“Near the end of her life, Mrs. Croker had become almost as legendary as the buried treasure she sought, and many written accounts of her exploits mentioned the difficulty of separating the truth from the legend.” — March 17, 1957 [Palm Beach Post]
Artist, teacher, scholar, performer, political activist, business woman, suffragette. Palm Beach marvel Bula Edmondson Croker was born into fortunate circumstances, married a fortune, made a fortune, lost a fortune, and at the end, became a misguided fortune hunter searching for mythic buried treasure. However articulate, accomplished, and talented, she had braved the national spotlight as Mrs. Richard Croker, standing her ground against years of relentless attacks, baseless accusations, and denigrating stereotypes.
Although Bula Croker was born on a 640-acre ranch located within the Cherokee Nation’s tribal lands in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory, an immeasurable distance from a Palm Beach oceanfront cottage or an Irish castle, she effortlessly navigated Ocean Boulevard’s social totems. Her instincts and principles were centered on an uncompromising sense of cultural pride. Nonetheless, her ever present self-confidence and tenacity might have too often led to intractable decisions resulting in financial miscalculations.
When Bula married septuagenarian Richard Croker, the legendary New York power broker, she might have easily become yet another of Palm Beach’s May-December relationships, anticipating an untroubled carefree life where she would pursue lecturing on Native-American culture, advancing women’s’ rights, and cultivating her artistic talents. Instead, she spent most of the next 40 years of her life tangled in a maze of courtrooms in New York, Palm Beach, London, and Dublin.
From the moment the elder Croker gave his wife Bula power of attorney in all his business and legal matters, replacing his son Richard Jr., until years after his death in 1922, his children challenged their father’s every transaction and blocked their step-mother’s efforts to respect her husband’s wishes. Casting doubt on his competence to manage an estimated $10-$15 million estate, Richard Jr., Howard, and Ethel unleashed the most ruthless contempt on their step-mother, disputing her motives, integrity, and even, contesting her identity as a Native-American.
Trials & tribulations
The children filed the first of many Croker v. Croker suits in New York. As these cases reached appeals courts, the family’s bitter litigation in Florida garnered national headlines while proceedings held in Ireland threatened to erupt into a daily barroom brawl, according to reports published in the Dublin Evening Mail.
Convened at the American Embassy in Dublin, American and Irish lawyers clashed over whether Croker’s homestead was The Wigwam on Palm Beach or Glencairn House in Ireland, with lawyers inviting their opponents to “Step outside … so I can slap your face off …”
By the time the Supreme Court of Florida either affirmed or denied the trial court’s decisions on competency or residence, Bula was in the midst of epic real estate litigation, Croker v. J. B. MacDonald and Croker v. Palm Beach Estates, countered by Palm Beach Estates v. Croker, leading to the Phipps-owned Palm Beach Company v. Croker and Palm Beach Company v. Palm Beach Estates, as well as Magee v. Croker. Between 1923 and 1943, Croker v Palm Beach Estates resulted in more than 5,000 pages of testimony bound in 15 volumes.
In White v. Croker, daughter Florence Croker White made a groundless claim in an Irish court that Bula was previously married. In her defense, Bula produced 100 sworn affidavits from prominent Oklahoma court officials and clerks stating she was never previously married. She won the case. While some settlements took decades, in the interim, Bula sued lawyers, generating Croker v. Powell, Croker v. Chillingworth. In 1929, she faced four damage suits in addition to real estate cases.
Croker’s children claimed their father treated them “like strangers,” was “unable to carry on a conversation” and was under “the complete domination” of their step-mother who “sought to possess herself of all his fortune.” Croker called his children “brutes.” When he defended himself, Richard Jr. then sued him for libel.
Bula Croker responded, “Mr. Croker did not bequeath me any property in his will. The several miles of oceanfront Mr. Croker bought in 1909 in the name of his brother-in-law Benjamin Hewlett, and deeded to Mr. Croker in 1910, recorded in 1915. In 1917, after our marriage, for convenience, the property was sold to Miss Alice Eccleston and immediately resold to us. One mile of the oceanfront was deeded to me direct in 1917 and the other was deeded to both of us jointly, so that at his death it automatically became mine.”
For more than four decades, Bula Croker was a part of Palm Beach’s history. First, perhaps more as an unorthodox curiosity before her welcomed inclusion. At one time, she made a run for the US Congress and was encouraged in 1930 to take a seat on the Town Council. She was among the first to allow Blacks to swim on Palm Beach at her private beach. Her husband’s friendships with Paris Singer in London and New York and fellow horseman E. R. Bradley assured Bula’s presence among Palm Beach’s social inner circle.
Bula’s legacy was dimmed, her accomplishments minimized, by the endless lawsuits repeating claims she was an imposter. Today, the Historical Society of Palm Beach County has no files of photographs and archival materials for Bula Edmondson Croker, only ephemera about the Wigwam and letters concerning the court cases.
Oklahoma — Indian Territory
Bula Croker was born into one of the Cherokee Nation’s most prominent families. Michael “Max” Smith Edmondson migrated from post-Civil War Georgia and Texas, where his family’s holdings once stretched across seven counties, to Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. There he married Florence Hastings, part Cherokee, and settled on a 750-acre ranch.
Bula’s uncle, William Wirt Hastings, also a Native American, was a US Congressman and Attorney General for the Cherokee Nation. Bula’s childhood, education, and accomplishments were contemporaneously documented by local newspapers, none of which ever described her as a “princess.” As well, her father and mother’s family chronicles are part of public records.
