Considering today’s divorce settlements afford spousal equal-rights protection amended by pre-nups, post-nups, and non-disclosures, Ida Alice Shourds Flagler’s jury-rigged Florida divorce and lifelong confinement guided by her husband Henry M. Flagler may seem like ancient history, a faded remembrance from when defenseless Victorian women faced an indifferent legal and medical establishment while society looked the other way.
But was it actually Mrs. Flagler’s babbling Ouija-board seances and repeated whispers revealing her husband’s indiscretions that exiled her from Mamaroneck and St. Augustine mansions to asylum at a remote Pleasantville madhouse? Or was it, as some believed, Henry Flagler had already latched on to a third Mrs. Flagler, making the second Mrs. Flagler’s departure a necessity rather than force Mr. Flagler to endure “the specter of a disturbed wife to torment him”? Whatever the reason, Alice, as her friends and family called her, was put away and largely written out of history. For the most part, she was played down with the same belittling views as his son Henry (Harry) Harkness Flagler garnered, though with much harsher consequences.
From St. Augustine to Palm Beach, Henry Flagler’s life is memorialized by statues and declarations, with even a museum and college named for him, in contrast to the fate of his three wives. Health concerns plagued Mary Harkness, the mother of his estranged son Harry. His third wife Mary Lily Kenan was doomed to a whirlwind second marriage and a death from mysterious circumstances although she and her family would inherit the major portion of Flagler’s reported $60 million fortune.
It was Alice Flagler, however, who was buried for decades behind locked doors and surveillance. Branded as incurably insane, she spent a lifetime under the control of Dr. Carlos Frederick MacDonald, longtime president of the New York Commission in Lunacy and the state’s leading criminal alienist. Institutionalized from 1895 until her death in 1930, Alice was closely guarded by Dr. MacDonald, who neither a therapist or an analyst, acted as her caretaker and spokesperson, as she was never heard from again.
However much the landscape of marriage and divorce has changed during the past 125 years, Gilded Age wives understood there could be grave consequences if they made allegations against their wealthy autocratic husbands. Was Alice Flagler’s captivity something sinister or was it a devoted husband doing everything possible his money could buy to arrange for her proper care? Flagler retained a former Florida Supreme Court judge and an ex-governor to deal with legalities. He made large donations to Florida’s state colleges and supported state legislators who introduced “Flagler’s Divorce Law” making lunacy a cause for divorce, allowing him to waltz the night away with a much more pleasing bride as his ex-wife spent her days being watched and chaperoned by the nation’s most recognized insanity authority.
Who would ever believe her? How could she ever be cured when her lifetime guardian diagnosed her as incurable?
From bedside to bedlam
On June 5, 1883, a small gathering of family and friends made their way to the Madison Avenue Methodist Church to witness the marriage of former actress and nurse Ida Alice Shourds, 35, and 53-year-old widower Henry M. Flagler. The couple reportedly met at the bedside of Flagler’s first wife’s who was being cared for by Alice until her death in 1881. Whether a bond developed between Alice and Henry in the months before her death or after, remains untold. Nonetheless, two years later, they were married despite Standard Oil swells’ apparent cool reception.
That December the couple departed for a belated honeymoon in Jacksonville and St. Augustine. It was this visit and later stays that inspired Flagler’s railroad acquisitions and eventually settling in St. Augustine where he built the Ponce De Leon Hotel opened in 1888. For Alice Flagler, St. Augustine was idyllic as she became the center of the social swirl. Her dinner dances were RSVP’d by Astors and Vanderbilts. According to a Flagler biographer, it was at one of Alice’s soirées that her husband caught the eye of Miss Mary Lilly Kenan. Flagler and his wife visited Palm Beach in 1893 aboard the 10-hp yacht Alicia. Just as Alice had promoted her husband’s interest in St Augustine, she most likely encouraged his Palm Beach acquisitions and plans, never aware she would never become a part of them.
Like many others of her clique during the 1890s, Alice dabbled in Spiritualism, speaking to reincarnated historical figures from century’s past as if they were sitting next to her. By 1894, her Ouija consultations, as well as her open talk of her husband’s infidelity, led Flagler to share his concerns about her conduct with friends and staff. Flagler’s doctor George G. Shelton, a nose and throat specialist, was consulted. “Because of her glib tongue, Dr. Shelton made it a point to place himself in her presence” taking note of what she said, according to Sidney Walter Martin in his book Florida’s Flagler.
