03 April 2018

Evelyn Wentworth Murray - The "Countess" of Somerset County - Part 2

[I wrote about the first twenty years - January 1885 through December 1904 - of the public life of Evelyn Wentworth Murray, the "Countess de Grasse" in part one which you can find here.]

Before we continue with the life of Evelyn Wentworth Murray, the "Countess de Grasse", it may be worthwhile to provide a description of the subject. Mrs. Murray had her moniker thrust upon her by the citizens of Buffalo, New York when she burst upon the scene as an eighteen-year-old adventuress in 1885 - but the following description of the Countess de Grasse and her daughter Pauline is from a story titled "The Gamber's Courtezans" which appeared in the Gentlemen's Pocket Magazine in 1829. This is the only historical mention of a Countess de Grasse that I have been able to find. Could either of these women be who the Buffalonians were reminded of when they first encountered young Lena?

It may not be uninteresting to here give a description of the
Countess de Grasse and her daughter Pauline. The Countess
was about fifty years of age. She was a beautiful brunette,
had fine lively sparkling eyes, a noble carriage, and majestic
deportment. She appeared perfectly familiar with the usages
of high life, and was a distinguished person in some fashion-
able circles where gambling was carried on. It was impos-
sible for one who did not know her, to discover, under her
dissimulation and artifice, the perversity of her soul.
Pauline was a lovely girl, shaped like her mother; she was
beautifully fair, and about seventeen or eighteen years of age.
Her light blue eyes expressed desire and voluptuousness, and
there was an archness in her manner, that unveiled the lasci-
viousness of her soul to those who had leisure to observe her
attentively. She was a most seducing creature, and was
friendly and polite; — her fine bosom was enchanting — she af-
fected an air of modesty and mildness, and abounded in fine
sentiments; but an attentive observer could easily discover
her dissimulation. 

21 January 1901 New York World

At the beginning of 1905, we find Mrs. Murray not only recovering from a bruising sleighing accident in Raritan but also from a devastating fire that gutted her home and left her in the tenant house. This was the second fire on her River Road estate since she bought the old Frelinghuysen homestead in Hillsborough Township to use as a summer retreat in 1892. A fire in June 1900 destroyed the first palatial home she built called "Wentworth."

4 July 1901 New York World

With a number of small houses still on the property, Mrs. Murray decided not to rebuild, but to refurbish the tenant house for her own use, and move some of her eight servants to other quarters. 

Well known in New York City for her efforts on behalf of working horses, headline writers had a field-day when her auto was bumped on the corner of Broadway and 48th Street in November 1906 by a car driven by the chauffeur for theatrical agent William Morris. After Mrs. Murray predictably had the chauffeur arrested New Brunswick's Home News wrote, "MRS. MURRAY AGAIN IN THE LIMELIGHT - Caused Chauffeur's Arrest for Cruelty to Her Automobile." 

7 March 1908 Plainfield Daily Press

After a relatively uneventful 1907, the Countess was back to battling with her hired help the next year. In the many documented cases of conflict between Mrs. Murray and her servants, the mistress of the manor always came out on top. Even when she lost - as in the 1908 case of farmhand John Millett - she won. Millett believed he was owed $160 for doing some extra gardening. Mrs. Murray offered to settle for $85. He initially won a judgment for $160, but on appeal, this was reduced to $80 - less than what he was offered to settle.

13 January 1909 New York Evening World
Mrs. Murray didn't always bring the crazy, sometimes the crazy found her! Like the freezing night in January 1909 when an escaped lunatic from the State Insane Asylum at Trenton ran naked across her fields before being lassoed by a posse of torch-bearing Raritaners.

18 February 1910 Asbury Park Press

A year later domicular tragedy struck for the third time, fire consuming the tenant house in which Mrs. Murray had made her residence since 1905. Neighbors offered to take her in, but as reported by the Asbury Park Press she vowed to stay on the property, "as long as there was a building left on it." Newspaper headlines erroneously trumpeted the notion that the Countess was living in the chicken coop. The actual story revealed later is just as interesting. Just a few months before the fire she built a fine one-roomed bungalow on the property so that her niece, also named Evelyn, might have somewhere to play when she came to visit. On the night of the fire, Mrs. Murray was writing in this "doll's house", while a dog that she rescued from the streets of New York was in the main house playing with her newborn pups. The dog knocked over a chair which upset the stove causing the fire - and Mrs. Murray ended up living in the doll's house!

