Stories, legends and myths surround the building of Henry Flagler's railroad. The history that is most intriguing is Flagler’s marriages, and, via his wives, the disbursement of his fantastic fortune and the tragic destiny of his three wives.
Flagler was 51 years old, and already a millionaire, when he became a widower. Soon after the first Mrs. Flagler died, he took a second wife. She was Alice Ida Shrouds, who’d been employed by Henry to nurse the sickly first Mrs. Flagler.
Mr. and Mrs. Flagler honeymooned in St. Augustine, Florida. Shortly after the wedding, Alice Ida began communicating with other worlds via a Ouija board. She confided to her husband that she’d learned that it was her fate to marry the czar of Russia. In fact, Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, was then just 20 years away from his own strange fate, which was to be murdered, along with his wife and children, by the Bolsheviks in 1918. But who knows? Perhaps Alice Ida was right. Maybe she and Nicholas II were destined to meet and to unite in some other realm, at some other time. But to Henry Flagler, she just sounded nuts. He got a physician friend to agree that Alice Ida was mentally incompetent and had her committed to a sanitarium.
Meanwhile, Flagler, a natural born entrepreneur, began exploring business opportunities in Florida. He was well aware of the area’s great potential and set his sights on creating what he called a new “American Riviera.” As his mentally ill wife languished in a New York institution, Flagler completed the 1,100-room Royal Poinciana Hotel on the shores of Lake Worth in Palm Beach. The Royal Poinciana Hotel was at the time the largest wooden structure in the world. Two years later, Flagler built the Palm Beach Inn (renamed Breakers Hotel Complex in 1901) overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach.
Florida welcomed Henry Flagler, his money and his grand ideas for creating jobs and making more money. Somewhere along the way he was introduced to a Mary Lily Kenan, a singer and pianist. She was 24; Flagler was 70, and still a married man. Flagler took his problem in front of the the Florida legislature and they passed a bill that made incurable insanity grounds for divorce.
Flagler divorced Ida and married Mary. Mary’s wedding gift was the luxurious Whitehall, a 60,000 square foot, 55-room mansion in Palm Beach that is today a museum with a fascinating story. The most remarkable room in Whitehall is the ballroom. There are chairs upon which the Flaglers would host many events. There was a piano, upon which Mary played. And there was a barely visible door, which lead to a secret stair that the aging Flagler would use to inconspicuously disappear to the comfort of his bedroom while young Mary and their guests partied till the wee hours. It was on that stairway that Flagler took the fall that led to his death at the age of 83. Flagler’s will left his wife Mary $108 million.
Mary Lily Flagler next married Robert Bingham, a Kentucky politician. Before the wedding Bingham signed a prenuptial agreement, giving up claim to the Flagler fortune should his wife die before him. Eight months later, she died. One month before her death there had been a codicil added to her will, stating that upon her death her husband would receive $5 million.
Mary Lily’s family was outraged, suspecting foul play. They arranged to have her body exhumed and autopsied at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. They promised the media that the results of the autopsy would be made public. But that never happened. The results remained a secret giving rise to wild speculation that she had been a user of laudanum (a form of opium) and had accidentally overdosed. There was also a rumor that Bingham was so furious at Mary Lily’s family for their interfering in the matter of his inheritance that he threatened to release a story to the press that she had died of syphilis if the family didn’t back off.
Bingham’s fortune financed his purchase of the Louisville Courier newspaper, which survives to this day. The paper has also had an infamous history related to family and inherited money. But that’s another story, for another day.
Henry Flagler left $2 million in his will for his second wife, Crazy Alice Ida. She outlived him by 17 years, dying at the age of 82, and claiming, till the day she died, that her next husband would be a Russian czar.
Mary Lily's Story
August 24th, 2017 marks the 116th anniversary of Mary's marriage to Henry Morrison Flagler. July 27th, marked the 100th anniversary of her death.
After Flagler died in 1913, Mary Lily resumed her youthful affair with Robert Worth Bingham of Louisville, Ky. They married in November 1916.