During the fall of 1895, Dr. Shelton, author of Therapeutics of Cough, brought two alienists with him to 685 Fifth Avenue, the Flaglers’ New York apartment, for their opinion on Alice’s continued unruly behavior. Their presence upset her; she became frantic.
According to reports, they advised “she be removed from the home and taken immediately to Choate House, Dr. George C. S. Choate’s sanitarium in Pleasantville, located in New York’s Central Valley. Built in the mid-1800s, Dr. Choate had added a 10-room wing to his private residence as an exclusive sanitarium for wealthy patients who suffered mental and nervous disorders. His most famous patient had been Horace Greeley who checked-in after losing the 1872 presidential election.
When Choate died in 1896, the facility was operated by Dr. Carlos MacDonald who had resigned his position as president of New York’s Lunacy Commission in order to open a “high-class sanitarium for the treatment of select cases of mental disease.” Mrs. Flagler was among his first patients, diagnosed by MacDonald as having “incurable delusional insanity.”
Several months later during the spring and summer of 1896, “much improved and almost well,” she underwent a “rest cure” at Satan’s Toe, the Flaglers’ Orienta Point mansion where she would be watched by a nurse. At Mamaroneck, there was a household staff of ten — porters, waiter men, upstairs maids, parlor maids, cooks, and kitchen men — for the most part, longtime Flagler loyalists. Soon after, Dr. Shelton believed her reason began to fail; she became “crazed beyond hope.” His affidavit stated Mrs. Flagler believed she was persecuted. She was “highly excitable, had a nervous temperament, and irrational spiritual beliefs.” Later, three insanity experts diagnosed her as a “violent paranoid” when they testified during the Florida Supreme Court hearings.
Alice’s confinement was a stealth undertaking as “the fact she was insane had been carefully concealed from the public as well as her intimate friends for whom the news will be of shock” reported the Buffalo Review in 1899. Imagine, Alice’s friends never knew she was crazy. Instead, those who asked were told she was experiencing ill health. Henry Flagler never saw his wife again, according to several Flagler biographers.
Historian Les Standiford described in his book that while Alice’s condition supposedly worsened, it did not escape the notice of close friends that one of the world’s wealthiest men was spending an unusual amount of time in the company of Mary Ashley, the daughter of Flagler’s second cousin Eliza Wright Ashley and his divorce lawyer Eugene Ashley, and her purported travel companion Mary Lily Kenan. During the winter of 1899, Henry was as far from insanity hearings as possible, spending time in Palm Beach, Nassau, and Miami. The last week of February, septuagenarian Flagler was reported in Nassau accompanied by three young women: Lockport’s Mary Ashley and her neighbor Mary Alice Pomroy, (who would later become Mrs. William Rand Kenan Jr.) and Wilmington’s Mary Lily Kenan. That year, Flagler gifted Mary Ashley’s mother Eliza with $35,000 in Standard Oil stock.
The following month, The Macon Telegraph reported Henry Flagler made a “Gift of a House …” to Jessie Kenan (Mrs. Joseph Clisby) Wise and her sister Mary Lily Kenan “… in appreciation for their friendly relations …” The purchase included the Nesbit house and an adjacent parcel with plans for Flagler to add a suite to the main house and build “the finest house in Macon next to it.” Jessie also received 200 shares of Standard Oil stock. The Macon Telegraph added, “Miss Kenan is not young, or beautiful, but she possesses a bright and charming personality.”
Upon the death of Mary Lily in 1917, Jessie’s daughter Mary Louise Wise Lewis Lewis Francis inherited a large share of her Aunt Mary Lily’s estate, including Whitehall. Mary Louise’s birth in June 1895 caused some to think that perhaps she was Flagler’s love child with Mary Lily as Louise was also the name of Flagler’s deceased daughter.
In May 1899 Flagler changed his residency from New York to Florida with the New York Supreme Court set to declare Alice insane in the coming weeks. A committee was appointed “for her person and estate.” Once she was declared legally insane, Flagler’s Florida campaign began. His divorce lawyer, Eugene Ashley took over Alice’s guardianship. Insanity became a part of Florida’s divorce law, allowing him to divorce during the summer of 1901. Two weeks later on August 24, 1901, Flagler, 71, married 36-year-old Mary Lily Kenan, in Wilmington.
