EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part story about Edward Francis Searles.
Today’s story continues with Edward Francis Searles, known in New England for his grand castles and his philanthropic work.
When his wealthy wife Mary died in 1891 at their Methuen estate, Pine Lodge, he was named sole heir to a large fortune. Her death came just a few years after their marriage, which was a hot topic of gossip because Mary was a quarter of a century older than her and many speculated that he only married her for the money.
Mary, also known as “America’s Richest Widow,” inherited the estate of her first husband, Mark Hopkins, a California railroad magnate. Searles (1841-1920) would not make his millions without a legal battle and a clothesline.
Mary’s adopted son Timothy Hopkins filed a lawsuit challenging the will, which opened a Pandora’s box exposing Edward’s use of the occult to win Mary’s hand and control of her chests
Judge Rollin E. Harmon presided over the hearings which began on September 22, 1891 in the Essex County Courthouse in Salem, Massachusetts.
The press covered the scandal non-stop and the public couldn’t get enough. The headlines captured the strange combination of eccentricity and wealth. The courtroom was full of spectators.
Edward’s counsel was the main attraction: Colonel Solomon Lincoln, William Allen, and three lawyers of the Dodge dynasty: Fredrick, Butler, and Richard.
Timothy hired a number of powerful lawyers including Elbridge T. Burley of Lawrence and William Crowninshield Endicott. There were 21 other plaintiffs who joined forces with him. Most were first and second cousins of the late widow.
Many came forward to assist in the claim that Edward’s control over Mary came from the spirit world.
A year before Mary began her relationship with Searles, she was dabbling in the occult and keeping a private medium on staff at her San Francisco mansion on Nob Hill.
The most compelling testimony came from John Crook, the son of Mary’s former doctor, who lived in the house on Nob Hill and attended the ghost’s parties, sometimes acting as a medium.
His testimony, along with others, put Edward on the rack as all of his witchcraft secrets spilled out.
With the advent of Edward, he encouraged Mary to employ two more mediums: Henry Slade and Nathan A. Bolles, both of whom proved to be notorious charlatans.
They were central to Edward and his plan to master the art of table tilting and slate writing—two methods of how spirits communicate with mediums during séances. Edward soon moved into the role of Mary’s spiritual consultant on matters of money and marriage.
Crook told the court he witnessed a ghost wedding session when Edward was acting as a medium and blackboard scribbler.
A “spirit” intervened and possessed Edward’s hand, forcing him to write a message. She blushed and acted like she was trying to erase the message, but Mary grabbed the board. He said: “Mr. Searles should marry Mrs. Hopkins!
He recalled another session when Mary asked him if he should give Timothy the Menlo Park property, one of his vast properties. Crook said it was obvious that Edward wanted a negative answer and the answers came when the table was tilted.
It then became a matter of muscles and Edward did his best to hold the table but Crook had more energy and tipped it over.
As soon as the answer was “yes” Edward logged off for the night.
Crook stated: “From this time, while I remained with Mrs. Hopkins, I watched Searles’s movements and acquired a mental ascendancy over her, and when she accepted his point, he found an excuse to send- me”.
Edward used this modus operandi to isolate all of Mary’s relatives.
A new will (excluding Timothy and all his relatives) made by Mary on 18 July 1888 with Attorney Dodge was then examined. It was drafted in Methuen at Pine Lodge and witnessed by two estate workers: Charles M. Thornton, a landscaper from Lawrence, and William O. Norris, a carpenter from Methuen.
When Thornton and Norris were called to the stand, Attorney Burley asked them to read portions of the will and interpret the contents. Both men could not read or write beyond their own names, nor could they understand what was in the will.
Despite the damaging testimonies, Maria’s will was left as it is. On October 24, 1891, Judge Harmon announced his decision: Edward Francis Searles was Mary’s sole heir.
Edward settled with a few contestants, including Timothy, who received $3.2 million in stock, cash and land.
More scandal came for Edward in September 1892 when he was sued in Suffolk County by Lowell Mason Maxham.
Maxham’s lawyer, MW Buck, applied for non-payment for services performed by his client for Edward as he fought to keep his inheritance from Mary.
Edward recruited Maxham to keep certain witnesses out of the area during the trial hearings. Buck gave an invoice to the press detailing the expenses.
One of the names revealed on the bill was George Williams, also known as George Wilson or Dearborne. It was noted that the Salem courts attempted to contact this witness but were unable to locate him
Edward’s motive for preventing witnesses from testifying was never revealed, but it can only be assumed that it would have hindered his chances of victory.
Many of the materials from the trial are in the Stanford University archives in the Timothy Hopkins Papers and Martina Flinton’s “The Searles Saga.”
Melissa Davenport Berry is a historical and genealogical researcher and writer. She is a blogger for the Newsbank genealogy group and a researcher for the Heritage Collectors Society. His history columns will be published occasionally in The Eagle-Tribune.