On April 29, 1887, while Aimée and her mother were away to attend the wedding of cousin Hattie Crocker and Charles Alexander, husband Porter Ashe arrived in Los Angeles from San Francisco with his brother Sydney. They went to the Crocker mansion on Olive Street, where Ashe read to Mrs. Bender, a relative caring for their baby, Gladys (aka Alma) in Aimée’s absence, what purported to be a message from his wife authorizing him to take the child. Mrs. Bender, suspecting something was wrong, did not surrender the child and instead consulted J.A. Graves, a well-known attorney, who sent Detective Emil Harris to investigate.
Later when Mrs. Bender and little Gladys were at Wollweber’s drug store, at the corner of Third and Fort Streets, Ashe and his brother appeared on the scene, took Gladys forcibly–but not violently–from Mrs. Bender. Gladys would be held until satisfactory negotiations were carried out. The Los Angeles Times reported that Ashe gave his brother orders to shoot the first person who attempted to take the little girl. Ashe was himself arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Those charges were later dismissed.
Margaret Crocker chartered a special train from San Francisco to Los Angeles with her frazzled daughter. When Aimée heard of the threats, the first thing that she said was, “If there is to be any shooting, I propose to take a hand in it myself.”
A knock-down-drag-out custody battle ensued. Injunctions. Torts. High powered litigation of every kind. Charges and countercharges made daily headlines. Mr. Damron, counsel for Ashe, stated that the child should be left in the custody of the Sheriff until the petition could be heard. The hearing of the case before Judge Gardiner attracted a curious crowd numbering several hundred to the old courthouse.
“We have reason,” said he, “to believe they are trying to spirit the child away.” Henry T. Gage, counsel for Aimée, responded, “These parties have already made one attempt to spirit the child away themselves.” Rumors were floating around that Ashe had a steam launch waiting at Wilmington and was going to take the child to sea.
Gladys was left in the custody of the Sheriff at the Nadeau House where both parents could see her. As to the kidnapping charges, Ashe claimed through his attorneys that his authority for having her in his custody was that:
He is the father of the said child, Gladys Ashe, and has never been deprived of the custody, care or education of said child by any lawful authority… he found the child in the custody of said petitioner, who is an entire stranger in blood to said child. He denies that the mother of said child left him on account of his cruelty or despotic habits, or any fault on his part. He has no information that the mother of the child is about to bring suit for divorce, and he doubts the same… He denies that he threatened to take the child out of the State, and denies that the child is in delicate health and in constant need of a nurse.
Ashe averred that he was a fit and proper person to have the care of the child, was peculiarly able to support her, and charged that his wife was an unfit person, by reason of bad habits, to have care of the child. Aimée claimed her husband was attempting to gain leverage over her by imprisoning the child. One LA Times account said that an offer of $250,000 was made for the child, but was not heeded. Ashe’s attorneys were reported to have said that Ashe would not take one million dollars if a certified check for that amount was placed in his hands.
“No, sir,” Ashe said, “I am here for the purpose of getting my child and I will not leave Los Angeles without her. Why, if I should go back and leave her here now, they would say I had sold my own flesh and blood to Mrs. E.B. Crocker for a few paltry dollars. I can’t go without her.”
The attorneys for Ashe were busily engaged in gathering evidence in Los Angeles against Amy, including certain scandals such as “a cockfight at the St. Almo, a big time at the Opera House during the Carlton opera engagement, a time with whiskey at Levi’s.” These and many other nefarious stories were among their alleged artillery. Aimée had her own stories to tell. There were scenes at masquerade balls by the salty shores of Carquines straits. There was a scene in the greenroom of the California Theater, where pretty chorus girls in pretty tights thronged the stage. There were scenes in saloons in San Francisco…
The case was quietly settled on May 6, 1887. It was Porter who left the courthouse with the baby. In spite of Porter’s reputation as a San Francisco playboy and inveterate gambler, in spite of his kidnapping and weapons charges, in spite of the Crocker millions, the little girl’s mother would not be awarded custody. He won round one.
An arrangement was later reached that Porter would take the child to his mother in Merced for a few weeks, and then to Aimée’s mother for a few years. But Porter would be the baby’s rightful guardian. The Times guessed that the proceedings were so suddenly dropped upon the arrival of Ashe and his “not overfragrant witnesses” because Mrs. Crocker did not want the sensation and scandal that would undoubtedly have ensued if the case had gone on. They speculated that it was he that had the more damaging testimony. They also speculated that the arrangement was merely to throw the newspapers and the public off track. When little Gladys was sent to her grandmother’s “to stay for a year or two” it would be to stay for good.
The LA Times reporters were right. A decree of divorce was entered on June 11, 1887. Judge Armstrong said that testimony was taken but declined to state the grounds of the action. He further stated that the object of the quietness of the proceedings was, of course, to avoid scandal. The little girl was given eventually into the custody of her grandmother, Margaret, who later formally adopted her, possibly to avoid paying another ransom. Gladys was legally permitted to assume the name of Crocker. No judge would award custody to an unsettled Aimée or to the reckless Ashe. There were various rumors as to the amount of money that Porter obtained upon resigning all claim of the child to old Mrs. Crocker. Friends of Aimée said he didn’t receive a penny, but the sum usually named was $50,000.
In the late 19th century, women had limited access to divorce. While the husband only had to prove his wife’s adultery to dissolve a marriage, a woman had to prove her husband had not only committed adultery but also incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion. Legally, married women in the 1880s had rights similar to the rights of children. The law regarded a married couple as one person. The husband was responsible for his wife and bound by law to protect her. She, in turn, was expected to obey him. The personal property the wife brought into the marriage was then owned by the husband, often even in cases of a divorce. The income of the wife belonged completely to her husband and the custody of children belonged to the father as well. The husband was able to refuse any contact between the mother and her children. Very few women at that time were fortunate enough to be wealthy enough to hold things in their names, and those that did, like Aimée Crocker, still had to have the court appoint her a personal agent to handle her affairs. To purchase, sell, or for any contractual needs, a woman had to confer with her agent first. Cousin Charles Frances Dillman at the banking house of D.O. Mills & Co represented both sister Jennie’s and Aimée’s extensive business interests in California.
The custody laws were beginning to change. Judges were torn between applying common law rights of the father and the more modern rule of the best interest of the child. This tendency of courts to award infants, young children, and girls to their mothers, known as the “tender years” doctrine, was just starting to become a trend. The almost universal exception to the growing rule of awarding children of tender years to their mother occurred when the mother was considered unfit. The very high moral standards attributed to mothers in the 19th century allowed judges to view them more positively in custody disputes, but it also meant that judges turned harshly against them when they strayed from these conventional standards. In the end, if it wasn’t for the intervention of Crocker cash, the lively and entertaining but “morally suspect” Aimée would have lost her daughter.