More Stories Are Out There

Evelyn Montgomery Hazen, 1920s. She was known for her beauty as well as for her temper.

Evelyn Montgomery Hazen, 1920s. She was known for her beauty as well as for her temper.

Blog post #8

by Jane Van Ryan

Do not write a biography unless you are willing to accept criticism. I was criticized very harshly when I wrote the first edition of The Seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen.

A Tennessee resident gave me a tongue-lashing in an Amazon.com book review for dragging one of Knoxville’s finest families through the mud. Of course, that was not my goal. Rather I wanted to write about Evelyn Hazen’s remarkable story and raise money for the Mabry-Hazen House, an effort that continues today.

Knoxville is lucky to have the Mabry-Hazen House. It is the only preserved antebellum mansion in the city that contains the antique furniture, china, glassware, and silver that belonged to its owners. The fact that it was inhabited by a family which shaped history adds to its importance as a significant landmark.

The story about the shootout on Gay Street between two generations of Mabrys and Thomas O’Conner has been told many times, including by Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi.  But no other books have been written about Evelyn Hazen’s court case against Ralph Scharringhaus, her former fiancé, for seduction and breach of promise to marry. Yet it was Evelyn’s suit that set the precedent for similar breach of promise to marry actions in Twentieth Century America.

To produce both books, I relied on the court transcript (2,000+ pages), Evelyn’s own affidavit provided to her lawyer, scores of letters she had received from Ralph during their 15-year-long engagement, bits and pieces of information gleaned from interviews, and notes written in Evelyn’s own hand. Putting Evelyn’s story into chronological order and figuring out the cast of characters was a daunting task. And in some cases, I feel certain I made some inadvertent errors.

For example, in the first edition of the book, I took a leap of faith and attributed all of the courtroom drama to only two lawyers – Judge Jennings, who was Ralph’s lead attorney during the trial, and Stephens L. Blakely, the Kentucky attorney who represented Evelyn and grilled Ralph on the witness stand.

Upon reflection, however, it is likely that Gen. Wesley Travis Kennerly of Knoxville also presented testimony at trial. In fact, as the lawyer who deposed Evelyn’s witnesses and was more familiar with the case than Blakely, it is likely that Kennerly led Evelyn through her testimony and laid out the substance of her suit in the early days of the trial. In the second edition of the book, this portion of the trial is attributed to Kennerly.

A few years ago, Kennerly’s grand-daughter called me at my home. She said she found boxes of papers about Evelyn’s trial in her grandfather’s attic after he passed away. I do not know what happened to those records and whether they still exist.

Carl Hazen also called me from South Carolina. Carl reported that he was Evelyn’s nephew and used to talk with her on the telephone occasionally. At that time, Carl also was producing a newsletter about the Hazen family and sending it to relatives in the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, I haven’t talked with Carl in years.

I also neglected to call Martin Hunt before he died last fall. As I mentioned in the last blog post, Martin and his aunt Mary Gill knew Evelyn personally and allowed me to interview them in 1988. Martin told me he remembered his father and W.T. Kennerly discussing Evelyn’s court case years after the trial was over.  It was considered quite scandalous, which explains why The New York Times, the wire services, and newspapers all over the country covered it.

Every tidbit of information about Evelyn and the trial adds greater understanding and texture to the Mabry-Hazen House’s history and its former residents. Anyone who has something to offer—an old newspaper article, a comment made by one of Evelyn’s contemporaries, or an observation by one of her students at Old Knoxville High School—is encouraged to call Calvin Chappelle, the executive director of the museum at 865-522-8661, or email him at mabryhazenhouse@gmail.com.

In the meantime, here’s another interesting factoid about Evelyn Hazen: She apparently inherited quite a temper from the Mabry family. According to Martin, the Mabrys were known for their terrible tempers. When Evelyn was furious with someone, she would call Martin on the telephone and “go on for hours.” 

“She’d run off all her friends and didn’t’ have anyone to talk to,” Martin added. He also said Evelyn “was a good shot,” with her Colt revolver, a fact that probably added to her isolation on Mabry Hill.

More about Evelyn in coming blog posts.