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Sheboygan Press
September 1917

This information was contributed by: Kay R.

Claims $3,000 For Being Referred to as a "German Spy"

Miss Regina Ferguson of Mitchell has sued Miss Ella Burke for $6,000 damages for alleged slanderous utterances, the complaint having been filed this morning in the office of Clerk of Court E. J. Couch by Attorney H. J. Rooney of Plymouth, representing the complainant.

The complaint sets forth that on June 24 by the church at Mitchell Miss Ferguson was talking to Bessie Gahagan and Mamie Gibbons when Miss Burke said:

"Bessie, come away from that German spy."

The complaint says Miss Ferguson is a natural born American and that she has always been loyal and law abiding and that the statement was made to disparage her and make it appear that she was treasonable and disloyal. On this charge Miss Ferguson demands $3,000 and also asks a similar amount for the following remark she asserts Miss Burke made while they were standing on the church grounds of St. Michaels congregation:

"We know what the Ferguson's are. You are nobody. You are not decent. What did you go to Milwaukee for?"

It is asserted by Miss Ferguson that the second alleged remark was made to bring scandal and disgrace on her, that it applied to her family and herself, that it was spoken with the aim of having her regarded as guilty of unchaste conduct and having gone to Milwaukee for some unlawful and criminal purpose.

Sheboygan Press Telegraph September 21, 1917

Slander Suit Attracts Considerable Attention in the Circuit Court

All the evidence being in this morning in the slander suit of Miss Regina Ferguson against Mrs. Ella Burke, asking $6,000 for alleged damaging remarks about her character, the attorneys, J. J. Rooney for the plaintiff, and A. C. Prescott and M. C. Mead for the defendant, had a conference with Judge Kirwan as to what questions the jury would be called on to decide. When this was settled the work of addressing the jury was taken up, Mr. Rooney commencing his remarks about 11:30 o'clock.

He contended that there was malice in Mrs. Burke's mind when she spoke to Miss Ferguson on the church steps in Mitchell, June 24, That she was anxious to say something that would hurt Miss Ferguson and that the meanest thing she could think of was to call her "German spy." The asking of $3,000 for this remark and a like amount additional for the other things Mrs. Burke is alleged to have said he contended was reasonable as a woman's character was her greatest asset.

"Not a man of you on the jury would have your daughter's character assailed for twice $6,000," he said.

At noon Mr. Rooney was in the midst of his argument when the recess was called by Judge Kirwan.

Emmons Burke, son of the defendant, was the first witness called this morning, being questioned by Attorney M. C. Mead. He said he heard his mother say to Bessie Gaghan: "Come away. She's only spying around," referring to Regina Ferguson, and his mother then asking Regina why she went to Milwaukee. Miss Ferguson then said it was "none of her business." He did not hear his mother say, "We know what the Ferguson's are."

"I did not hear Mrs. Michaels tell mother about Joe Gaghan."

"Have you talked this testimony over with your mother before appearing here?" asked Mr. Rooney.

"Not much, no sir."

Miss Marie Burke, daughter of Mrs. Burke, taking the stand, said her mother's and her relations with Miss Ferguson had always been friendly. She heard her mother say, "Bessie come away from the girl that's spying." The witness started to tell something that she said it was asserted had been told to Miss Gaghan and this was ruled out on Mr. Rooney's objection, Judge Kirwan saying it was merely rumor and not in the pleadings.

"I heard my mother tell Mrs. Michaels what Regina said," Miss Burke said. "My mother didn't use the word German when she referred to spying. She told Regina what she had told Joe Gaghan and Regina said she had told nothing as she had been in Milwaukee. She said to mother, "I could tell you something that would make your head come down."

The witness admitted talking the matter over with her mother before coming to the trial but said her mother did not tell her what to say. She denied telling her mother on the church steps, "Come away from the dirty, nasty thing," nor "Come away" nor anything to that effect. She said Florence Humphrey's name was not mentioned at the time of the incident.

This concluded the testimony for the defense and Mr. Rooney, after Miss Ferguson's complaint was admitted as evidence, called her to the stand in rebuttal.

"Did you hear Mrs. Dwyer say anything to Mrs. Burke?" he asked.

"I did. She said, "Come away. You've said too much." I heard Marie Burke say to her mother, "Come away from the nasty thing," not in a very low tone. I thought she was wrought up and agitated. Emmons Burke was sitting in their car at the road. I didn't see him on the church steps at any time."

