In the early morning hours of Oct. 27, 1911, Marjorie Paine caught the Denver & Rio Grande passenger train in Salt Lake City. She rode it to the Geneva Resort on Utah Lake, where she rented a rowboat.
There, the 41-year-old woman ventured out to deeper water, where she used the anchor rope to tie a heavy automobile part to herself, rolled into the lake and drowned.
Why she did this became a matter of public debate.
Paine was smart and ambitious. She taught mathematics at various high schools for six years. She enjoyed being a member of the Ladies’ Literary Club, which led her to an interest in writing.
She left teaching for the ad department of Salt Lake Security & Trust Co., and, in 1909, she was hired as the dramatic critic for the daily Herald-Republican — a job she loved.
But there was trouble. Two days before killing herself, Paine flagged down her former boss at Salt Lake Security, F.E. McGurrin. While riding together in his car, she told a shocking story about her editor, Arthur J. Brown, hounding her for sex and that her wages had been cut because she refused to give in.
McGurrin and Paine agreed to meet the following day to discuss the matter further in an effort to seek a solution. She never showed up. Instead, a letter arrived from her the following day.
“Dear Mr. McGurrin: Did you ever think that the woman who held an honorable position in your employ and in the schools would sink to the degradation of which I told you yesterday? The unspeakable thing happened July 19, at my apartment. That is not the worst — Brown has literally driven me to death by his inhuman cruelty. I have heard it said that a man would do that to a woman who found out his deformity and degeneracy, and would not connive at that vile thing.”
Paine, who was single, also wrote letters to family and friends, alluding to her “degradation” and asking them to forgive her for the ultimate remedy she sought.
The man who allegedly violated Paine in whatever manner that was, at the time, “unspeakable” immediately denounced the allegations. Brown was married and a pillar of the community. Every effort was sought to discredit Paine in the news.
Members of her own family said her mind had apparently snapped because she was so driven by her work. Others stood by her, asserting she wouldn’t make such an allegation without cause.
Borne by family members and civic leaders, Paine was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery.
For his part, Brown kept his position at the newspaper and lived out his days peacefully enough, dying of old age in 1950 in California.
Maybe he was innocent and wrongly accused. Maybe he was guilty, and Paine was telling the truth. We’ll never know for sure.
Here’s what I do know for sure. Of the thousands of old Utah newspapers I’ve read from 1895 to 1925, Paine’s accusation of sexual abuse is the first I’ve come across that made the news in such magnitude.
This certainly doesn’t mean that powerful men only began committing such offenses in the early 20th century. It does, however, scream at the truly powerless status of women back then.
In the high-minded, puritanical times in which Marjorie Paine lived, she understood that, by revealing what had been done to a woman of impeccable virtue, she risked damaging her own reputation as well.
As shocking as recent events are when it comes to the sexual harassment of women, it’s encouraging to see that they are finding their power and their voice. Times change only when people force them to.