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.
A quick recap of this sensational story: Miss Sarah Ham of Dubuque, after a thirty-year courtship and promise of marriage, accused George Potter of breaking his promise to marry her and of enticing her to a restaurant during the early days of courtship “where she was drugged and ruined.” Multiple times she attempted to leave him, but each time he persuaded her to come back to him with a combination of promises, threats, and hope. After one week and fifty-five minutes of deliberation, the jury awarded Sarah $20,000. The trial was over, but the damage had been done.
For weeks following the trial, Sarah’s history with George made front page news. There were rumors of jury tampering and blackmail on both sides. Rumors swirled that George was seeking a retrial, as his attorney continued to speak to the press about his client’s betrayal by Sarah and his characterization as a “savage wolf” who enjoyed ruining an innocent young girl. He claimed that while George had decided not to marry Sarah, it was only after discovering her infidelity. This indifelity caused him to go “insane" and he was "confined in an asylum from 1891 to 1897.” Furthermore, he claimed George had saved Sarah from “a life of a common prostitute and from filling a prostitute's grave long ago.”
During this time, George began to feel the pressure to pay the money awarded to Sarah. Garnishments were submitted against companies with which he held property of funds.
By October 3, new allegations were made against Sarah. In George’s application for a new trial, he claimed that she was married twice and that both husbands and her son could be produced as witnesses if a new trial was granted. One supposed husband was a Mr. Fred Barrows, whom she allegedly shared with a thirty-two-year-old son. Witnesses were quick to defend Sarah against that allegation. There was indeed another Sarah Ham living in the county at that time, and it was she who married Mr. Barrows.
The second husband was Mr. James R. Wallace. A marriage certificate was produced, and under oath, Wallace admitted that he and Sarah had married in 1884 in Wisconsin; however, the marriage soured quickly. Wallace described George as a specter who haunted their marriage. When asked if he knew George Potter, he replied, “Yes, to my sorrow.” He believed George had convinced Sarah that the marriage was a mistake. He claimed that despite being married, they never lived together, and after two years, they divorced.
The allegations were meant to prove Sarah as unfaithful and having loose moral character. However, because the original suit was only meant to prove George had broken a promise. With Mr. Wallace hinting that George had meddled with their marriage to prevent Sarah from leaving his influence, nothing came from the proceedings and a retrial was denied.
While to many this may seem like another win, unfortunately, the tale takes a darker turn. Fast forward to 1906 and Sarah has yet to receive a single cent of the $20,000 awarded to her. George has disappeared. It was believed that to escape payment he deeded land and accounts to his son.
Without the settlement, Sarah was forced to rent her home to the Kegler Cancer Clinic. She remained in a set of apartments that were separate from the clinic. However, the clinic folded, and Sarah was left unable to afford her family home. She sold the home in 1911 to the City of Dubuque for $10,000 and lived with her brother until her death in 1921.
Today, the home is still owned by the City of Dubuque and operated by the Dubuque County Historical Society. While Sarah's story is not a happy one, her family left an indelible mark on Dubuque. The Ham House introduces the Victorian era and Dubuque's history to new generations each year.
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