It was a Valentine’s Day story for the ages, a tale both bizarre and tantalizing, and everyone was talking about it.
On Feb. 14, 1895, a wealthy Massachusetts widow caused an uproar and made national headlines because she was married to a man less than half her age. She was 50, he was 21.
Newspapers across the country — including The Boston Globe — ran the unfortunate tale of Mary S. Breckenridge’s scandalous relationship with “a raw youth of 21” and how her family disapproved of the marriage so much that they had her committed to an insane asylum.
Breckenridge (whose name was often misspelled in news stories) was described as “a woman of refinement, education, and property" from Westfield who led “a normal and happy life” until her first husband died.
After her husband’s death, she moved in with her son, Orlo, who lived in New York City. She became involved in mission work and joined the Gospel Tabernacle, and that’s how she met the “raw youth” who would eventually become her second husband.
Arthur Helf was a 21-year-old stagehand who was down on his luck and looking for employment.
Breckenridge invited him to the apartment she shared with her son and put him to work, unpacking furniture, laying down carpets, and doing other household chores.
After Helf spent a week getting the apartment in order, Breckenridge offered to let him to stay there.
“He promptly accepted,” the Globe reported. “In a short time she began to make love to him. He promptly became converted, and she sent him to a business college to educate him.”
Breckenridge bought Helf new shirts, underwear, and shoes. She made sure he didn’t have any debts.
One evening when they were both home, and Helf was studying for the business courses he was taking, Breckenridge decided to pop the question.
“Arthur,” she said, throwing her hands around his neck. “Would you very much object to marrying me? You know I am much older than you.”
“I don’t mind,” said Helf, “that is, if you keep your promises and send me to college so I can earn enough to support you.”
Their engagement was short. A week later, on Jan. 15, 1895, Breckenridge and Helf went to see a reverend in Times Square. Breckenridge lied about her age and said she was 31. She and Helf exchanged vows.
The newlyweds took a cable car back to their apartment. When Breckenridge shared the news of the nuptials with her brothers and sisters, they were appalled. The siblings decided to retain a lawyer and stage an intervention.
Breckenridge’s siblings suggested taking a trip to Asbury Park. They were going to take a carriage to the train station, but there wasn’t enough room for all of them, so they told Helf to take public transportation and they would meet him there. Helf got to the station and waited for his wife and in-laws to arrive. But they never showed up. After the last train to Asbury Park departed, Helf went back to their apartment and asked Breckenridge’s 26-year-old son, Orlo, where his wife was.
“His stepson told him that his mother was taken ill, and that it was considered advisable to place her in a quiet retreat where she would have the best of care, and where she would speedily regain her health,” the Globe reported. “Helf thought that was a good thing.”
But unbeknownst to Helf, Breckenridge’s siblings had taken her away. Instead of going to Asbury Park, Breckenridge was examined by two physicians who declared she was “unquestionably insane” and she was committed to a hospital in Amityville, N.Y.
Breckenridge found a lawyer and communicated with him secretly from the confines of the hospital. She wrote him a long letter explaining her situation and how to locate her marriage certificate.
“I was married to a nice Christian young man on the 15th of January 1895, privately, in a Methodist Episcopal parsonage," she wrote, "and I have the certificate at my home on 84th St., New York, No. 122, in my trunk in the front room closet, where my son sleeps, in the very bottom on the right side.”
“I married this man, who is so very much younger than I that they all said I was crazy when they found it out, but I had lived in the house with him every day for seven weeks and know he was honest, pure, moral, and never used slang or any bad word, and was devoted to me.”
"I loved him better than any man I ever saw, except my own husband, who died Feb. 7, 1894, without a moment’s sickness. I was a true wife to him, and never allowed anyone to think I would marry after he died, but I had a good offer a few weeks ago. I think if my husband loves me, as he has written to me, that he will sacrifice his life for me, and that he married me because ‘you are the noblest, truest, sweetest woman I ever knew, and the only one I ever loved.’ ”
Breckenridge added, “My wicked son has never written but twice, and never sent me one cent or came to see me. My brother carried my pocketbook away.”
The attorney took her case to court, and argued that she had been improperly committed to the hospital by her relatives who were after her money.
On March 15, 1895, Orlo Breckenridge appeared in court and testified that his mother was not of sound mind. He claimed she was eccentric and obsessed with missionary work. But the judge was not swayed by his testimony, and said Orlo “seemed to regard the whole matter as a joke,” according to the Globe. When he finished testifying, Orlo was scolded by the judge.
The judge said, “Don’t you think that this is a serious matter, involving, as it does, the incarceration of your mother in an asylum for the insane, and not a thing to be treated with mirth?"
Breckenridge was ultimately released from the hospital, and had to wage a legal battle to regain control of her money.
Unfortunately for fans of true love, it’s not clear whether she ever reunited with her young husband.
On May 27, 1895, several newspapers published a brief news item out of Westfield that said “relatives of Mrs. Helf” had learned that she’d been released from the asylum and was “desirous of having the marriage annulled.”
Did she really have a change of heart? Or was that just a piece of propaganda planted by in the paper by her estranged relatives?
At some point, Breckenridge returned to Massachusetts. In 1900 she was 56 years old and living with her 83-year-old mother in a home on Pleasant Street in Westfield.
On her census form she listed her name as Mary Breckenridge. There was no mention of Helf.
It appears that Helf died young. Records on Ancestry.com show that a man named Arthur Helf died at age 26 in Manhattan on July 10, 1902.
Breckenridge died the following year. She was buried in Pine Hill Cemetery in Westfield alongside her first husband in the Breckenridge family plot.