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Wild Women Of The West: The Shifty Matrimonial Agent

At twenty-one years of age Gladys Knowles feared she would die an old maid.

August 21, 2018

On February 23, 1891, readers of the Daily Tribune in Salt Lake City, Utah, pored over an article about a desperate, young woman who dreamed of nothing more than being a wife.  At twenty-one years of age Gladys Knowles feared she would die an old maid. Most of her friends had married, but she had yet to meet a man who could hold her interest for more than a few dates.  Dressed in a champagne colored dress outlined in frills of French lace, with a hat to match, Gladys walked to the Matrimonial News office in the Strand District of London.  An advertisement for a spouse was tucked inside her drawstring bag.  She hoped the notice would bring a fast result to her dilemma.

Leslie Fraser Duncan, founder and editor of the unique journal, proudly referred to himself as a marriage broker.  He opened the first matrimonial agency in England in 1870. A weekly newspaper sprang from the success of the venture, and similar publications were duplicated in the United States.  The sixty-three year-old entrepreneur claimed to have helped thousands find their soul mates.

A correspondent for the London newspaper Pall Mall Gazette described Duncan as a “competent looking man with a thick, drooping mustache and long, gray beard.  The top of his head was bald, but thick, white locks clustered round the base of his head…gold rimmed spectacles over which he peered, were on top of his nose.”  Duncan was a businessman by both training and instinct. He saw the benefit of marriage for other people, but ironically did not see how it could help him. He was a confirmed bachelor with no desire to reform until he met Gladys Knowles.  When the slender, dainty 5 foot 5 woman entered the Matrimonial News office, Duncan was instantly smitten.

“I could not find my voice for a few moments,” he later confessed in an editorial he wrote for his paper.  “Her eyes were so honest and intelligent.” Gladys broke the silence greeting him warmly and handing him her advertisement.  Duncan assured Gladys that he was “quite capable of finding her the perfect companion.” He told her that his publication focused on “aiding people in high life” and that the paper was responsible for 40,000 marriages to date.

The enamored editor offered Gladys a seat and began inquiring about her background.  Not long after sharing with him that she lived with her widowed mother in the London Borough of Fulham, Duncan asked her to have dinner with him.  Over the course of a year the two courted, Duncan sent Gladys numerous gifts. Among the more frivolous were a thousand pen-and-ink kisses.

Gladys was moved by his romantic gestures and believed he’d proven his affection was sincere.  Any doubts she had about entering into a permanent relationship with him disappeared when he promised to give her $10,000 a year if she would consent to be his wife.  In the event of his death, he promised to leave her more than $25,000 a year for the remainder of her life. “What portion-less girl could resist such a gold-girt allowance?” the Daily Tribune asked readers following the story in early 1891.

Duncan asked Gladys’ mother for her hand in marriage and she consented to the union.  He then proposed to Gladys, proudly showing her the marriage license he had acquired. Gladys accepted.  The pair decided to get married at Duncan’s palatial family home in Sussex in mid-August 1890. Prior to leaving on the trip he gave Gladys a trousseau worth more than $7,000.

Gladys worked feverishly organizing the wedding.  Flowers were selected, guest lists were compiled, dressmakers were consulted about the wedding gown, and a massive cake was ordered.  As the big day approached, however, Gladys noticed Duncan was behaving oddly. When she pressed him for a reason he told her he wanted to postpone the event because the vicar of his parish was not going to be in town for the ceremony.  Duncan explained he didn’t feel comfortable having the nuptials performed by the “curate”, the vicar’s assistant. Gladys tried to reason with her fiancé, but to no avail. The wedding would be put off a few days.

The modest and proper bride-to-be locked herself in her room each evening.  Only after they were husband and wife would Gladys allow Duncan access to her private quarters.  Adamant about not waiting, he forced himself into her chambers one evening and tried to take advantage of her.  Gladys screamed and demanded to be taken back to her mother’s home. Duncan persuaded her to change her mind. After all, “no one wanted the humiliating scene to play out in front of the servants,” he reminded her.  “We’ll be married shortly anyway.”

The revised date for the wedding came and went with no vows being exchanged.  Duncan claimed he had misplaced the license. A teary-eyed Gladys simply nodded as he promised to take her back to London the following morning so they could be married there.  Once they arrived, Duncan changed his mind again and made another excuse for wanting to reschedule the nuptials.