As the newlyweds awaited construction to be finished at their palatial Whitehall mansion, Alice, the former First Lady of Florida, marked her fifth year at Choate House without a public statement about her condition. Influenced by his work in asylums where patients were housed rather than cured, Dr. MacDonald’s neurological approach did not explore any of psychiatry’s new ongoing approaches, including the interaction of a patient’s conscious and unconscious mind, confronting their fears, or unearthing their repressed conflicts. He believed insane patients were best served by developing a hobby to divert their unsettling thoughts.
Located 30 minutes north of New York, Choate House was intended to care for wealthy patients selected by Dr. MacDonald who also maintained an office at 85 Madison Avenue. The staff included a supervising medical doctor, nurses, and attendants, who were on duty 24/7, given two days and one night off monthly. A patient’s care was advertised as $75 monthly, except for Alice Flagler. Initially, Alice’s estate paid $1,000 monthly in addition to Dr. MacDonald’s fees.
MacDonald began his career as a superintendent at Kings County Asylum in Flatbush when doctors carried lanterns to make their rounds and women wore the same gingham dress in the summer that they wore in the winter. During the next two decades, MacDonald was superintendent at two other asylums, becoming known as a specialist in the criminally insane. A proponent of sterilization, he opined “much good can come of this.” While some considered MacDonald more of a neurologist than a psychiatrist, he became a leading expert witness called upon by prosecutors and defense lawyers, reaching the same levels of renown as today’s Cyril Wecht, Henry Lee, and Michael Baden.
Having spoken on the virtues of electrocution rather than hanging, praising it as “humanitarian, painless, and instantaneous,” Dr. MacDonald engaged in June 1889 on the design and building of New York’s first electric chair. His effort began with a Westinghouse 65-horsepower dynamo capable of generating a 1,000-volt current. He began testing its effectiveness on dogs (500-volt) and horses (1,000-1,500-volt). “This method of inflicting death is the best yet devised, the surest, quickest, and most efficient method of delivering the death penalty,” wrote MacDonald. In July 1891, he supervised the first 1,500-volt executions at Sing Sing, “no burning of flesh but some blisters …”
While few of Dr. MacDonald’s patients were ever cured, he led the committee in framing New York’s Care Act in 1890. Rather than focused on the quality of care, the Care Act was more administrative than making any qualitative improvements in patients’ conditions, converting county facilities into state asylums, abolishing the distinction between acute and chronic, and changing the name of mental institutions from asylums to hospitals. As Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical method was becoming more acceptable, Dr. MacDonald established the Pathological Institute, reinforcing his neurological point of view. Alice Flagler’s fate might have been completely different had she engaged in psychoanalysis rather than diagnosed incurable, provided with only custodial upkeep, however high-priced.
Dr. MacDonald was once again on the front page in September 1901 when the Bar Association retained him to interview Leon Czolgosz who assassinated President William McKinley, and if he found him insane, testify as an expert witness. Since Czologosz remained silent during MacDonald’s 15 minutes of questioning, the alienist left and Czologosz returned to his cell. The following month, he was found guilty and executed. In January 1902, MacDonald, who attended the trial, the execution, and the autopsy, published an article declaring Czolgosz “mentally sound, perverted by the social disease anarchy, and completely responsible … no evidence of delusion, hallucination or illusion … the wild beast slumbers in us all.”
Pleasantville–New Rochelle–Riverside Drive
In early 1902, as Henry and Mary Lily Flagler traveled from St. Augustine to Palm Beach, and then, to Hot Springs, Virginia, Dr. MacDonald announced Alice Flagler should be moved “to see if she could be cured by moving away from other patients.” He added, “she should be positioned in a manner in which she is accustomed and will be beneficial to her mind.” That March, Alice along with MacDonald, a nurse, physician, and attendant, moved into The Orchard in New Rochelle owned by stage comic Francis Wilson. The 20-room waterfront mansion was equipped with a theater, stables, tennis court, and a large garden. Wilson, who leased it to MacDonald for two years at $6,000 annually, was quoted in a later interview that he “knew nothing of a Mrs. Flagler.”
While at The Orchard, New York and Westchester County newspapers ran several stories claiming Alice Flagler was improved, “had regained part of her faculties” and she appeared “rational on many subjects.” Dr. MacDonald refuted these stories, declaring often she was “incurably insane.” During the summer of 1903, Mr. Flagler,73, was reported suffering from lumbago; Mary Lily had come down with “a nervous disease.” They were recuperating at the Mamaroneck house, located only four miles away from The Orchard where Alice was sequestered.
