The history found at the Mathias Ham Historic Site is vast and the tales are plentiful. Here is where we hope some of those stories can live on. Shared from the perspective of our historians, enjoy journeying through the life once lived on Lincoln Avenue.
After years of false promises, on August 29, 1903, a Miss Sarah Ham of Dubuque filed a lawsuit against the millionaire George Potter, accusing him of breaking his promise to marry her. Sarah argued that George had robbed her of her reputation and caused her mental and emotional pain and suffering.
Potter answered her petition by calling her a spinster, accusing her of blackmail, being criminally familiar with men, and denied ever having promised to marry her. He argued that the entire lawsuit was nothing more than an opportunity to steal money from him, money that he claimed he did not possess. Despite being rumored to be worth half a million by 1903, he claimed that he was worth only $150,000.
The court case was a miserable and scandalous affair that was not only the talk of the town in Dubuque and Duluth but was followed by newspapers up and down the Mississippi River and surrounding states. It even made it into the New York Times.
Over 3,000 love letters were submitted as evidence. The letters declared Potter's undying love for Miss Ham, fidelity, promises of marriage, and were viewed as sickeningly sweet by court reporters. Bets were made to see how many times Potter could write “darling” into a letter.
Sarah’s legal team would read these letters and then question George why he would write these letters to a woman he claimed he never truly had affection for.
An excerpt from the court case documented in the Wisconsin's Eau Claire Leader on September 17, 1904:
“My Darling Pet:
I have your picture lying before me and I have just kissed it a dozen times. Oh, my darling, if I could only have you on my lap with your arms around my neck and your head pillowed on my breast. I would give you a thousand real kisses and whisper words of love in your willing ears and have them sent back to me with your own sweet lips. My darling, my heart beats with such longing for you with every breath, and I must have you for my own. With bushels of kisses, your own true George.”
“Do you mean to tell me,” asked the attorney, “that you wrote a letter like that to a woman of unclean character, a woman who you thought was disreputable?”
“Yes, I must have,” replied the defendant.
Unable to defend himself from the information in the letters, George and his lawyers used delay and smear tactics. Doctors submitted certificates claiming George was unable to attend court, leading to delays and causing Sarah to have to change travel plans to Duluth at a moment’s notice. When asked by reporters of these tactics, Sarah called George a coward and claimed, “She will die before she will yield a point.”
With each letter and testimony, the tale of betrayal turned darker. Evidence that Sarah had been drugged by George was brought to light. Friends recounted how one-night George brought Sarah home unconscious, and when questioned, he claimed she had too many cherry cocktails during dinner. Sarah did admit when questioned that their intimate relations began after that night.
George’s lawyer accused her of being intimate with other men. His lawyer even asked her about being “an inmate of a house of ill-fame.” His legal team brought four hackmen (think taxi driver but for carriages) to Duluth to testify that Sarah and her younger sister would ask them to send strangers to her home and that they did on many occasions.
George then accused her of being married twice during their courtship. In response, Sarah claimed that she had no shortage of suitors and had received a proposal of marriage from a Minneapolis lawyer and a salesman from Wisconsin. However, she turned them down after George threatened her.
For one week, Sarah and Georges’ lawyers painted conflicting pictures to the jury. Was Sarah a young, naïve girl who had been taken advantage of by a wolf, or was she a cunning seductress seeking to destroy a man’s reputation for a payout?
On September 20, 1904, after fifty-five minutes of deliberation, the jury awarded Sarah $20,000. The trial was over, but for Sarah, the battle wasn’t over yet.
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