Ungentlemanly Acts: The Army's Notorious Incest Trial

Louise Barnett, Author
Louise Barnett, Author Hill & Wang $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-8090-7397-9
Reviewed on: 01/31/2000
Release date: 02/01/2000
Open Ebook - 224 pages - 978-1-4668-0599-6
Paperback - 312 pages - 978-0-8090-7398-6
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How do you accuse someone of an unspeakable sin? In post-Civil War America, you did not, if you were smart, for speaking of an unspeakable sin was unpardonable. In 1879, in west Texas, Captain Andrew Geddes accused a fellow officer, Louis Orleman, of having incestuous relations with his (Orleman's) daughter. Orleman countercharged that Geddes had seduced his daughter and planned to abduct her, and that the incest charge was merely an attempt to deflect responsibility from his own devious actions. The result was a court-martial of Geddes; no person in a position of authority seriously considered the possibility that Orleman could be guilty of incest, for Americans of the time, according to Barnett, ""preferred to believe--regardless of evidence--that it [incest] simply did not occur...."" Barnett, a professor of English at Rutgers, carefully chronicles the trial. Her thesis is that while Geddes was no saint, his trial was a mockery of justice and the unprosecuted charges against Orleman probably contained more truth than those pressed against Geddes. A guilty verdict was set aside by the army's highest judicial officer, the judge advocate general, but the continued hostility toward Geddes within the army led to his ultimate dismissal. The greatest strength of this volume is the way events are placed within historical and cultural context. A real sense of army life on the frontier and how the larger values of society shaped the proceedings are skillfully woven into the narrative. Through a relatively unknown incident, Barnett presents a morality play showcasing late-19th-century social values that have evolved but are still in effect. 24 b&w photos not seen by PW. (Feb.)
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