Today’s story takes us to 1922. Imagine that you are a Notre Dame law professor and your wife has just had her third child, a boy, when she informs you that you aren’t the father. She’s had an affair with one of your closest friends. What would you do?
When John Tiernan found himself in exactly that position he chose to file a paternity suit against the alleged father, seeking financial support for the cost of raising the child and garnering unimaginable publicity for himself and his wife. He chose poorly. Remember the adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity?” It didn’t hold true in this case.
I have so far described only the tip of what was to become a very large iceberg. Hang in there, gentle reader. Don your life vest, but don’t abandon ship. Read to the end and I promise you’ll stay happily afloat. First, however, we sail on choppy seas.
John Patrick Tiernan was born in 1890 to a prominent Staten Island family. He graduated from New York Law School and in 1914, when the number of Notre Dame law students required the university to expand its faculty, he made the move to South Bend.
During his first semester on campus John took a train trip to New York on a visit home. Sitting across from him was a pretty young woman who said she was having trouble opening the window; could he please help? (Note to students: In the days before the internet this is how people met and flirted. It was fun.) He lowered the window, she thanked him, and they began to chat. The woman was from Michigan; her name was Christine Augusta Jasper but just about everybody called her “Gussie.” A magical romance ensued and by the springtime they were married. Professor Tiernan’s first year at Notre Dame had been good.
As were the following few years. John and Gussie welcomed two daughters in 1918 and 1919. He flourished on campus, where his performance in the classroom was “at once the marvel and the despair of students.” Professor Tiernan provided public service talks to police officers, enjoyed the company of other South Bend families (especially Mr. & Mrs. Harry Poulin), and was active in Notre Dame student social activities. He was busy professionally, writing academic pieces concluding with a textbook entitled Conflict of Laws in 1921.
Which is how the trouble started. John Tiernan worked on his book for hours on end in 1920 and early 1921. In November 1921 Gussie delivered a baby boy named Billy. A few weeks later she delivered a bombshell to John: baby Billy was not Tiernan’s child but was instead the child of his friend Harry Poulin, with whom she had carried on an illicit affair. Why? Because John had been so consumed with his book that he did not take Gussie dancing. He did not make her feel special. Harry Poulin did. (Note to faculty: put down the pen and go dancing once in awhile. It is fun.)
Not surprisingly, this bit of news did not go over well with John. To make matters worse, aside from a glowing review from a Notre Dame student his book was not well received. The dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School noted several passages in which Prof. Tiernan misstated the law and concluded that the “grave fault” of the book was the fundamental misimpression it conveyed of its subject matter. John was in a hole, personally and professionally. Unfortunately, he violated the first rule of holes: to stop digging.
He attempted to extract a financial settlement from Poulin, an effort that Poulin characterized as blackmail. When Poulin refused to pay, or even acknowledge that the child was his, Tiernan filed charges seeking financial support for his child. He also declared that he would use his best efforts to have Poulin “expelled from the community.” Just exactly what he intended is a bit unclear – I have searched in vain for Indiana laws governing “expulsion from the community” – but Tiernan was serious. After all, he had already spoken to members of the Elks Club, Optimists, and Knights of Columbus about the matter.
Then, only one week after filing charges, John Tiernan announced that he was withdrawing as counsel – but Gussie would pursue the case with the “wrathful vengeance of a woman scorned.” The following weeks were a spectacle perfectly suited for a hungry public that did not yet have daytime television. There was lurid testimony about Gussie’s late night rendezvous at Adler’s clothing store near campus, where Poulin worked; a near fistfight between attorneys during the trial; swooning on the witness stand; tales of “unholy love;” more swooning; seemingly endless interviews that John and Gussie granted to the press.
Why all the drama? How complicated could it be, in a pool of only two candidates, to determine whether Mr. A or Mr. B was the father of a child? In 1922 it was more complicated than you might think. Blood types (A, B, and O) had only recently been discovered, paternity tests by blood types were not conclusive, and courts routinely excluded any such evidence. Testing of genetic markers on blood cells (HLA testing) was not available until the 1960s; definitive DNA testing did not exist until the 1980s. In 1922 the process had not progressed much from biblical times: failing any other evidence a judge determined whether the child more closely resembled Mr. A or Mr. B. If you have ever seen an infant alongside its parents then you know this is not a fool-proof system.
As the trial dragged on, a curious thing happened: Gussie told reporters that her love for John had “been reborn” amidst the challenges that they faced in public together. While they had informally separated for a few weeks, John told reporters that he and Gussie would remain married and together, regardless of the outcome of the trial.
After weeks of trial the disgusted judge (“Flays Both Principals” said the South Bend News-Times) issued his ruling: baby Billy was John Tiernan’s child. Like the familiar toast at a wedding reception, he didn’t lose a lawsuit – he gained a son!
Then things really got strange. Despite her professed reborn love, on October 6 Gussie filed a petition for divorce, which John told her he would not contest. When the matter came before the court it was continued for administrative reasons. That gave John an opening to file his own petition for divorce, which was granted by the court on November 24.
And voided two days later. Why? Because Gussie had not been present or represented by counsel at the November 24 hearing. By then, however, John reported that he had already remarried. His new wife – the press referred to her as a “correspondence bride” – was Mrs. Blanche Hawn Rash Brimmer. The Chicago Tribune could not contain itself, screaming “TIERNAN NOW HAS TWO WIVES” on the front page, in typeface reminiscent of “MAN WALKS ON MOON.”
John’s second marriage didn’t last long. Blanche wrote “I am through with you for good and wish to have nothing further to do with you or your kind. I would not wipe my feet on you.” They had been married for one day.
John returned to Gussie for what must have been a truly memorable Thanksgiving in South Bend. They reconciled and soon relocated to New York to be near John’s family. Billy and his sisters grew up near aunts, uncles, and cousins. I wish I could say that this is the happy ending, but it isn’t. John could not put down the shovel; he kept digging a deeper hole for himself. A few years after arriving in New York he was charged with unethical conduct in the practice of law – the details involved a handgun and a demand for funds – and his license was suspended. He died in 1935 of an apparent heart attack. Gussie had stood by him throughout. He was only 45.
But I can deliver on my promise. You want happy? John had embraced Billy as his own child, despite whatever doubts may have lingered in his mind after Gussie’s revelation of her affair. Billy served as an ambulance driver during World War II; he was an excellent student, graduated from Fordham University and Columbia Law School, married, and practiced law in Los Angeles for decades. When he retired he moved to Gig Harbor, Washington where he and his son owned a marina together. Celebrating Billy’s life, the Los Angeles Times wrote in his obituary that although he was “born in South Bend, Indiana he was raised in Flatbush, New York and died like the true son of Brooklyn that he was, on the handball court,” a life fully lived.
Thanks for staying on board. We are in fair seas with a following wind. It’s time to take off your life vest and smile.
Stay well, NDLS.
For sources and additional reading, see p. 2