OUR GAL NETTIE
More than a century ago, newspaper readers throughout the country were intrigued by a scandal that began in Elgin, Illinois. Yes, Elgin! Even in a little Midwestern city with fifteen churches and a YMCA the Tempter was present. The persons caught up in this tangle of wealth, illicit passion, and betrayal have long departed this earth. The sordid tale can be told now as a moral lesson without the trappings that so often glamorize or excuse carnal sin when portrayed in contemporary soap operas, movies, and tabloids for inquiring minds.
During the Civil War a young daughter of a family living between Elgin and Dundee ran away from home, returned with a baby, and told her parents she had married a soldier killed in service. Turned away, she went into Chicago and became a performer on the wicked stage, but was unable to support her little girl. In 1868 she gave up the child for adoption by George Dunlap, an Elgin shoe maker, and his wife, Marie. They named her Marie Antoinette, called her Nettie, and spoiled her.
Nettie disliked school. (Disliked school? Beware, young people, that attitude is often the first step on the road to ruin.) She preferred to flirt with boys and went to work at the watch factory at an early age. Assigned to polishing dials, her work was slipshod, and she was discharged for laziness. Nettie, an auburn-haired beauty, d' d have one talent, a melodious voice that brought her invitations to sing in churches and in the parlors of the city's elite.
Gail Borden, pioneer in the food preservative industry, opened a condensed milk plant in Elgin in 1865. He never lived here, but had purchased a home on Division Street with that intention prior to his death early in 1874. To Elgin the next year came his eldest son, Henry Lee, who was born and raised in Texas, where be had led a rancher's life.
Lee Borden became superintendent of the condensed milk plant, then the city's second largest industry; and was elected president of the Home National Bank. The Aduocate praised him in 1880 as "one of Elgin's foremost men," who "enjoys the utmost confidence and respect of the people." He might have been elected an alderman if he had not been a confirmed dry.
One of the chief heirs of his father's huge fortune, Lee Borden was as generous as he was wealthy. He donated the lot for the Episcopalians' new church building and presented the city with a larger and more ornate fountain for the Square. And when the adoptive parents of a talented young mezzo-soprano, Nettie Dunlap, couldn't afford an advanced musical education for their daughter, he sponsored her training in Chicago.
In January, 1883, Borden and his wife, Laura, who lived in a fine home still standing at 258 Douglas Avenue, presided over one of the most talked about galas of the season. It was a costume party where guests came dressed as characters in the novels of Charles Dickens. A few days later Lee Borden disappeared, and as his absence lengthened, questions rippled over the town. The Daily News attributed them to "maliciously inclined persons" who were "circulating scandalous rumors about H. Lee Borden, a gentleman whose reputation, social standing and wealth have placed him where he is the object of envy and jealousy." But where had be gone?
Lee Borden, 50 years old, had left for New York with the young and charming Nettie Dunlap, 30 years his junior. Whom did Nettie encounter on the streets of that metropolis but Ed Doney, Elgin High School '75, who was a reporter for the New York Herald. (Have you observed, dear reader, that no matter bow far you travel, you often meet with someone from back home? Behave yourself, wherever you are.) Nettie freely volunteered the information that Mr. Borden was paying for her music lessons, visited her daily at the studio, and then escorted her to theaters and other places of amusement in the evening. The Herald's account was picked up by other papers, and readers drew certain conclusions. The Daily News in Elgin decided that it was "a deplorable mess all around."
After a few weeks Borden sailed for Europe on business, leaving funds in a bank to defray Nettie's expenses. Had he tired of this dalliance? (Lust is transient; only love endures.) Back in Elgin, Laura Borden filed for a divorce on grounds of desertion. The decree in 1885 awarded her the house on Douglas Avenue and a total settlement of other property and alimony amounting to more than $50,000, an immense sum in a day when a dollar was worth far more that it is today.
Nettie entered New York society circles through her connection with Borden, who termed himself her "father". She is said to have formed a liaison with a married banker. The man took her into his home (is there no depth to the evil around us?), and while there she met the daughter of a Washington, D.C., physician. Through this channel she captivated Alfred Scott Witherbee of that city. Borden, who was now interested in another woman who would become his fourth wife, encouraged them to marry. Smirks were exchanged when his former Elgin associates received cards reading: "Mr. H. Lee Borden announces the marriage of his daughter, Marie Antoinette Dunlap, to A. Scott Witherbee."
Not long after the wedding, Nettie persuaded her husband to let her pay a visit to friends in Illinois. A few weeks later Witherbee received a dispatch from his brother in Chicago who had seen Nettie in a theater with another man. Witherbee took the next train west and discovered that Nettie had registered at the Grand Pacific Hotel as the "wife" of a married New Yorker. (Thou shalt not commit adultery.) A confrontation led to a separation and his filing for a divorce.
"The suit will be a revelation to the Washington society people who admired the woman for her musical culture," reported the Chicago Tribune in an article reprinted in Elgin. "It may also be unpleasant for the Western millionaire, whose peccadilloes can barely be concealed when the testimony is given." Witherbee later wrote Borden asking for money, claiming that Borden "got him into the scrape of marrying Nettie."
Nettie, who seemed to have a penchant for married men, subsequently became involved with Thomas J. Mackey, a Reconstruction era "judge" of questionable background. They lived together as "uncle" and "niece" in Bismarck, Dakota Territory, where his title and her voice gave them access to the homes of reputable citizens. Their stay ended when they quarreled with a servant, who then revealed they had been living as man and wife.
Preceded by reports of their scandalous conduct, Nettie and Mackey turned up in Elgin, ostensibly to assert her claim to property she had purchased with a gift from Borden. The Daily Courier commented that their prolonged visit at the Dunlap home on North Street "has of course given rise to a good deal of gossip. To say the least, it has not been discreet."
There were quarrels, all aired in the press, for Nettie had become a
celebrity. George Dunlap reproached his daughter with her behavior and
asked her to leave. When she refused, her mother left. (Honor thy father
and mother.) Her father fought with Mackey, whom the Chicago Tribune described
as having "dyed hair and mustache, glittering snake-like eyes, and an offensive
suavity in his address." The notorious couple finally departed for New
York and later broke up. The Daily Courier reported in 1889 that "Nettie,
when last heard from was in Paris." (Paris? How far had she fallen! If
only Nettie had not disliked school and had followed the paths of virtue,
she might never have left Elgin, Illinois.)
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