On July 8 1922, attention turned to the divorce courts where the strange marriage of Mr and Mrs John Russell came under public scrutiny. It was stated that the day before her wedding, Christabel Russell had obtained a promise from her future husband that there should be no question of their having children, at least to begin with. Having apparently complied with this request, Mr Russell was shaken by the arrival of a child and thus was suing his wife for adultery. After a lengthy hearing it was decided that there was no evidence of adultery and Mr Russell, heir to Lord Ampthill, lost the case.
The House of Lords hearing resurrected one of Britain’s most publicized scandals of the early 1920s, a story that has since been tagged as “The Case of the Virgin Birth.” It involved a young aristocrat, John (“Stilts“) Russell then heir to the Ampthill title, his vivacious and liberated wife Christabel and her baby Geoffrey, who was born in October 1921. Soon after Geoffrey’s birth, John Russell filed for divorce charging that the baby could not possibly be his. He claimed that he and his wife had agreed before the wedding to lead separate lives and leave the marriage unconsummated.
Christabel Russell admitted that she had never had full intercourse with her husband. But she insisted that she had not had sex with any other man either. Her proof: after learning that she was pregnant, she had undergone a medical examination. Doctors testified that she was still technically a virgin; her hymen had been only partly perforated. How then had the baby been conceived? During a night of “Hunnish” behavior ten months before Geoffrey’s birth, she testified, when her husband tried to force her to have intercourse, but succeeded only in an incomplete act. He flatly denied any such behavior occurred.
One divorce trial ended without a decision, but a second in 1923 explored the details again. Christabel, her husband charged, had cavorted across the Continent, writing home about “slim, silky Argentines” and “marcel-waved” Italians who courted, wined and dined her. She still insisted that they had not slept with her; medical experts conceded that her story of Geoffrey’s conception might be true. A ten-month gestation was not unknown, they said. Impregnation without penetration, though rare, was possible. Still, the jury in the second divorce trial found her guilty of adultery with an unnamed man.
Christabel Russell appealed the divorce decree to the House of Lords and won. In 1924 a panel of lords, Britain’s highest court, ruled that no child born after a marriage could be declared illegitimate merely on the testimony of his mother or father. Two years later, a High Court judge reinforced this decision by issuing a certificate of legitimacy for Geoffrey. Not until after John Russell succeeded to his title as the third Baron Ampthill in 1935 did the redoubtable Christabel finally divorce him.