from the upcoming bio Adventuress: The Life and Rambunctious Times of Aimée Crocker
by K.M.C. Taylor
Like Amy’s mother and sister Jennie, Cousin Hattie was described in print as a “womanly woman,” which meant that she possessed all of the fine and graceful attributes that constitute the truest of her sex. “Her whole life has been a compendium of good actions, done and accomplished for the sake and pleasure of doing good,” claimed one social commentator.
Harriet was swept into the very center of America’s social elite after tying the knot to Charles Beatty Alexander. Hattie, like Amy’s sister, married well. Charles was a lawyer from a lineage of Princeton theologians, preachers and writers. Both Hattie and Alexander were well traveled when they met. Charles went to Egypt and had a private audience with Egypt’s Muhammed Tewfik Pasha, sixth ruler from the Muhammed Ali Dynasty. Hattie went on an exotic yearlong trip around the world with Sir Sidney Hedley Waterlow, former Lord Mayor of London, and his young California bride Margaret Hamilton. They toured Japan and India among many other places. Miss Crocker met Mr. Alexander while on a visit in New York. The happy pair made up their minds quickly; they were engaged after a seven days’ acquaintance.
Charles Alexander was a director for numerous companies including The Equitable Life Insurance Company, Middletown & Unionville Railroad, The Hocking Valley Railroad and several banks. Hattie’s illustrious social career would include attending the coronation of Czar Nicholas II, being presented to King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace, supporting hospitals and war relief in New York, founding and supporting kindergarten schools and building Princeton’s commencement hall. Known for her lavish parties at her homes in Manhattan and Tuxedo Park, Hattie hosted the wedding reception of her husband’s niece Eleanor and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
The marriage of Hattie and Charles was the event of the year in San Francisco. The decorations of Grace Church were the most elaborate and costly ever seen in the city. A thousand yards of wreaths of evergreen, mountainous masses of lilies and roses and all other beautiful flowers of springtime, endless festoons of delicate smilax, and massive banks of emerald hued ferns adorned the church.
Mrs. Amy Crocker Ashe and Margaret “Lady Bountiful” Crocker were bridesmaids.
Margaret wore a purple costume of velvet and satin combined. It was made walking length and the bonnet was of the same materials, with white lace cascades and a cluster of white tips. Amy was attired in an ecru striped India silk, with graduate stripes of peacock blue trimmed with velvet of the same shade. It was made walking length and had a high-necked bodice. Knife plaitings (braids) were the principal garniture, with bows of velvet ribbons. Her bonnet was of velvet to match, with loops of white picot-edged ribbons.
Miss Tessie Fair (later Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs one of the elite “Triumvirate” of New York and Newport Society), wore a Redfern jacket of ivory-white cloth over a mouse-gray satin skirt. Her Gainsborough hat had a crown of black Chantilly lace over white, and the brim was faced with mouse-colored velvet.
In the billiard room of the house was displayed a glittering array of marriage presents Aladdin himself would have envied. Mrs. Leland Stanford gave a bracelet, necklace and earrings valued at $50,000. The value of Hattie’s presents in the “treasure room” were in the neighborhood of $800,000 (nearly 17 million today) .
Brother Will, who was in Lake Como at the time, sent a telegram. Her father Charles read a loving telegram from the teachers and children from Silver-Street school that gave testimony to the bride’s charitable heart. Cousin Colonel Charles Frederick Crocker, Hattie’s eldest brother, sadly lost his wife only weeks earlier during childbirth; it was the only cloud on the happiness of the wedding celebration. He was overcome with emotion. He wept like a child. His loving father, whose heart was rung with sympathy, could hardly control himself under the ordeal.
No social event had ever attracted so much attention on the West Coast. The San Francisco Examiner featured an unprecedented 22 different line drawings to illustrate its frontpage story about the wedding of Hattie.
The city was agog with springtime pageantry. Queen Kapiolani and the Princess Liliuokalini of the Sandwich Islands, also known as Hawaii, were in town that week. She was the first queen to visit the United States and San Francisco was buzzing. Kapiolani, escorted by J.D. Redding, attended the opening of the spring exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association and subsequently honored at the Bohemian Club. The whirlwind tour of the royal party also included tours of engine-houses by veteran Fire Chief David Scannell and the San Francisco Mint by Superintendent Lawton; an afternoon reception with government officials including Senator Stanford; an engagement of the “Cinderella” Company and Johnson’s Minstrels at Woodward’s Gardens; and a guest appearance at the Cosmos Club Ball. Between 400 and 500 guests accepted invitations to be present to meet the first queen to step foot in America including ex-Governor Downey and Porter Ashe (sans wife Amy).
