The Football Star and the Wrath of his Would-Be Bride | History | Smithsonian
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The Football Star and the Wrath of his Would-Be Bride

What could a wounded woman do? For one thing, she could sue

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A Merillat-Van Ness headline, 1915. Washington Post.

The 1915 marriage of Louis Merillat and Ethel Wynne was straight out of a fairy tale. She was a Chicago beauty from a wealthy family, and he was a two-time All-American West Point cadet, handsome and destined for success.

But a thorn appeared in the form of Helen Van Ness, a Wooster, Ohio, stenographer who claimed that Merillat had committed himself to marry her after a series of visits in the fall of 1913. Merillat, Van Ness claimed, was in breach of contract.

Helen Van Ness, 1915. Salt Lake Tribune.

Seeking a “heart balm,” or salve for her wounded pride, Van Ness served Merillat with a lawsuit. No wedding plans had been made, she acknowledged, but the emotional distress caused by her love’s marriage to Ethel Wynne was worth, in the estimation of her lawyers, $20,000.

According to Van Ness, her romance with Merillat had been both passionate and devoted. They met when Merillat was visiting an Ohio aunt whose property was near Van Ness’ home; introduced by a mutual friend, she said, he was instantly smitten with her, and visited regularly through the summer of 1913. Upon his return to West Point, she said, they began to exchange letters, and by Christmas, he had returned to Ohio and proposed.

Her evidence? She told a local paper:

“And here I have a ring,” the girl said. “Here it is. His West Point ring. It’s just about the same as a college fraternity pin. It has the same significance as an engagement ring. It has my birthstone for a setting.”

Van Ness arranged for her engagement to be announced in a Wooster paper, but as winter turned to spring, her connection with Merillat grew weaker.

We were happy and wrote each other many letters. Then something happened and he quit writing. I have always supposed it was parental objection. I always thought things would come out all right, though, until I learned in August that Louis had married a girl in Chicago.

A broken engagement (let alone one broken in such a seemingly cruel fashion) seemed out of character for Merillat. “To meet Louie is to like him,” proclaimed a 1915 West Point yearbook. “His ability to always see the bright side of things, his laugh that is simply contagious, and his enthusiasm which is undeniable—there is no branch of cadet activity that has failed to feel his influence, and a boodle fight without his beaming countenance would be a fiasco.”

Merry,” as he was known, was lavished with praise in the American Journal of Veterinary Medicine, a publication often featuring Merillat’s father, a prominent Chicago veterinarian:

One could go on writing about Merillat all day and yet not describe his achievements while a cadet at West Point. He has been a corporal and sergeant in the battalion; is a sharpshooter, is captain of the army baseball team, and “All-American” end in football for two years; member of the basketball squad, a wearer of the “A,” and has been prominent in outdoor and indoor athletic meets ever since coming here.

Louis Merillat in a 1914 West Point yearbook.

It was Merillat’s football prowess that earned him the most recognition. The breakout star of West Point’s Army teams of 1913 and 1914—teams that included future generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley— Merillat was named a first-team All-American each year. In 1913 (the year he became acquainted with Van Ness), Merillat scored 18 points as Army beat a Navy team that had allowed only seven points all season.

He was a hero again in 1914, leading Army to a 9-0 record and once more scoring against Navy in the season’s final game, which the West Point boys won, 20-0.

It was after this season and before his entry into the United States Army that Merillat wed Ethel Wynne—and Helen Van Ness filed suit in Cook County, Illinois.

Lawsuits over the breach of promise to marry were becoming increasingly rare by the 1910s, but they had served an important purpose in the history of American courtship. Initially designed to provide pecuniary compensation to women whose intendeds had stolen their virtue (meaning virginity), so-called heart balm statutes also helped jilted brides hold men accountable for their promises of marriage and helped their families recoup lost investments in wedding planning (and, in some cases, in their future sons-in-law).

Van Ness told a Wooster paper:

“Louis and I were very good friends, and he requested me to wed him. I accepted, read the story of his exploits on the football field with great interest and was very, very happy. I want to see him punished for he certainly didn’t treat me fair.”

