"Alienation of Affection"

Woodhouse versus Woodhouse

By Connie Cain Ramsey

 Dorritt Stevens Woodhouse and Attorney Warren Austin.

Dorritt Stevens Woodhouse and Attorney Warren Austin.

A visitor to the Burlington courthouse on Main Street will pass by two poster boards denoting important events in our courthouse's history. These events piqued my curiosity, and so I began to research some of the stories in depth. As a result, in conjunction with the Burlington Free Press, I am happy to present “The Chittenden County Courthouse Chronicles.” This monthly column begins with the case of Woodhouse versus Woodhouse, Allienation of Affection to be followed next month by a history of the Chittenden County Courthouse (did you know that court cases were once held in Ira Allen's living room in Winooski Falls?) Thanks for reading!

 

“Alienation of Affection”
Woodhouse versus Woodhouse
December, 1922


Dorrit Stevens, the daughter of a poor soap salesman, grew up in Burlington in the shadow of a
South Willard Street mansion. The mansion was located on the corner of Cliff and Willard Street,
and was the summer home of Lorenzo Woodhouse, a wealthy New York City banker and financier.
Lorenzo and his wife Mary Kennedy Woodhouse had a young son, Douglas, who in 1917 caught the
eye of the beautiful Dorrit at a UVM dance.
Dorrit and Douglas shared a long and loving courtship, meeting up several times daily at the Stevens
home. When Douglas left to join the army he sent love letters, candy, flowers and music to Dorrit
regularly. Dorrit met up with Douglas at his army base, the reunion of the two lovers proved so
powerful that they decided to get married on the spot.
The fire of their love would soon be doused by a very upset and angry Mary Kennedy Woodhouse,
who objected to her son's marrying outside his own upper class. She and her husband were sure that
Dorrit Stevens was a gold digger looking to cash in on their family fortune.


Out of Sight, Out of Mind


Lorenzo and Mary never spoke a word to their new daughter-in-law, nor was Dorrit allowed entry
into any of the Woodhouse domiciles. Lorenzo stepped up the pressure on his son’s marriage by
forcing him out of his job at the Merchant's Bank (owned by Lorenzo), and cut off his access to a
lucrative trust fund from a previous inheritance. Douglas and Dorrit were left virtually penniless.
With nowhere to turn but his parents, Douglas appealed to them to restore his position in the family.
They agreed – but with one caveat – Dorrit would stay out of sight and out of mind. Douglas
acquiesced, and joined his parents in visits to New York where they wined and dined at the Crystal
Room at the Ritz. Douglas was invited to winter in their Florida home, but without Dorrit. She was
not permitted to join him. He accepted his parent's offer.
In Florida, Lorenzo and Mary hatched a plan to break up their son's marriage. They introduced
Douglas to Lillian McClellan, a divorced Washington DC society girl. The Woodhouses showered
Lillian with affection and money, and pushed Douglas to ask her hand in marriage. But once Lillian
found out that Douglas was already married, she wanted no part of a relationship until he was free to
marry her.
Back in Burlington, Dorrit found out that Douglas had gone to Reno, Nevada to seek a divorce. She
felt his mind had been “poisoned” by his parents and the lure of the family’s wealth and lifestyle.
Furious with Lorenzo and Mary, Dorrit turned to the court system, and set in motion one of the most
spectacular cases in Vermont (and US) judicial history.

 

David vs Goliath


The court case between the soap salesman's daughter and the wealthy financier's son became a
national spectacle. Standing room was at a premium at the redstone, Church Street courthouse as the
Woodhouses’ New York City attorneys squared off against a young Burlington lawyer named
Warren Austin. The “David versus Goliath”, million dollar “Alienation of Affections” court case of
Woodhouse versus Woodhouse, Judge Sherman R. Moulton presiding, had begun.
The jury was read all 188 of Douglas' love letters, and listened to Dorrit speak about the terrible
betrayal with "honesty in her eyes". Douglas never attended, choosing to remain in Reno.
After 40 hours of deliberation the jury of twelve male Vermonters, seven of them farmers awarded
Dorrit $464,000 (6.3 million in 2014 dollars). The largest award of its kind in US history.
The case empowered women and made a hero of young Austin who already had a reputation as a
champion of women's suffrage. His success won the admiration and respect of Vermont voters and
launched a successful career in politics that included becoming US Senator and Ambassador to the
United Nations.
The ultimate winner was the US court system and the integrity of our country's judges and jurors.
The highly-paid New York lawyers proved to be no match for the young Vermont lawyer, nor the
Vermont jury that rendered the verdict. The privileged class would find no special privilege within
the hallowed halls of a Vermont courtroom.

Bob Boyd and Jack Ramsey contributed to this article.