The Cradle Will Rock
Amy left her 2-year-old toddler with cousin Wilson Bender and his wife Jennie, who lived at the Crocker home on Olive Street in Los Angeles. They were given particular injunctions to look after little Alma and keep her always in sight while her mamma and grandma were absent.
On April 29, 1887, while Amy and her mother were away to attend the grand wedding, Porter Ashe arrived in Los Angeles from San Francisco with his brother Sydney. They went to the Crocker mansion, where Ashe read to Mrs. Bender what purported to be a message from his wife authorizing him to take the child. Mrs. Bender, suspecting something wrong, did not surrender the child and instead consulted J.A. Graves, a well-known attorney, who sent Detective Emil Harris to protect the child and her nurse called Marie, but whose real name was Bridget Ryan.
Later when Mrs. Bender, Alma and her nurse were at Wollweber’s drug store, at the corner of Third and Fort Streets, Ashe and his brother suddenly appeared, then took Alma from the arms of Jennie Bender. Her screams instigated a combative detective Harris to quickly arrive on the scene. Ashe pulled out a pistol and shouted, “This is my child and I have a right to it. If you interfere I will blow your brains out.”
Ashe then placed the baby and the nurse in his carriage and told Harris that he was going to his attorneys, Bicknell and White. Harris went with them and soon learned that Ashe was in fact the baby’s lawful father. Porter then left the attorney’s office with the baby and nurse. Harris’s men followed. Ashe tried to lose them. A chase ensued. Porter took his daughter and Nurse Marie, aka Bridget, to the St. Elmo Hotel.
Mrs. Bender went at once to her lawyers, Graves and O’Melveny, and swore out a writ of habeas corpus for Judge Hutton claiming that Porter was not a fit custodian of the child and feared that he was going to take the child out of the state. Ashe and his brother were taken in for questioning. Deputy Sheriff Bucham served the writ. While Mr. R. Porter Ashe was at the police station, he was served with a warrant charging him with carrying concealed weapons. A similar warrant was also issued against his brother Sidney Ashe. Those charges were later dismissed. All the parties were brought before Judge Hutton. Detective Harris claimed that if it had not been for his men, who chased the Ashe carriage into Washington Gardens, they would have succeeded in making away with the child.
Ashe was required to file a bond of $10,000.
The End of the Marriage
After the baby was born, after several attempts at making a go of it, Amy grew weary of her groom. A vast amount of rumor had it that Ashe began dipping too freely into his wife’s fortune. He plunged into a score of speculations, none of which proved successful. He spent a small fortune on his racing studs. In November of 1885, Ashe bet an exorbitant $5,000 that his colt Alta would beat rival E.J. Baldwin’s horse Volante. In May of 1886 he took his horses on a tour back East to race at Louisville, St. Louis and Saratoga. Ashe also became the patron of prizefighters, and began to dance attendance upon the latest favorite of the ballet or the comic opera. He was linked romantically to superstar actress Lillie Langtry both before after after the marriage crumbled. Amy was herself seen everywhere at fashionable entertainments, not with her husband, but with some young cavalier.
It had long been an open secret that marital relations had ceased. Divorce papers were actually drawn up by Amy’s counsel a year earlier. Scandal was at that time avoided by a compromise. Mr. Ashe was given an allowance on condition that Amy be allowed custody of her child. The fine house on Van Ness Avenue was rented, furnished, to the Parrots and Mrs. Ashe went to live with her mother in Los Angeles. Young Ashe was a lawyer’s clerk in Sacramento at $75 a month when he eloped with Miss Amy Crocker. It was reported that Ashe had no money except what he could borrow from friends.
When Amy 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.” An almost crazed Amy consulted with Colonel C.F. Crocker, cousin and Vice-President of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the result was an order for a special train to carry herself and a legal force to the South. Shortly before 7 o’clock the special left Oakland Mole, the engineer having instructions to run at lightning speed. Every train on the road, north and south bound, had been ordered to make way for the special, which came the entire distance at the rate of forty-seven miles an hour.
“Yes,” the Colonel said, “we were informed of the affair by Mrs. Ashe today, and at once placed a special train at her disposal. The lady was possessed of very meager information, her dispatch being brief. They were enough however to satisfy us that Mr. Ashe had taken possession of the child in a forcible manner. It was a complete surprise to everyone. When they separated it was understood that Mrs. Ashe was to retain possession of her child and be allowed to pursue her own path without interference from her husband.”
“The little one is barely 2 years of age and the demand for her return in court will be based on the ground that she cannot be taken from her mother without suffering… They have not been separated for the period required by law. I first heard of their troubles some months since, but hardly thought they would result in this. I think that Mrs. Ashe will certainly recover possession of her child.”
