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How the “Heart Balm Racket” Convinced America That Women Were Up to No Good

For a long part of human history, it was a tragedy when an engagement was broken -and grounds for a lawsuit, too. Both men and women could sue, but the laws in place were mainly to protect women who might have given up a chance to marry someone else or even (horrors) their virginity under the promise of marriage. But like any attempt to regulate human activity, there were those who took advantage of the system. In the early 20th century, lawsuits by gold diggers who manufactured relationships with rich men made sensational and lurid headlines.    

The legislation in question was something called the “breach of promise” or “heart balm” suit, and it was based on the premise that an engagement was a binding contract between two people. If one person were to break off the contract without consulting the other, the law could step in and award damages to the brokenhearted party.

Granted, no one was terribly happy about these laws in the first place—feminists thought they made women look dependent, while misogynists thought they allowed women to tap into their naturally devious natures—but as controversial, high-profile breach of promise suits kept making the papers, the public grew increasingly paranoid about the implications of such legislation. By 1935, the paranoia had grown so extreme that lawmakers were calling for a wholesale elimination of heart balm laws, and soon enough states were abolishing them right and left—abolishing them so quickly, in fact, that the constitutionality of some of the reform statues was later called into question. Still, the message had been made clear: it was no longer possible to sue over a shattered heart, real or false.

Women who targeted wealthy men were called "heart balm scammers," and they were more rare than newspapers would have one think, considering the publicity their cases received. Meanwhile, a lawsuit over a genuine everyday heartbreak got scant attention. Read about the heart balm scams and the rush to rescind laws concerning breach of promise cases at Smithsonian.


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