27 March 2018

Evelyn Wentworth Murray - The "Countess" of Somerset County - Part 1

Picture this: A young serving-girl pinned to the floor in the master bedroom of a palatial riverfront manor while her mistress - the wealthiest woman in the county - spanks her brutally with a slipper, as the girl's older brother, the assistant gardener on the estate, bounds up the wide staircase to rescue his sister - who just happens to be their employer's recently adopted fourteen-year-old daughter. It reads like a scene out of an 1880s stage melodrama - appropriate since the protagonist here is the 1880s actress Evelyn Wentworth Murray - but this scene played out in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey on the banks of the Raritan River in the summer of 1896.

20 August 1896 New York Journal
Little is known today of Mrs. Murray's acting ability or stage credits except that she was in Maud Granger's troupe in the mid-1880s, but one thing we know for sure is that the lady knew how to make an entrance. On January 1, 1885, newspapers in Pittston, PA, Maysville, KY, St. Louis, MO, and all across the country reported the story of twenty-one-year-old Lena - the Countess DeGrasse - the beautiful actress and enchantress who went by the stage name Evelyn Wentworth.

5 January 1885 Maysville, KY, Daily Evening Bulletin

At the age of fifteen, Lena, whose actual surname remains a mystery to this day, was, according to later newspaper accounts, "led astray" by a boy who she was keeping company with, and fled from the Canadian village of her birth to Toronto. She stayed in Toronto three years before coming to Buffalo, New York. It was there that she picked up the appellation Countess De Grasse. It was said that as she drove a carriage through the streets of Buffalo, her dark hair, big blue eyes, red lips, and "beautifully developed figure" made her look like a Russian countess. 

1 January 1885 St. Louis Post Dispatch
Her charms had an effect on a young married man from a prominent Buffalo family. So much so that the man's father presented the Countess with $10,000 - an amount equal to over $230,000 today - to go back to Canada. This she gladly did, briefly, before taking her new-found fortune to New York to attempt to cultivate a career on the stage.

6 January 1885 St. Louis Post Dispatch

Lena returned the next year to Buffalo, and at some point met C. Clarke Vandeventer, a twenty-five-year-old merchant, and heir to a fortune left to him by his uncle Cyrus Clarke. Newspaper accounts state that Clarke pursued the Countess for more than a year before she agreed to his marriage proposal. The pair were secretly wed on September 7, 1884, since Vandeventer's friends did not think she was suitable for marriage. Things fell apart when he was on a business trip to New York at the end of the year. Mrs. Vandeventer appeared at police headquarters in Buffalo, a copy of her marriage certificate in hand, and proffered a charge of desertion against her husband. The episode played out over the next weeks, with Lena eventually receiving a settlement from Vandeventer, and returning to New York City to once again tread the boards.

30 October 1886 Huntington Indiana Daily Democrat -
a performance including Evelyn Wentworth and David Murray

Back to being Evelyn Wentworth, she joined the troupe of the renowned actress Maud Granger. Also in the company was David Murray, brother of NYPD Superintendent William Murray. The pair married while on tour in Mississippi, then again with a proper marriage license in Jersey City. 

Maud Granger and David Murray

In short order, the story took a familiar turn. In January 1888, Murray found himself in Manhattan's Yorkville jail charged with desertion and failure to support his wife. She went to see him during his 24-hour incarceration, and then met the press:
"I took him his dinner last night out of pity, and I said to him that I would let him out if he would give me a chance to get a divorce. He replied that no other man should ever call me his wife while he lived. He promised once to give me a divorce and I gave him money. He spent the money for oysters with his witnesses."
She got the divorce and within a year or so bought a farm on the south bank of the Raritan River in Hillsborough just west of what would become the James B. Duke estate. The property was the former country residence of Secretary of State Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen - the place where President Chester A. Arthur courted Frelinghuysen's daughter during his frequent trips to Hillsborough. The Frelinghuysen mansion had been recently lost in a fire, so Mrs. Murray commissioned a new residence.

20 August 1896 New York Journal

Mrs. Murray began spending summers on her farm which she dubbed "Wentworth" around 1892 - the year before James B. Duke came to town - splitting time between there and her New York apartment at 223 West 57th Street. Somerset County residents were not receptive to having the beautiful thirty-year-old divorcee in their midst. They were jealous of the luxury she displayed in her horses and carriages and gossiped about her eccentricities - including the time she buried her beloved poodle in a silver coffin, then had him dug up to take one last look at her baby.

21 January 1901 New York Evening World

But Mrs. Murray's biggest battles were with her servants. It took a staff of eight to run her 146-acre country estate, tending to the livestock, the gardens, the house, and especially the Countess herself. Just weeks before the incident described at the beginning of this tale - which ended with the young woman's brother being arrested for assault and both of them being dismissed from their duties - she fired the head gardener and his wife for impertinence, and then had her coachman swear out a warrant for the gardener after he threatened to break the coachman's back when he was told to fetch a policeman to have the couple removed from the premises.