Tammany Chief – Separation – Tragedy – Back home to Ireland
Rather than endure the chaos of New York politics and the daily uncertainties of Tammany Hall, Richard Croker and his first wife Elizabeth separated shortly after the birth of their last child in 1888. The first Mrs. Croker traveled from the couple’s East 74th Street apartment and Richfield Springs country house to various European capitals. Around 1900, after the separation and his formal retirement after 15 years of running Tammany Hall, Croker would stay in an apartment at New York’s Democratic Club when he wasn’t at his Oxfordshire estate and stables outside London or Glencairn House in Ireland.
Two of Croker children died tragically. In January 1905, their son Frank, a speedboat and automobile racer, died, in an automobile accident on the beach in Daytona while preparing for the annual Vanderbilt Cup races. Five months later, son Herbert “Herbie” died from an overdose of opium. According to published reports, when a cross-country train stopped in Kansas for several hours, he visited a nearby “hop joint,” ingested a quantity of opium and was found dead in his compartment.
A naturalized American citizen, Croker intended to make Ireland his permanent home, but the cold winters took a toll on his health. His search to find a winter getaway took him to Wiesbaden, Egypt, California, and Miami, before he discovered Palm Beach in 1908, where he could, fish, play golf, swim, and, of course, gamble at his friend E. R. Bradley’s Beach Club. In September 1914, he received word his wife had died in Austria. Two months later, he remarried.
Thanksgiving Day, 1914
After a reported six-week courtship, Richard Croker, 73, and Bula Edmondson, 23, were married at Nathan Straus’ apartment, followed by a reception at the Straus residence and a 3 pm overnight train to Palm Beach where the newlyweds honeymooned at the Wigwam.
In 1904 Richard Croker bought the 35-acre Glencairn House estate from a judge on Ireland’s High Court. This remodel resulted in a mix of baronial Irish and American Colonial styles where an Irish castellated battlement tower was wrapped with a granite-columned verandah. In 1911, E. R. Bradley stayed with Croker at Glencairn when he was considering moving his stables from the US to Ireland. In the garden amid the exotic fir trees, there were two headstones. One marking the burial ground of Orby, Croker’s Derby-winning horse; the other, Rhoda B, Orby’s dam.
For better or worse
New York-Palm Beach-Dublin courtrooms
When their father died in Ireland, the Croker children filed to have the Irish will vacated and his New York will made years earlier accepted as the governing document for administration. Again, their strategy was to slander Bula, although the tactic failed in New York and Florida courts.
The Wigwam, 1923-1948
With the Irish will settled, for the most part, Bula returned to Palm Beach. After re-reading the fine print of the agreement with her real estate agent, she notified her lawyers to file suit. For the next more than 20 years, the litigation over the Croker property made for Florida’s largest longest-running real estate civil case.
In July 1920, as litigation with the Croker children continued in New York, Florida and Ireland, Richard and Bula had decided to sell off their vacant Palm Beach oceanfront as they were making plans to leave for Ireland for an extended stay. They entered into a five-year contract with real estate agent J. B. MacDonald, “their friend” who had also built the Wigwam, to represent them as their agent to sell-off their oceanfront in lots at $150 per front foot.
McDonald could keep anything above $150. The contract also stipulated he could buy all of it at $150 per front foot, and then, resell it. Apparently, the Crokers wanted the property beyond the reach of the Croker children, who had filed an injunction preventing the disposal of the property. Later, the injunction was dissolved.
Then, the property was conveyed to McDonald who formed Palm Beach Estates Inc., with the Anthony brothers, Ewing Graham, City Builders, and the Phipps-owned Palm Beach Company. On October 23, 1920, McDonald assigned the contract and conveyed the property to Palm Beach Estates Inc.
Bula explained: “Many people speak of the Palm Beach property as the Croker homestead. This is an error. Mr. Croker established a homestead for his family in Richfield Springs, New York. Mr. Croker, as he himself stated in 1920, bought all of this property as an investment. In fact, we had even planned to sell The Wigwam and build a small house in West Palm Beach, as he preferred a smaller place.”
The Final Chapter
At the time of her marriage, Bula said she was inspired by Pocahontas “who did so much to make English people understand our race.” Then, her ambition was “to show American Indians in their true light, their manner and customs, to picture their ideals, sorrows, and bravery, to interpret their songs, dances, and legends” whether on the lecture platform or in the more than 300 Cherokee songs she had translated.
She also spoke of compiling a history of the Cherokee Nation, “When I was young, I was fired with the ambition to keep alive the spiritual things of my Cherokee people, but I have never able to get back to the life I left.”
Instead, she pursued real estate at Palm Beach. When the lawsuits began, she studied law in Ireland. And then, when the oceanfront cottage, the castle, the horses, and the money, were gone, Bula became fixated during the 1940s and 1950s on one of Florida’s storybook get-rich-quick pastimes, finding treasure chests filled with gold doubloons supposedly buried by Spanish conquistadors or pirates. She financed a quixotic series of explorations in Northwest Florida near Pensacola where for more than a decade she paid $100 yearly for a state license to search for buried treasure. If she found any “pieces of gold,” the state would receive a 12.5% royalty.
Her outspoken support for women’s rights, Blacks, and veterans was long forgotten. Memory faded of her lectures and performances to further Native-American culture to benefit the Red Cross and other charities. At the time of her death, Bula was living with her sister Gonia Tinnin in West Palm Beach’s Flamingo Park. According to relatives, she was generous and kind to all.
The Gilded Cage @ Palm Beach Social Diary