Cross-questioned by Mr. Prescott the witness said she was pretty angry at the time but could give good attention to what was said. She asserted Mrs. Burke talked loudly enough for any one to hear her but she did not think Emmons could have heard. All Mrs. Burke said, according to the witness, was spoken loud enough for all there to hear except what allusion was made to "an operation."

Miss Bessie Gaghan, recalled yesterday after dinner by Attorney H. J. Rooney, admitted she was Mrs. Burke's cousin.

William Michaels, aged 20, taking the stand, said he had lived in Mitchell all his life, had heard Mrs. Burke say, "Bessie, come away from that German spy. What are the Fergusons. You are nobody. You are not decent. What did you go to Milwaukee for?"

"What have you to say regarding Miss Ferguson's reputation in the community?" Attorney Rooney asked.

"I never heard anything against it. I think Mrs. Burke and she had always been friendly up to the time of the church difficulty. I told both of them I did not wish to be mixed up in the case."

"Miss Mamie Gibbons, aged 21, cousin of Mrs. Burke and a school teacher, testified she had known both principals for as long as she could remember.

"Did you hear Mrs. Burke ask Miss Ferguson "What did you tell Joe Gaghan about me?" and Miss Ferguson answered that she had been in Milwaukee and could not have told him anything?"

"No sir." The witness also denied hearing Miss Ferguson say she could tell something that would make Mrs. Burke hang her head.

Mrs. Margaret Slattery, wife of Michael, resident of Mitchell nearly all her life, said she heard Mrs. Burke ask why the girl went to Milwaukee and the reply of the latter, "What does anybody go to Milwaukee for?" She said the defendant came to her place and asked her to sign a paper and she signed it.

"On it I said I had not heard very much about it," the witness said. "This was about a week or so after the incident."

Attorney A. C. Prescott offered the witness a paper which she identified as the one she had signed beneath her statement: "I heard nothing to amount to anything. I was not paying attention."

Miss Catherine Slattery, aged 14, testified to hearing Mrs. Burke say: "We know what the Ferguson's are. You are nobody. You are not decent." Miss Ferguson's reply, she said was, "Don't mention my name on the church steps. I am not spying." There was no showing of any anger by either. She heard Miss Ferguson, she said, say she could tell something on Mrs. Burke that would make her hang her head. The witness testified that the plaintiff was working for her uncle at his general store in Mitchell.

"Are we to understand that you are not attacking this young woman's character in any way?" Mr. Rooney asked Mr. Prescott, referring to his client.

"For heaven's sake, no!" was the reply. "On the contrary I would go out of my way to protect it or any other woman's."

"Then I rest my case."

Mrs. Burke was then called as the first witness in her defense. She said she had long been a member of St. Michael's congregation.

"Can you tell us about this schism in the church which led to the feeling among the membership," Mr. Prescott asked.

"I object," said Mr. Rooney. "There is nothing in the pleading in extenuation or mitigation of the remarks. They've only entered a general denial."

"We wish to get this matter out to explain the circumstances leading up to the conversation now being testified to," said Mr. Prescott.

Mrs. Burke, answering Mr. Prescott's questions, said she had known Miss Ferguson perhaps 20 years and that relations up to June 24 had always been friendly, that outside the church matter they had never had any differences and that there had been no quarrel. She had never heard anything reflecting on the young woman's character and never knew her sympathies as to the United States and Germany.

"I never discussed it with her nor heard her discuss it," she said. "I had no conversation with her that day nor knew she was there until another woman said, "There's Regina Ferguson spying around." She and I were on different sides in the church matter.

"She was on the wrong side," interjected Judge Kirwan.

"Yes," answered the witness, causing much amusement. "I then told Bessie to "come away from the one that is spying around there." She was sent there to spy. Miss Ferguson came down the steps and said she was not there to spy. I never said she was a German spy. What would be my object in calling her that?" Then I asked her: "What did you tell Joe Gaghan about me?" She said, "It's none of your business. I was in Milwaukee and couldn't have told her anything. Then she added that "all the people who are coming here to support the priest are nothing but dirty scrubs. I could tell you something that would take your head down." Then I went home without replying to her. I did not say she was not decent.

"My sister and I called on Martha Michaels and she said she didn't hear anything bad and today on the stand here she swore differently. I wouldn't think of reflecting on Miss Ferguson or her family for I have a family of my own. There's a difference between a spy and spying. She was there spying around to see what was going on in the church. After I asked her about going to Milwaukee there was no more conversation. I merely asked her why she went there. I could ask you why you went to Chicago, couldn't I?" she said to Mr. Rooney . "I had nothing more in mind than a friendly question. I never thought of any illicit or harmful purpose in the question."

