensation. Counsel contended in conclusion that as Nightingale is said to die in the book, the publishers were liable under the law, which makes it libel to publish a fictitious obituary notice.

Judge Barker, in charging the jury, noted that the claim of the plaintiff was two-fold - for damages for libelous statements about him in the first edition of the book and also for damages for the publication of the second edition, which was no less a libel upon the plaintiff. The verdict must therefore be separately rendered on each separate count. He said that it was not necessary the crime should be alleged to make it libel. Ridicule was libel, though that was not saying that every writing that makes one ridiculous is libelous. In the present case, ridicule, not crime, was claimed by the plaintiff.

The jury must decide by what sense passages in the book were to be taken and if there be any satirical intent, but each passage should be considered in the light of every other passage. It was not Miss McLean, but the publishers, who were the defendants in the present case, and no feeling against the author should actuate their decision.

If the jury find libel, he said, it must be further considered whether the purpose of the publishers was malicious. Vilification of the plaintiff, although malice in law, does not necessarily imply ill will. There had been evidence to show that the manuscript had been received by the publishers from the brother-in-law of Miss McLean, in the ordinary course of business.

Of the second count Judge Barker said that at the time of publication of the second edition the defendants had further knowledge, and this must be taken into account, for changing the real names to fictitious ones did not make the book less libelous, the real names having once been published. If the jury should decide to award damages, such damages should not be estimated as though all the persons mentioned in the book were coming in as plaintiffs. Damages were awarded as compensation, not as punishment. Indignity and annoyance, no less than material injuries, may be taken into account.

The jury returned its verdict, as stated above, after an absence in consultation of about two hours. From the NY Times.

(The book in question, "Cape Cod Folks" by Sarah Pratt McLean, was a romance novel set in a seafaring community.)

Cape Cod Folks. A novel.

Sally Pratt McLean, 1881. A. Williams & Co. Old Corner Bookstore, Boston

An educated and wealthy young woman from the vicinity of New York applies for and accepts the position of school-mistress at the Cape Cod hamlet of Wallencamp. She's 19, known to all as being flighty, and this is a commitment that surprises everyone. The Cape Codders are colorful, happily ignorant, mostly quite pious, and desperately poor. The teacher learns about the monotony of seasonal food, about the lives and deaths of poor people, about how to work practically and teach in a one-room school, and about the social conventions of visiting and church. She brings education, gentility, and books. She interests the young men, too, and is finally about to commit to one handsome gem-in-the-rough, except he drowns rescuing the rich city cad. She leaves when her contract is up, penniless. Back in civilization, her gravitas is clear to all, and she quickly marries and manages important causes.

This is not an interesting book, overall! I bought it because I love the Cape Cod novels of Joseph Crosby Lincoln *, and wanted to see what other authors of the era were writing. It could have been set virtually anywhere - there's little identifiably Cape Cod about the setting. The Cape Cod characters' dialect seems most un-New England like to me (and there's an odd reference to Hoosiers!) Living conditions change with the decades and the economy, but I haven't seen any other references, fictional or non-fictional, to the Cape being so incredibly poor in the 19th century. An anecdote that I question has the children gorging on lobsters at school when they come into season. Also, the characters make a major point of visiting, dropping in on everyone else frequently, "not wanting to seem unneighborly", and to me this seems to be an urban and un-Yankee habit. (Or visiting could have been as common as she writes of, but the male writers never noticed or bothered.)

But even as fiction the book fails. If the heroine's name is actually given, I can't recall it, and a quick review of the book didn't reveal it. The local boyfriend drowned, but "oh well", it's time to go back to the city. The other characters are also left hanging, except the ones buried. And, finally, the book is permeated with 19th century middle-class piety. I read around the religiosity in the classics (Robinson Crusoe, Mary Rowlandson) but here it's just another annoyance.

McLean was successfully sued for libel by several of the Plymouth residents (not actual Cape Codders) she based her characters on, and apparently various versions of the book have different names for them, as a result.

A search of the Library of Congress catalog reveals another 11 or so books by the same author, Sarah Pratt McLean (Greene), 1856-1935. All seem to be novels. As far as I can tell from one book, she is obscure, and deserves to be, yet this book was reprinted many times, and even made into a movie, then republished with movie pictures!  Read more about the era here.

"Cape Cod Folks" is available to read online or download to your Kindle or other device at Gutenberg.org.


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