27 August 1898 New York World

Less than two weeks after the fire Mrs. Murray announced ambitious plans to turn her 146-acre Hillsborough estate into a "sanatorium for decrepit animals", mainly horses so that they might be nursed back to health, or live out their lives in comfort. What a change from just a few years before when she had all of the cattle, horses, and even dogs on her farm euthanized to put them out of their suffering! Now she refused to leave her one-roomed bungalow to go back to her city apartment because she did not want to leave her pets!

29 November 1911 Home News

Mrs. Murray eventually left the farm and once again began commuting seasonally between Somerset County and New York City. Each hunting season she was sure to be at her River Road estate to protect the wildlife on her farm from poachers. Can you picture her in a short hunting skirt, sweater, and a pair of high-topped rubber boots chasing off poachers with a .38 caliber revolver? That's exactly what she did on November 28, 1911 - assisted by her Italian watchman carrying an automatic shotgun and two revolvers tucked in his belt. During hunting season, the watchman. clad entirely in white, would sit in a conspicuous place on the farm to warn hunters away - but on this afternoon three men deliberately fired at him, and at Mrs. Murray too after she came running up. Like a scene from a movie, the poachers escaped by hopping a freight train near the Roycefield crossing.

20 November 1918 Home News

Somehow, in a story full of contradictions, it is fitting that the next time Mrs. Murray's name appears in a newspaper it is in a classified ad offering her estate as a private game reserve! 

January 1920 New York Times

In her first confirmed acting role since the 1880s, the fifty-six-year-old Countess played the part of Jenny Lind in a pageant of the early life of New York City held at Battery Park in January 1920. 

At some point in the teens, Mrs. Murray built a new two-story house on the property, and by the end of the decade gave up her New York apartment and moved full-time to Hillsborough. It was from the porch of this new home that she sat during the summer with a rifle in her lap to frighten off passing motorists who stopped to pick her blackberries at the side of the road. 

30 January 1924 Home News

On the afternoon of January 29, 1924, tragedy struck the Murray estate for the fourth time. An overheated oil stove used in heating the second story of the house caused a fire that completely destroyed the building and all of the contents, including two valuable Persian rugs, imported English parlor furniture, an 800 volume library, and all of Mrs. Murray's jewelry and personal belongings. The Courier News, in two separate stories, described the house as both a "palatial residence" and a "bungalow" - it was probably somewhere in between. The Home News provided this description of the events:

"[After telephoning] Mrs. Murray waited about a half hour for the Raritan fire apparatus to arrive but seeing that it was not coming she jumped into her Ford sedan and proceeded toward Raritan at a lively rate of speed. On the way to town the tire blew out causing the machine to sway from side to side. Mrs. Murray, thinking that she was nervous due to the fire raging in her home did not stop until she had driven to the garage owned by Mr. Turpus in Raritan. The alarm was turned in at Somerville and the West End Hose Company responded, arriving before the first story of the building collapsed."

Having already given up her place in New York, Mrs. Murray decided to sell the farm and find another place nearby. She bought a house on Easton Avenue near Franklin Blvd. in Franklin Township. She appears to have settled quietly into her new life, staying out of the headlines until a fender bender in March 1930 led her into court once again. But this was nothing compared to what was to come.

28 September 1930 Home News

On Saturday, September 27, 1930, Mrs. Murray had a recently purchased automobile delivered to her home and was taking it out for the first time. Pulling out of her drive, she was hit by a Rutgers student, Edward Eppell, traveling east on Easton Avenue. The terrific collision left Mrs. Murray with numerable injuries - in fact, she was hospitalized at St. Peter's for nearly a year. The auto salesman, still on the scene after delivering the car, held Eppell's car up off of Mrs. Murray's head until help could arrive.

In court seven years later, the Countess must have looked like a shell of her former self. Hobbling to the witness stand, with no control of her right arm and shoulder, unable to fully close her right eye, she wore a dark hat pulled low over her face and dark glasses. She was suing for $70,000 - $50,000 of which was for pain and suffering. Although witnesses confirmed that Eppell was traveling at a high rate of speed, and had swerved to Mrs. Murray's side of the road, the jury found for the defendant.

A listing in the 1940 census for Franklin Township is the last historical mention of Evelyn Wentworth Murray, the Countess de Grasse. With no children or other close relatives, it appears her passing, despite her 50 years in Somerset County, went largely unnoticed. 

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