Lonely in a strange city, Mary Lily became increasingly ill. Her husband’s doctor gave her enough morphine to ensure an addiction — useful leverage to parlay for Bingham’s agenda, which was to keep her “totally pacified” until she agreed to add his name to her will, according to Stuart B. McIver, author of “Murder in the Tropics.”
She fainted in her bathtub, had convulsions and then died suddenly after eight months of marriage. She later was hastily exhumed — at midnight, no less — for a secret autopsy, the results of which remain unseen.
Would Mary Lily see the irony of characters material to the above sequence having founded the Order of the Gimghouls at the University of North Carolina? Or that “midnight, graves and weirdness” were the secret society’s watchwords?
William Rand Kenan Jr. and Rob Bingham were close friends and were Gimghouls.
That order, founded in 1889, centers itself on the legend of Peter Dromgoole, a student who mysteriously disappeared from campus in 1833. It’s believed to be a social organization.
Would Mary Lily wonder whether her brother sealed that report as much for good ol’ boy loyalty as to protect the family name? Given that she was dead, the Kenans inherited about $95 million, and Bingham was floating blackmail — did the family pocket their gauntlet to bury a scandal?
Breathless wags fell into a fresh froth over salacious secrets and whispers of murder after a New York headline: “MRS. BINGHAM WAS DRUGGED!”
Robert Worth Bingham was considered a womanizer, née “lady-killer,” and at a dance in 1890, Handsome met Voluptuous and the rest is history and tragedy. Mary Lily told The New Bernian the two had an affair that year, an exercise involving hormones and youthful rebellion over their family feud.
Seeing few acceptable suitors for their eldest daughter, her parents arranged invitations to promising social stages such as Newport, R.I. Their Wilmington buddy, Pembroke Jones, hosted her there in 1891, where his friend, railroad tycoon Henry Walters, introduced Mary Lily to his friend, railroad tycoon Henry Flagler.
She was 23. Flagler was 60 and married, yet their mutual interest was so strong, he plotted a way to discard his mentally unstable wife, Ida Alice. After testimony about Ida Alice’s Ouija board’s message of a Russian czar lover — and her attempt to stab her doctor with scissors — the amenable Florida Legislature passed a law making insanity grounds for divorce.
In Louisville, Bingham married Eleanor Miller, pursued law and politics, became a judge, and piled up debts. Per McIver, “Arrogance and shady deals doomed his first efforts at politics,” and his mother-in-law frowned on “his improprieties in the handling of collateral” for a family business.
Mary Lily and Henry met as circumstances permitted.
Around 1896, he demonstrated his devotion with a gift of $1 million in Standard Oil stock. Born the previous year, a possible “love child,” Mary Louise, was raised as the daughter of Mary Lily’s married sister, Jessie Wise, and society accepted the feint.
In “Across Fortune’s Tracks: A Biography of William Rand Kenan Jr.,” author Walter E. Campbell cited reports that Louise was not Wise’s daughter, but the “illegitimate offspring” of Mary Lily Kenan and Henry Flagler. Another author, William E. Ellis, refers to the couple having kept company with each other for several years, “none too secretly,” and of Mary Lily having “lived with and then married Flagler.”
Weeks after Henry’s 1901 divorce, they married in Kenansville. During a dozen happy years, she shared his triumphs.
In April 1913, Bingham’s wife committed suicide by leaping from a moving car at a railroad crossing. Three weeks later, Flagler died of complications from a fall. His widow, 46, inherited about $100 million and a seat at the table of Standard Oil.
Bingham’s anxious creditors suggested he visit his former lover. Thus motivated, he tracked her to Asheville and rekindled the old dalliance. They married in New York City, ironically at the home of Pem and Sarah Jones. Her only attendant was Louise Wise, whom Mary Lily had publicly named as heir to the bulk of the Flagler fortune.
Suddenly, the vibrant Mrs. Bingham was complaining of chest pains. Instead of calling in a heart specialist, Bingham recruited his friend and dermatologist, Dr. Michael Leo Ravitch. They moved Mary Lily to a hotel, where Ravitch treated her with frequent injections of morphine.
