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Scandal on Randolph Avenue

Stories from Old Huntsville Magazine

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When John C. and Emeline were married on Christmas Eve, 1829, no one would have predicted the unhappy and scandalous end their union would see. Emeline was many years younger than John, a prosperous and distinguished landowner, who had come to Huntsville with his parents in 1807. He was the ideal husband for the young Emeline, or so everyone thought.

Emeline was barely 18 when they married, and was considered by many to be lighthearted and girlish. She possessed a trim figure and an extremely romantic and imaginative mind. In this last characteristic, she and her husband were totally different.

The couple were married in Courtland and moved to Huntsville after the wedding. They began their married life in the home of his mother, about a mile or so outside of Huntsville. Living with them were John's two sisters, older ladies who had never married. Both spinsters took an immediate liking to the bright and flirtatious young woman, and the three soon became good friends.

When his mother died in 1831, John and Emeline moved to the brick home at the corner of Greene and Randolph.

On August 9,1836 the trouble began. There was a high board fence that surrounded the home, and on that day a handbill was dropped over it. It announced that a certain Henry Riley, "stage manager of many of the principal theaters in the Union,' would present an entertainment consisting of recitals, imitations, and songs.

This handbill was found in the garden by Erne-line's favorite Negro girl, Ann, and plans were made to attend. John however, was not a theatergoer and chose to stay home that night and read. So Emeline, with anticipation of a good time, set off for the event with her Ann.

Arriving at the theater, Emeline went directly to the choice seats always reserved for the ladies at the front. The first act was horribly boring to Emeline, and she fidgeted badly. But the second act was one she would remember forever.

When Henry Riley first entered the stage, Emeline was struck. Here was her ideal of a man. As he began to give imitations of "celebrated performers," his glance fell often on Emeline who was sitting on the first row. Riley was intrigued by the young and flirtatious girl.

Although Riley had no chance to speak to Emeline that night, the whole city was soon aware of the looks exchanged between the two.

In a few days, a note from Emeline came to Henry, brought by the servant girl. He didn't respond, as he had asked a few questions of the tavern owner and had found out that Emeline was married to a powerful man in the community.

Another note was delivered in two days.

"Henry, if you will come down to the theater this evening, I will go there and tell you where you may see me. Let no one know of this, not for your life. Mr. C. is in the country, I am all alone. Your Emeline."

In no time this innocent flirtation exploded into a full blown affair. Almost everyone in town was talking about it by now, except for John, who remained unaware. Emeline now thought of Henry every waking moment. Even though she was acting cheerful at home with her husband, and as if nothing bothered her, she knew her heart belonged to Henry.

Infatuated with her new love, Emeline wrote in her diary every day. "My heart wanders like a drop from the ocean which cannot meet its kindred drop, like a voice which in all Nature finds no echo. Keep that ring I sent you in remembrance of me. One who loves you. Farewell. Farewell."

A few days later, Henry met Emeline again in the garden behind her home. The garden adjoined the lot where the theater was located and there was a fence between the two lots. They spent more time together than they had planned, talking in whispers. When they separated and Emeline ran toward the house, John stepped out the back door, anger clouding his face.

For several weeks John had ignored the whispers and gossip he had heard around him. But now, before he could stop, he found himself accusing Emeline of meeting someone in the dark. She remained silent. He demanded to know where she had been for so long but she still refused to answer. Once inside the house, John's rage exploded as he began shaking her violently, while shouting all kinds of accusations.

Emeline remained strangely unemotional, not bothering to reply to John.

Hours later, unable to sleep, Emeline was torn between loyalty to John and love for Henry. She thought of telling John everything, but she knew if she did John would kill Henry.

On September 19, the actor was preparing to depart Huntsville when Emeline's servant girl brought him another note. It said that Emeline's husband had missed a favorite picture of her, the one that Emeline had given to Henry. She had to get it back, and in the note told him not to write her again.

She didn't hear from Henry for some time. He was now in Tuscumbia appearing in another production. Emeline, missing him terribly, sent word, "Come to Huntsville to see me. I was once a bright jewel, but you have robbed me of its luster.' Whatever hope John had in saving their marriage now seemed to crumble. Since August, he had been anything but a happy man.

When his mind was not on the severe problems he had in his business, he brooded often about the ugly and malicious rumors about his wife that had originated among the Negroes. Disturbing stories had been brought to him directly by his sisters, who by now had had a falling out with Emeline.

A familiar face emerged around the middle of December, that of Henry Riley. Rumors traveled rapidly: why was he here, without his theatrical company, unannounced, and without any business? Then, around 2 o'clock on the afternoon of December 19, two men "minding their own business" saw Riley walking along Randolph, from the direction of the square.

As the actor passed Emeline's home, the two men saw the blinds of a window in the second story cautiously open and a piece of paper drop to Riley's feet. He hastily looked around him, picked up the paper, and quickly walked back toward the courthouse.

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