Thursday, December 11, 2008

Scandal in the records

One of the things that I love about working with records is the possibility of finding unexpected treasure -- an odd or interesting document hidden among routine correspondence or subject files. As a grad student, I found autograph letters from Eleanor Roosevelt and T.S. Eliot nestled among the correspondence of a refugee economist from Germany, and I've subsequently stumbled across other fascinating and unanticipated things.

A legal document uncovered by a British archivist at the Rotherham Archives and Local Studies Service and highlighted in an article in the Daily Mail is also quite a find:
It was a scandalous affair which would have ruined the reputations of two well-to-do families.

The married son of a wealthy industrialist fathered a child with the 18-year-old daughter of a factory manager while his wife was also pregnant.

These days, such behaviour would hardly cause the raising of an eyebrow.

But in Victorian times it was something to be kept secret at all costs.

Threatened with being named and shamed, the cheating husband bought his lover's silence with a formal legal agreement.

The document, signed by the two parties on October 20, 1874, meant no one ever discovered the truth about little Herbert Higginbottom . . . until now.

More than 130 years later, the document has been put on display at the central library in Rotherham.

It was discovered in papers from a prominent South Yorkshire law firm by an archivist sorting historical documents donated to the library service . . . .
William Haywood was 27 at the time the agreement was drawn up. His father had been a partner in a prosperous iron foundry, and Heywood assumed his father's position at the firm at the time of his father's retirement. Shortly after he married his wife Martha, the daughter of an area architect, he began a clandestine affair with Elizabeth Higginbottom, the 18 year-old daughter of a glass factory manager.
The secret affair was short and passionate and resulted in the boy Herbert, born only a few weeks after Haywood's legitimate son.

We do not know how or precisely when the relationship ended, but Elizabeth's father was clearly determined that the wealthy heir should be forced to take responsibility for his son.

Higginbottom is believed to have threatened legal action when Haywood tried to avoid responsibility for Herbert and the legal agreement was drawn up.

In return for a pay-off of £500 (£50,000 in today's money) the Higginbottoms agreed to ensure the facts did not become public.
The rest of the story is fascinating, and the Daily Mail supplements it with some good photos of this extraordinary document.

I used to think that the digital age would put an end to these kinds of serendipitous discoveries, and in some ways it surely has -- when confronted with ancient storage media housing data of unknown format, content, and quantity, we generally stymied. However, I do think that there is still room for serendipity in the electronic era. I'm in the final stages of processing a series of electronic records created during an investigation into a political scandal, and I found some mighty entertaining documents while familiarizing myself with the records' intellectual content. I'm by no means the first person to look over these records -- just about every news organization in New York State has done so at this point -- but the experience has underscored the fact that electronic records can be just as fun and as full of surprises as their paper counterparts.

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