At one point, William Davies, Bingham’s lawyer and fellow Gimghoul, oversaw Mary Lily’s signature altering her will to give the judge $5 million upon her death.
Bingham brought Mary Lily home, where his houseguest Ravitch ramped up morphine doses. Even after she was unconscious in her bathtub, she received morphine. Her body contained the opiate in abundance, plus traces of adrenaline and arsenic.
Newspapers reported “acute heart disturbance.” Rumors suggested murder, complicity, her husband’s reprehensible behavior and shouts of malpractice toward Ravitch.
Lacking conclusive evidence “that Bingham actually murdered Mary Lily, the events of her first and only year in Louisville leave little doubt that the Judge was dangerously irresponsible toward a very sick woman …”
Bingham pointed some sharp arrows at the Kenans, who didn’t cotton to losing $5 million. They were suspicious at the cause of death, yet appalled when the judge mentioned his wife’s taste for brandy and bourbon. Shepard Bryan, another Gimghoul, was Rob’s liaison in those discussions.
The Kenans contested Mary Lily’s will, hired detectives and arranged for the secret autopsy, recruiting pathologists from three cities to collect tissue samples. They arrived at the Wilmington cemetery in curtained limousines at midnight and departed hastily to catch a train. The Kenans abruptly dropped their challenges and locked away the evidence.
Rumors were that they had done so because findings were that Mary Lily probably died of complications from tertiary syphilis, and likely got it from Bingham after he contracted it in college. In that era, dermatologists treated syphilis — one reason Bingham did not call in a cardiologist. Ravitch, an expert in treating syphilis, also was the judge’s go-to doctor.
In July 1918, the judge used the first installment of his inheritance to buy the Louisville Courier Journal and built the newspaper into a journalistic dynasty that lasted seven decades. Having gained the favor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bingham became ambassador to the Court of St. James in 1932. He died five years later of Hodgkin’s disease and/or syphilis, according to his granddaughter, author Sallie Bingham.
Her blog refers to the second autopsy report’s conclusion that an overdose of Salvarsan had killed Mary Lily. The potentially deadly “Magic Bullet” then was used to treat syphilis. “He killed her, didn’t he?” Sallie said in her personal campaign for “a bit of justice for Mary Lily” — openly critical of the interminable scandal-shielding façade.
Emily Bingham, the judge’s great-granddaughter, later wrote a book in which she leaned toward the judge’s innocence but wrote, “Roosevelt himself gleefully called his ambassador ‘my favorite murderer.’”
Emily said Ravitch later demanded money, writing the judge, “I am really sorry that I ever consented to do for you what I did.”
Avowed feminist Sallie Bingham certainly bested the men in the standoff for their newspaper empire. She also railed at generations having sullied the woman whose money enabled their fortune.
Sallie said Bingham bought the newspapers “to ferret out other people’s secrets while closely guarding our own. (Mary Lily) died … of a combination of causes that included depression, neglect and medical incompetence, the failure of love, isolation, and a heart probably weakened by the syphilis she had contracted from the Judge … She also died because she would not, for a long time, give the man his money.”
(The judge’s grandson, “Worth” Bingham III, died at age 34 in a freak accident in Nantucket. Robert W. Bingham IV died at age 33 of a heroin overdose in his Tribeca loft).
Louise Wise, Henry Flagler’s “favorite niece,” inherited Whitehall in Palm Beach, Kirkside in St. Augustine, money and securities. In 1920, Louise and her husband, Lawrence Lewis Sr., named their baby daughter Mary Lily Flagler Lewis and called her Molly.
When the trusts in Mrs. Bingham’s will settled in 1937, Louise set up the Flagler Nursery School for Underprivileged Children in St. Augustine. She died that year of a suspected drug overdose.
Molly (Mrs. James L. Wiley) at one time was a principal of the company which still owns The Breakers. When she died at age 90, her two sons lived in Virginia.
source - ftmyers flaweekly & JuneinParadise
Marlene at Miami Ghost Chronicles is a freelance writer and paranormal researcher.
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