"Do you know Addison?" asked the lawyer, Addison being the young man evidence regarding whose name the court had earlier in the day instructed the jury to disregard.

"I don't know him."

"Who is he?"

"I don't know him," the witness repeated.

"Did you make a reference to him at any time in talking to Regina Ferguson?"

"Never. I never mentioned any operation. I never said "Florence Humphrey can tell what you are," to Miss Ferguson, and I never said she was not decent. I don't know anything about her reputation at all. I was not angry or worked up and had no intention of slandering her or reflecting on her. I was not excited over the church situation.

"Didn't you once pick up stones and throw them at people there?" Mr. Rooney asked.

"No," shot the witness before Mr. Prescott could voice his objection. "A lawyer told me to go around among the people who had been at the church that day and get a statement of what they heard."

"Didn't you say to William Michaels at the noon recess today: "Now William, you must not testify against me?"


After a 15 minute intermission in which Mr. Rooney consulted some of his witnesses he stated that he had been in error in his question and asked the defendant had she not said to Margaret Slattery, "You can't testify against me because you signed that paper."

Mrs. Burke denied having done so.

Mrs. Catherine Dwyer, her sister, testified that she was friendly with Miss Ferguson and knew nothing against her reputation for chastity.

"I was at the church that day and heard Miss Michaels say to my sister, There's Regina spying around," she testified. "Sister said, Bessie, come away from the one spying around." and Regina said she was not spying and could tell something about her that would make her head come down. "I never said to my sister, "Come away, you've said too much." I was not in the church schism. Either way pleases me. I admit I want to see my sister win this case because I know she ought to."

Sheboygan Press Telegram - September 22, 1917

Miss Ferguson Secures Verdict of $600 in Circuit Court at Hands of Jury

Miss Regina Ferguson's suit against Mrs. Ella Burke for slander resulted in the jury finding she was entitled to $500 actual damages and $100 punitory damages. The jury went out shortly after 5 o'clock last night in charge of Under Sheriff Fred A. Boldt, concluded its deliberations at 10:40 o'clock last night and sealed its verdict, presenting the same in circuit court at 9 o'clock this morning.

When Judge Kirwan opened it he found that the seventh question of the eight which the jury was to answer was not answered. He had the jury retire and in about half an hour it was ready to report, but had to remain locked up until the attorneys in the case could appear.

The jury found that Mrs. Burke called Miss Ferguson a German spy, and said to her: "We know what the Ferguson's are. You are nobody. You are not decent. What did you go to Milwaukee for?" The finding was that the remarks were actuated by malice.

The jury did not believe persons would consider the remark of "German spy" that Miss Ferguson was guilty of treason and disloyalty to the United States.

Argument to the jury and the judge's charge to the 12 men took up the entire afternoon, the jury retiring shortly after 5 o'clock in charge of Under Sheriff Fred A. Boldt.

The court submitted to the jury a list of questions bearing on the case which it was to answer "Yes" or "No" saying that if actual damages were allowed they would be for actual injury to the reputation and feelings of the plaintiff such as might fairly and reasonably compensate her for that injury, provided it was found her accusation was proved. The jury could, it was advised, award also punitive damages if its discretion directed, although it was not compelled to do so by the law. Such damages would be to punish the defendant for the words used and as a warning to deter others from making slanderous remarks.

Miss Ferguson Secures Verdict of $600 in Court

In their remarks to the jurors Attorneys Mead and Prescott indicated their belief that the statements on which the suit were based were trivial and not such as to justify bringing a lawsuit. Their contention was that the plaintiff had not shown much feeling at the time the alleged slander was uttered, although ordinarily a women whose character was attacked would act with energy and aggressiveness in reprisal. "No fury like a woman scorned," Mr. Prescott quoted. The fact that the witnesses denying or not hearing the remarks were more numerous than those alleging hearing them was emphasized. Mr. Mead said it was noteworthy that the plaintiff's witnesses were parrot-like in that their versions of the testimony were practically identical.

Mr. Rooney, in his final address, said that it was greatly to Miss Ferguson's credit that she had held herself in check when she was addressed by Mrs. Burke and that her remark to her that "she could tell something about her that would make her hang her head" was only made after she had been attacked. The fact that the plaintiff was at church, the place of all places where he said she should be protected against any unjust accusation, was remarked.

"He who steals my purse steals trash, but he who filches from me my purse robs me of that which not enriches him, but makes me poor indeed," said the lawyer in conclusion, quoting Shakespeare.

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