The following summer, several New York newspapers reported Alice Flagler had been “found in residence at 353 Riverside Drive.” After “being kept hidden from public view for two years,” she was ensconced among a “row of aristocratic townhouses between 72nd and 77th Street,” accompanied by no less than Dr. MacDonald, a maid, two nurses, and a housekeeper. She “appears to be cured … seen out shopping and attending the opera.” Again, Dr. MacDonald tamped down any notion that she was anything but incurably mad.
By now, her expenses and Dr. MacDonald’s fees had raised considerably. As well, her estate was supporting a steady flow of nieces, nephews, cousins, and second cousins who petitioned the court for monthly stipends. Since 1902, her sister and two brothers each received $4,000 yearly; three nieces and nephews were doled out $1,330. As well, her Flagler-appointed guardian Eugene Ashley had become “the real estate king” of Lockport enhanced by his position overseeing Alice’s accounts, according to The Buffalo Times.
With a yearly income of more than $400,000 and her own expenses a mere $25,000 annually, each of the relatives received a pittance. Nonetheless, each petitioner was required to hire a lawyer. Alice had a lawyer for “her person” and a lawyer for “her estate,” as well as lawyers, special guardians, and referees for the various trust companies and doctors. Thus, fees reached about $25,000-$30,000 per case to settle. This continued until Alice died in 1930. “Mrs. Flagler’s affairs should not be of public interest,” said Dr. MacDonald.
In early January 1905 when Brodie L. Duke, the son of Washington Duke and a brother of James B. Duke, head of the American Tobacco Company, was placed in a Bellevue Hospital psychopathic ward, he was examined by Dr. MacDonald who found him to be “unfit to be at large and a habitual drunkard.” Duke was removed to Long Island’s Sanford Hall Sanitarium. Duke had divorced and remarried quickly only two weeks earlier, prompting one of his sons to have his father committed for mental incompetence because of financial misdealing with individuals “that might possibly rob and murder him.” Two weeks later, the court found Duke sane, releasing him from the sanitarium. That same year, MacDonald was awarded $30,000 in custodial fees for “looking after” Alice Flagler as news reports circulated that MacDonald planned on acquiring Falkirk, a private sanitarium in Orange County’s Central Valley where the owner James Ferguson had recently died.
Dr. MacDonald House: The Last Resort
After two years on New York’s West Side, Dr. MacDonald took an opportunity to expand his holdings. In 1906 he bought Falkirk from James Ferguson’s estate. While MacDonald’s credentials and experience focused on the criminally insane, mainly a rogue’s gallery of murderers, he refused to admit “patients subject to scandals or engaged in criminal proceedings.” His brother Dr. T. D. MacDonald served as the facility’s supervising medical doctor. Falkirk was renamed the Dr. MacDonald House.
“Fresh air and long walks may have been the primary course of treatment for most. Several residents had their own cottages and staff,” said Leslie Rose, Woodbury’s Town Historian. During the 1920s, Alice Flagler’s estate was paying more than $250,000 for her annual family stipends, care, and treatment, including $20,000 in legal fees. While at the time an alienist billed at $15 hourly for examination, observation, diagnosis, and testimony as an expert witness, Dr. MacDonald was paid $3,000 monthly as well as an additional annual payment of $6,000 for special care. In addition, MacDonald received fees of $3,000 annually for supervising Alice’s care as well as $10,000 yearly for his expenses.
On June 18, 1909, the Ramapo Valley Times reported Dr. Macdonald purchased a large touring car, a Locomobile. Several months later, there was a report of a car accident. Mrs. Flagler, and her entourage including Dr. MacDonald, were returning from an afternoon of shopping, dining out, and sightseeing when their chauffeur drove the car into a ditch, striking a brick wall. Alice and the others had minor bruises and scrapes. In July 1912, the New York Sun reported “Mrs. Flagler makes frequent trips to New York and attends the opera in the winter.”
The Alienist & the Eccentric
As the city and the state’s leading arbiter of criminal insanity, MacDonald was accustomed to idiosyncratic high-profile cases placing him in the headlines. Even so, Pittsburgh millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw’s prolonged case would consume his attention for years and thrust him into conflicts with other expert alienists’ opinions. Harry Thaw’s well-heeled mother Mary Copley Thaw reportedly spent more than $500,000 on alienists as famous and established as MacDonald. Sadly, for Alice Flagler, there was no one to mount a habeas corpus case for her release as she was clearly worth more to her impoverished relatives if left insane.
