A government sex scandal of another era was the topic of discussion at the University of Indianapolis History and Political Science Department’s latest symposium on Oct. 1. The lecture was given by Professor of History James Fuller and covered a Civil War era scandal that involved Illinois Governor Richard Yates and a married woman, Belle Reynolds.
The scandal began shortly after Yates visited a triage camp to deliver supplies after the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April 1862, according to Fuller. Reynolds had been traveling with her husband, an officer, and had become a battlefield nurse.
Reynolds was helping treat wounded troops when Yates had arrived. Yates asked one of the doctors if they could give him a report of the injuries and casualties that happened as a result of the battle. Fuller said that the doctor referred Yates to Reynolds, who in turn gave Yates a full breakdown of the entire battle, including the casualties and injuries.
As a result of Reynolds report, Yates gave her a commission and the title of major in the Illinois Volunteer Force, Fuller said. Both of Yates’ actions were honorary and did not officially mean anything. Yates asked her if she would like to travel with him up the river in his boat. Yates wanted to have Reynolds go with him to other camps to help boost troop morale. Reynolds accepted and went with him, but after a few days, she decided to leave early and went back to her husband, which led to the rumors of an affair between them, Fuller said.
The story of the affair was first picked up in 1862 by the Daily Argus, a partisan paper that leaned towards the Democratic Party, Fuller said. An unidentified source had told the paper that Reynolds and Yates were acting suspicious while they were together. The same source also said that they had returned from a walk with their clothes ruffled and out of place, which implied that they had an affair. The story was picked up by other Democratic newspapers in Illinois shortly after. Those newspapers accused Yates of having an affair with Reynolds and misusing government resources to furnish his drinking habit, according to Fuller. In the end, Fuller said, the affair had led to the Illinois Republicans losing their majority in the Illinois Statehouse.
Fuller concluded the lecture by saying that the affair was never really confirmed by Yates or Reynolds. Reynolds went on to get a degree in medicine and became a women’s rights activist, while Yates did have a confirmed affair with a woman named Vinnie Ream after he left office. Yates also confirmed that he was an alcoholic on numerous occasions, according to Fuller.
Freshman social work major Brittney Haltom said she enjoyed Fuller’s approach to the subject and the way he spoke about it. She said the overall idea that this was a scandal involving well known individuals, one of whom she believes used his power to take advantage of the other.
“I feel like Reynolds just wanted to be someone important and I feel like the governor kind of took advantage of her,” Haltom said. “I really believe that he did take advantage of her, but since he was so up in his power, she couldn’t do anything about it.”
Fuller said that he thought that one of the reasons why the story of the scandal resonates today is because it involves an idea that is not often thought of: women in warfare.
“In the Civil War, we always think of the guys with the beards, the generals and so on,” Fuller said. “And here is this young, attractive woman doing all of these things that we don’t expect a woman to do.”
Although he is still trying to figure it out for himself, Fuller said he believes that some of the reasons that people are attracted to the story is because it involves abuse of power and corruption of government officials. He said that it resonates with people who remember past scandals and current ones that are happening in the era of the #MeToo movement.
“All of that kind of stuff that has been out there [like] the Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood kinds of scandals,” Fuller said. “We see in this story something that is very familiar to us and it helps us understand that this isn’t something that is brand new. It is something that has been around for a while and something that we still haven’t figured out entirely.”
Fuller said that the story of the scandal involving Yates and Reynolds is a story that has repeated itself over time but with different characters. In the case of Yates and Reynolds, it involved a politician and a nurse.
“I think that if you went back that you could find stories, that [are from] thousands of years ago, that are just like today,” Fuller said. “There are some things that are very familiar to us in history and reminds us that these political leaders, these heroes, these people that have statues are human beings…For all their good, all their bad and their flaws, they are human beings.”
In this scandal, politics and the divide between Republicans and Democrats had made it harder to find the real truth, Fuller said. The lack of a concrete conclusion and the influence of politics is why the story is still able to make connections to today, according to Fuller.
“It reminds us, when we are looking at something from our own time, that politics is there—it clouds it, it makes it even harder to figure out what’s going on,” Fuller said. “With the politics of sex scandals, it is hard to know what the real truth is and regardless of that truth, it has a political meaning.”