22 March 1897 New York Sun

The tables were turned a year later when Mrs. Murray's twenty-two-year-old maid escaped at 3am to a nearby farmhouse, arriving beaten, bruised, and sporting a slash from a fruit knife across her face, with a tale of living in terror for two months. This led to Mrs. Murray's brief arrest a few days later, an assault charge, and the beginning of a $5,000 civil suit. The Countess spent the next three weeks in New York but returned on the day her maid was released from the hospital to have her arrested for forging and attempting to cash a check in her name. The criminal charges on both sides were thrown out, but Mrs. Murray took the stand in the civil trial at the end of the year, denounced her maid for having a "bad reputation" - and imported several witnesses to state the same - and stated emphatically, "I never laid a hand on a servant in my life."

3 April 1898 New York Times

Mrs. Murray also made headlines at her New York residence. Now living at 48 West 73rd Street, she had a notable run-in with an Italian-American produce vendor over a pear, some mushrooms, and several oranges. The ensuing fracas included a butler with a club, the flash of a stiletto, a broken-down door, and one abject Sicilian in the 68th street lock-up. Two years later, back in Hillsborough, she somehow instigated a fight between two of her servants which ended with a bitten finger, a fugitive, and more appearances before justices.

7 June 1900 Philadelphia Inquirer

The fortunes of the Countess took a ruinous turn in 1900 as newspapers around the nation reported the devastating fire at Wentworth which destroyed the beautiful home on River Road she had built less than a decade earlier. She vowed to stay on the property, quickly building a new house.

4 July 1901 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

As a longstanding vice-president and benefactor of the Somerset County SPCA, Mrs. Murray had long been concerned about the suffering of animals. Early in 1901, she turned her attention to the plight of working horses in New York City. She made headlines in January for having a cruel driver arrested, but saved her most novel remedy for later that summer. In her crusade to give tired horses a break in the heat of the city, she came up with the clever approach she described here:
"I just ride around in my automobile, and when I see a horse that is fagged out I stop the driver, chat with him nicely for a few minutes and then give him twenty-five cents to go get a glass of ice-cream soda. Of course, they always go to some saloon and buy beer instead of getting soda, but the horses get a little rest while they are drinking and that is what I am after."
She also brought her activism to Somerset County, providing the funds to build a drinking fountain for horses in Raritan and arranged for the SPCA to erect a second fountain on the road from Somerville to Pluckemin. 

11 November 1903 Home News

Mrs. Murray's next endeavor to ease the suffering of animals is shocking to us in 2018, but was only thought of as peculiar in 1903 - she systematically put to death every animal on her farm - the cattle, the horses, even the dogs. On account of her strict vegetarianism, she refused to sell any of her livestock for fear that it would wind up with the butcher. Newspapers reported how Somerville veterinarian E. R. Voorhees administered the lethal injections "with tears in his eyes." Still, Mrs. Murray ordered the procedures without compunction. Indeed, the Somerset County SPCA cheerfully enumerated the number of animals put out of their misery in their annual reports.

9 January 1904 New York Sun
There exist but few accounts of Mrs. Murray's interactions with her near neighbor James B. Duke. In December 1903, her servant John Garrigan, after being held in the county jail for six weeks, confessed to setting fire to a large hay barn on the Duke farm and also to destroying another large barn on the property two years previously. In a rare turn, the Countess vociferously defended her employee but had only nice things to say about Mr. Duke. 

"I am but slightly acquainted with Mr. Duke, and any time Mr. Duke called on me it was on business pure and simple, such as any good neighbor might do. If every one [sic] had such neighbors as I have, they could easily follow the Scripture and say thankfully: 'They loved their neighbors as themselves.'"
 Even 115 years later we may be able to read between the lines of that unsolicited protestation!

21 December 1904 Courier News
Tragedy struck again a year later when a lamp carried by Mrs. Murray's Japanese servant exploded just as the Countess was slipping into the bath. Frantic efforts to extinguish the flames proved useless, and Mrs. Murray was forced to escape with bare feet over the snowy fields to the tenant house. She spent two full days in self-imprisonment awaiting new clothes to be sent from New York. After she was able to properly attire herself, she had her coachman hitch up the sleigh for a shopping trip in Somerville to buy Christmas presents for all of her servants who had been so kind to her since the fire. 

23 December 1904 New York Sun

On the return trip, the horses were spooked by the trolley in Raritan, overturning the sleigh, bruising the Countess, and scattering Christmas presents everywhere. More concerned for the presents than herself, she searched through the snow for a big doll meant for the daughter of one of her employees. According to The New York Sun, when fifteen-year-old Raritan youth Philip Cahill found the doll in a snowbank and presented it to her, "she hugged the doll with one arm and Philip Cahill with the other in such a manner that caused the boy's face to turn almost the color of his scarlet muffler." When the trolley conductor approached her for the early 20th-century version of exchanging insurance information, she replied in the third person, "It is all right. Mrs. Murray will sue no one at Christmastide."

Read part 2 here.

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