Dr. MacDonald may not have wanted criminals to ever darken his door at Falkirk but for two decades he played a spotlight role during millionaire Harry Thaw’s murder trials and insanity hearings that sold-out newspapers nationwide. Hours after Thaw’s arrest, the district attorney, anticipating an insanity defense, summoned MacDonald for a meeting to interview Thaw at The Tombs prison. During MacDonald’s first 20-minute encounter, Thaw remained silent, not answering any of his questions. It was later reported Thaw told him he was sane, nothing more, and then proceeded to order pork chops, vegetables, ice cream, coffee, and champagne for dinner. The Matter of Harry Thaw would involve MacDonald through an endless series of escapades and courtroom theater, taking him away from Falkirk.
Several weeks after Thaw was jailed, MacDonald and the prosecutor’s three other alienists declared Thaw was sane, having planned and executed a plan to murder Stanford White. The defense’s alienists claimed Thaw might have suffered a momentary “emotional insanity,” a theory MacDonald dismissed. By the time the trial began during the winter of 1907 with a sequestered jury, New York was spellbound. By March, the prosecution had retained seven alienists.
When Dr. MacDonald testified, the state’s final witness, he had reassessed his opinion. He now believed Thaw was a paranoiac who knew what he was doing and aware of the consequences. But, after observing him for weeks in the courtroom, he was now certain “Thaw was now in a state of lunacy, unaware of the proceedings around him, and should be in an asylum not a jail.” He told the court epilepsy and insanity had tainted branches of the Thaw family. “Harry Thaw is an incurable paranoiac,” he determined.
In April, Harry Thaw’s first trial ended in a deadlocked jury. The following year at a second trial, he pleaded “temporary insanity,” having experienced a passing “brainstorm” when he shot Stanford White. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and packed away with a life sentence to Matteawan State Hospital, supervised by the Bureau of Prisons. Thus, began more than fifteen years of litigation.
In July 1909 Dr. MacDonald was summoned to Matteawan Hospital by the state to examine Thaw again. The following month, he testified Thaw was “still batty … a paranoiac of the degenerate type and incurable,” describing him as “frivolous.” Three years later, there was another hearing with Macdonald on the stand for seven hours. “Thaw is certain to presume drink, drugs, and perversions. His form of insanity is incurable and progressive. The moment he takes liquor … he is likely to attack an imaginary enemy.” He elaborated that Thaw was “born a potential paranoiac.” When Thaw was finally released in 1925, Dr. Macdonald had been paid more than $10,000 for his testimony and findings at a time when he was being paid $30,000+ yearly for Alice Flagler’s care.
In early July 1915, Nassau County district attorney L. J. Smith called MacDonald to examine Frank Holt, the alleged shooter of J. P. Morganwhose real name was Eric Muenter, a former instructor at Cornell. Only hours after Dr. MacDonald completed his preliminary interview with Muenter, the accused committed suicide by leaping from the top rail of his jail cell, plunging head first onto a concrete walkway resulting in a skull fracture. “Clearly a paranoiac of the reformatory type,” declared MacDonald who did not initially disclose his findings, not wanting to influence the latest round of Harry Thaw’s hearings.
Sunset at Falkirk
In October 1921, McDonald sold his Central Valley facility to Dr. Charles Winfield Pilgrim who had recently resigned as the medical superintendent for the New York State Hospital Commission. Dr. Pilgrim was in the state’s service as an alienist for more than 35 years, including as the longtime chief administrator of the Hudson River State Hospital in Poughkeepsie. An 1881 graduate of Bellevue Medical College, Pilgrim was previously superintendent of Willard State Hospital for the Insane. At Falkirk, he was joined by his son-in-law Dr. Theodore William Neumann. Titled associate physician, Neumann took charge of the cottages, known then as “a recuperative resort that has both patronage and reputation in the largest measure.”
In 1929, a new state hospital on Long Island was named Pilgrim State Hospital in his honor. Dr. Neumann took over ownership after his father-in-law’s death in 1934, operating Falkirk until 1958 when his son Dr. Charles Neumann managed the facility until it was sold to a private owner.
Augustus Mayhew is the author of Palm Beach: A Greater Grandeur