Merillat’s account of their relationship differed. He had visited Van Ness only a handful of times, he said, and told her after their Christmas 1914 meeting that they would likely never see each other again. The ring Van Ness said marked their engagement was, according to Merillat, worth $15 and certainly not intended for her. Reported the Oswego Daily Palladium:

On one of his trips to the girl’s home he wore a ring which he purchased as a present for his aunt. He spoke of it to Miss Van Ness, and, according to the statement of the lieutenant today, she “abducted” it, having wished to see it and then kept it. He says he endeavored to get it back, but it was of no use, he said.

Merillat’s friends, the Palladium continued, had warned him about Van Ness and the ring—she might “make use of it,” they suggested, but Merillat brushed the incident off and returned to West Point. He exchanged letters with Van Ness a few times, telling the press they were “of the usual sort.” An oblique reference to Merillat’s epistolary relationships appears in his West Point yearbook profile: “He has exhibited not a hint of predilection for the opposite sex, but a certain daily epistle belies the rumor that he is a woman-hater.”

If the letters referred to in the yearbook were from Van Ness, they made no major impact on Merillat. The correspondence soon slowed and eventually halted by the spring of 1914; he had almost certainly forgotten it by the time he married Wynne.

He was shocked, then, when Van Ness made her accusations public, and even more so when she announced her intent to sue. Merillat and his father hired Clarence Darrow, who would go on to become one of the most formidable attorneys in United States history, and they refused to negotiate with her.

Van Ness’ story made front-page headlines for a week or so—but her claim was eventually dismissed.

Merillat seems to have moved on with his reputation and marriage intact. (His wife’s feelings on the matter are, by modern standards, curiously absent from the record, but they remained married.) He went on to serve in World War I, reaching the rank of captain, and returned to the States in 1918 after being wounded in battle at Avocourt, in northeastern France. In 1925, he played one season for the Canton Bulldogs, an early National Football League team, and invested in sports, later organizing a professional basketball team for the Canton area. He also became a soldier of fortune, eventually supervising the training of French Foreign Legion troops and supervising U.S. soldiers based in Miami during World War II.

Helen Van Ness faded from view, and heart-balm lawsuits became increasingly rare. Legislation designed to eliminate them was proposed in Ohio and Indiana in the late 1920s, with the support of female politicians and activists. Women, they argued, could and should take care of themselves, and breach-of-promise suits perpetuated stereotypes of women as infantile and dependent. Roberta West Smith, an Indiana legislator, told her colleagues that women “do not demand rights, they earn them, and such privileges as these which are abolished in this bill.”

In 1947, Illinois, the state in which Helen Van Ness had sought vindication some 30 years earlier, made its position of heart-balm suits clear:

(740 ILCS 15/3) (from Ch. 40, par. 1803)

Sec. 3. No punitive, exemplary, vindictive or aggravated damages shall be allowed in any action for breach of promise or agreement to marry.>

Some states allow jilted lovers to sue for the costs of canceled weddings, but broken hearts? They’re priceless.

Sources:

American Journal of Veterinary Medicine, Vol. 10, 1915; “Jilted Stenographer Seeks Redress,” Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 29, 1911; Lettmaier, Saskia, Broken Engagements: The Action for Breach of Promise of Marriage and the Feminine Ideal, 1800-1940, Oxford University Press, 2010; “Do You Remember Merrillat of Army? He Was a Good One; He Caught Prichard’s Passes and He Was Soldier of Fortune,” Syracuse Herald Journal, Jul. 6, 1948; “SHE SUES ARMY ATHLETE: Girl Claims Lieut. Merillat Jilted Her and Asks $20,000; Miss Van Ness, of Ohio, Says Officer Wed Another,” Washington Post, Nov. 11, 1915; “Chicago Football Star West Point Graduate,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 31, 1915; “NEVER PROMISED TO WED GIRL,” Oswego Daily Palladium, Nov. 24, 1915.

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