Thursday, January 19, 2012

Henry Flagler's Doomed Wives

The magnificent Whitehall in Palm Beach. You should see it for yourself.
The ballroom in Whitehall.
This week in Paradise we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first train arriving in Key West, via Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. Some called it the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was also called Flagler’s Folly. Both names were accurate. Yes, it was a wonder that one man, Henry Flagler, had the vision of a train reaching from the mainland to Key West, and that the same man had the $25 million to finance the project. But it was a foolish and costly endeavor, and that makes it a folly, too. The railroad never turned a profit, ended up in bankruptcy, and was ultimately irreparably damaged by a hurricane.
    Stories, legends and myths surrounding the building of the railroad abound. The history that most intrigues me is Flagler’s marriages, and, via his wives, the disbursement of his fantastic fortune. 
Henry, the son of a Presbyterian minister, and wife #1, the sickly Mary Harkness.
    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.    
Easy Mary Lily . . . he's an old man!
   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.
Whoever labeled this photo spelled Mary Lily's name wrong.
    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. What I recall as being the most remarkable room in Whitehall is the ballroom. Utterly fantastic. Our guide showed us the chairs upon which the Flagler’s 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.
Flagler was a rambling man. Here is his own personal train car, the Rambler. See it for yourself at Whitehall in Palm Beach.

    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.
Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine where you can see the graves of Henry and his first wife Mary Harkness.
    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.


  1. Never knew any of this. So glad to read... the rest of the story.

  2. Ouija boards are gateways to evil...his wife had a demon attach itself to her and posse her...sad story....there are no harmless witches..vampires..or sorccers..

  3. Thank you for this article. I'm reading "Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean".

    I visited Whitehall when I was a child and didn't appreciate it and would love to go back to see it again.