Gladys was embarrassed by the situation and kept to her room in the hotel suite where they were staying.  Duncan continued to try and have his way with her. She escaped to one of the bathrooms and announced through the bolted door that if he dared come near her again she would scream the business down.

When Gladys did not return home as her mother expected, Mrs. Elizabeth Knowles marched to the Matrimonial News office and demanded to see Duncan.  Rumor had spread that Duncan had reconsidered marrying Gladys but that the couple had consummated their relationship.  Mrs. Knowles informed Duncan that he would make things right and restore her daughter’s honor or suffer the consequences.  Time and time again however, Duncan broke the wedding date.

In October 1890, local newspapers revealed that Duncan already had a wife.  Two months prior to meeting and proposing to Gladys, Duncan had said “I do” to Mrs. Whyte-Melville, the widow of the author Herman Melville.  Duncan sent word to Gladys that he was not free to marry her and he was willing to make restitution for his actions. In truth, Duncan lacked the funds to offer the jilted bride any money at all.  He owed a hefty amount in taxes and was on the verge of filing bankruptcy. Gladys informed Duncan that she would only be satisfied if he would divorce Mrs. Whyte-Melville and marry her. She told him she would find work and support them both if he would take her as his wife.  Duncan was either unwilling or unable to accommodate Gladys.

Heartbroken and her reputation maligned, Gladys decided to sue for breach of promise.  During the highly publicized trial, Gladys’ attorney characterized Duncan as “an artful seducer of great experience.”  The lawyer claimed Duncan had knowingly corrupted an innocent girl. He disclosed to the jury the insincere groom had been married a total of four times and fathered seven illegitimate children with six different women.  He also let the court know Duncan’s age was in fact seventy-seven and not sixty-three as he had told Gladys.

The court found in favor of Gladys and awarded her $10,000 in damages.  Duncan’s lawyers then filed an appeal claiming the amount was excessive.  The court agreed to reduce the cost to $7,500. Duncan transferred the interest in the Matrimonial News and left the country.

The reporter covering the story of the misleading marital agent for the Pall Mall Gazette concluded the article on the matter by noting “if marriages are made in heaven, St. Peter has a very odd deputy in the proprietor of the Matrimonial News.”

In October 1891, Duncan was arrested for non-payment of debts.  Several notices were sent to the former marital agent informing him of a hearing scheduled to collect what he owed, but he refused to appear.  The prosecution asked why Duncan had failed to appear. His attorney spoke for him, apologizing for his actions. He explained that his client was an old man suffering from sciatica and requested the courts indulgence.  The prosecuting attorney reluctantly agreed but demanded Duncan answer for himself. He was sworn in and the questions began. “You have been the editor of the Matrimonial News for many years?” the lawyer asked Duncan.  “I have,” he replied. “Were you also the proprietor for the Matrimonial News?” the attorney further queried.  “Yes, I was also the proprietor of the paper,” he responded.  “What has been the average income?” the prosecuting attorney pressed.  “It varied from time to time. Two years it was $700,” Duncan answered.  “About ten years ago I made $4200. Last year I made no profit at all.” “Did you keep an account of the income?” the prosecuting attorney probed.  “No, I did not,” Duncan told the court. “I had only myself to consider, and the books were never balanced.”

The witness said he could not remember when he received the bankruptcy notice, but it was sent through his solicitor.  Duncan offered up several reasons for not paying his creditors or Gladys Knowles for the breach of promise suit. He told the court he had no liquid assets and needed time to sell some property in order to make good on the amount owed.  He also stated that he was waiting on money owed to him to be paid.

Duncan denied having any money, houses, or land in other countries.  The point was argued, and his attorney finally relayed that any funds that once belonged to his client were now in Duncan’s son’s name and, as such, could not be used to pay his bills.  He had transferred ownership of the Matrimonial News publication to his son as well.  Duncan did admit to selling several pieces of furniture and other personal items for $850.  When the prosecutor queried him about those funds, he told them that he gave the money away to two women he felt could benefit from a monetary gift.  He could not remember where they lived and had not seen them since he gave them the funds.

At the conclusion of the hearing the court was not satisfied that Duncan had made a reasonable attempt to pay his debt.  He was found in contempt of court and taken into custody. He was later sentenced to four years of penal servitude. Duncan passed away on November 21, 1913, at the age of 92.

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