The old saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” could not apply more aptly to anyone than it does to Evelyn Hazen. Born into a wealthy Knoxville family in 1899, Hazen was the first woman to file suit against a former lover for breach of promise to marry. And she won the suit — and one of the largest monetary awards in history at that time. But more importantly, she won vindication. More on that later.
In addition to the landmark court case, Hazen is important for her dedication to preserving what is now known as the Mabry-Hazen House, located in East Knoxville and home to Bethel Cemetery where more than 1,600 Confederate soldiers are buried. The house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1858 and during the Civil War was headquarters for both the Union and the Confederate armies.
Evelyn Hazen was the last of three generations of the family that owned the home on Mabry’s Hill with its majestic view of downtown Knoxville to the west and the Tennessee River to the south. She died in 1987 and stipulated in her will that the home be preserved and operated as a museum, which it is today under the direction of the Hazen Museum Foundation.
Every year, the foundation hosts a lunch on the grounds on the Sunday closest to Evelyn Hazen’s birthday. That celebration this year was last Sunday and was hosted by Joan and Victor Ashe, Knoxville’s longest-serving mayor and former ambassador to Poland.
It was a quirky but fun gathering proving, once again, my philosophy that sometimes when you have low expectations, great things happen. (I wrote about that theory back in April of 2009 when I had just started this blog. To read that post, click here.)
We arrived at the Mabry-Hazen house last Sunday to find a big tent on the grounds and 10 tables — each centered by a different kind of birthday cake. After boxed lunches, newsman Gene Patterson of WATE-TV, Channel 6 delivered a scintillating review of the 2006 book, “The Seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen” by Jane Van Ryan. The book details the story of how Evelyn Hazen, a beautiful, wealthy 14-year-old, who was raised in a very sheltered environment, began taking classes at the University of Tennessee where she met and fell in love with an ultimate cad — a fraternity boy named Ralph Scharringhaus who proposed to her three years later, but apparently had no intention of marrying her.
“This is not a book for the faint-of-heart or young children,” Patterson warned. “This book is not rated PG.”
Seems that right after proposing, Scharringhaus enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in World War I and was dispatched to training camp. On his first leave, he returned to Knoxville and told Evelyn that they should drive to the courthouse and get a marriage license so they could wed. He went into the courthouse as she waited in the car. Unfortunately, he told her when he came back to the car, the marriage license bureau was closed and they would not be able to get the license.
That night, he told her, as she would testify later, that “a few words made little difference anyway, that he loved me so much that nothing could change him in a million years, that he wanted me to prove to him that I loved him that much, too, and that if I would give myself to him because we really loved each other so undyingly, we would be married in the sight of God in a sort of secret marriage, and that there was nothing wrong with it.”
When she agreed to “prove her love” to him, she described the experience as “ghastly” and “painful.” He went back to training camp the next day.
This was the beginning of 15 miserable years during which Scharringhaus made repeated sexual demands (yes, there are details in the book — I bought it!) that revolted Evelyn and he made every excuse under the sun not to marry her. Then he dumped her.
She considered killing him. But she had told too many people that she wanted to do that, so she knew she would be caught. Instead, she sued him for $100,000 for breach of promise to marry. After a much publicized trial that lasted more than two weeks, 11 of the 12 jurors found against Scharringhaus in just two hours and awarded Evelyn $80,000, a large sum in the 1930s following the Great Depression.
But her reputation was ruined and she lived out her life on Mabry’s Hill, first working as a secretary in the University of Tennessee English Department and then amassing a fortune in stocks, bonds and rental properties. In her later years, she was described as a paranoid recluse who always carried a loaded pistol and wouldn’t sleep in her own bedroom because she thought it was haunted.
Sounds like a cheery reason to have a birthday party, doesn’t it? But actually, it was a ton of historical fun. The whole event was organized by volunteers headed up by Mickey Mallonee, the city’s director of special events and a board member of the Hazen Museum Foundation. Mallonee has announced her intention to retire from her city job at the end of this year.
But just as we finished our group singing of “Happy Birthday” to Evelyn, someone tossed out the suggestion that Mallonee should run for mayor of Knoxville. This met with great support among those assembled who started shouting their encouragement.
Will she do it?
“I’m just very flattered by all the people who have encouraged me to do that,” Mallonee said, smiling demurely.
Does that sound like a “no” to you?