A knock-down-drag-out custody battle ensued. Injunctions. Torts. High powered litigation of every kind. Charges and counter charges made daily headlines. The attorneys for Mr. Ashe were R.F. Del Valle, J.B. De las Casas, D.S. Terry, Shaw and Damron. The attorneys for Mrs. Ashe were Graves & O’Melveny, A. Brunson, Thos. B. Bishop and J.O’B. Gunn (who married her sister Kate before she died). Mr. Graves was the lead attorney.
Each accused the other of trying the “spirit the child away.” Rumors were floating around that Ashe had a steam launch waiting at Wilmington and was going to take the child to sea. The court decided that the child should left in the custody of the Sheriff until the petition was disposed of, and it was so ordered. Lawyers for Mrs. Ashe reported that she and her husband had been living separate for the past six months, and she asked that she might have the custody of the child. The hearing of the case before Judge Gardiner attracted a curious crowd numbering several hundred to the old courthouse.
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, Alma 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.
The answer to Mrs. Ashe’s petition continued:
Mr. Ashe denies that said Amy Ashe has been living separate or apart from this respondent for more than six months last past, or at all. Ever since said child was born she has been exclusively under the care, control and custody of a nurse hired by the respondent for that purpose, and said Amy C. Ashe has been during almost all of said time in delicate health and absent from said child. Mrs. Ashe has been in the habit of using intoxicating liquors, and therefore is unfit to have the custody of the child.
Amy claimed her husband was attempting to gain leverage over her by imprisoning the child. One LA Times account of the family drama 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 confirmed, “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 story and its flamboyant cast of characters swept the nation. The New York Times and The New York Tribune covering the kidnapping story referred to Ashe as a wealthy and well-known turfman. The Chicago Tribune characterized Amy as “festive” and Ashe “decidedly fast.”
Ashe was advised by Damron and Shaw, of his attorneys, that the only way in which he could hope to recover the child was by showing its mother an unfit person. They urged young Porter to “throw mud.”
The attorneys for Ashe 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.
Amy’s attorney hired detectives to shadow her husband Porter. His attorney Mr. Del Valle commented, “I, as his counsel, would never have advised him to such a course. Nevertheless, hired spies, ashamed to show their faces like honest men, but kept their hats pulled down over their eyes, tracked him from place to place. On the street, in the hotel, at his meals, and even in his sleep he was subjected to being kept under surveillance.”
On May 4th Ashe returned to Los Angeles with his brother William, Judge David Smith Terry and three or four witnesses.
Judge Terry stood as a kind of father to the Ashe boys since the death of their father, Dr. Ashe. The formidable Judge Terry was the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California, and an author of the Constitution of 1879. He famously won a duel with U.S. Senator David C. Broderick.
The day of the trial Del Valle kept his partners rushing back and forth to the courthouse, and every time he pranced across the street fresh rumors took wing and flew over the city like lightning. Judge Terry informed Mr. Bishop, counsel for Mrs. Ashe, that he was there for the purpose of giving the child to its father. “There is only one thing I regret,” said the Judge, “and that is, Mr. Bishop [pointing his finger at that gentleman], that Porter did not beat the brains out of some of the detectives employed by (her brother-in-law) Gunn when he attempted to take his child away from him.”
Amy 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…
A Chronicle correspondent met a “near relative” who in reply to a question about Mrs. Ashe getting drunk, said, “it is not so. If it was it would be his own fault. Ever since they were married he never could get wine good enough for himself. He has searched the sellers of Europe and always complained that he could not get good champagne. Whenever he was at home he would have half a dozen bottles floating in ice water all the time for his own uses. Every time he drank anything he would insist on his wife drinking with him. She may on such occasions have drunk a little too much but ordinarily she doesn’t does not drink more than any society woman.”
“How about the charges of immorality?”
“They are malicious lies. Amy has always been gay and likes a jolly time, but no one ever saw her indiscreet. Such stories are always told about prominent society women.”
“Is she afraid of the evidence Ashe claims to have obtained in Sacramento?”
“No. You can state that she fears nothing that he can get said about her. Naturally she finds a perspective notoriety very painful and has been made sick by it, but she will refute all charges of immorality or drunkenness brought against her and retained possession of the child.”
The country wondered whether the child would be given to an unsettled Amy or to the reckless Ashe.
Graves, of counsel from Mrs. Ashe, admitted that his side was willing to make a monetary compromise, but felt that the offer should come from the other side…
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. Amy’s team of lawyers in fact dismissed all charges against Porter.
Young Charles Dillman, a nephew from Sacramento, sat next to Mrs. Crocker in the courtroom and kept up a whispered conversation with her until the judge cleared his throat in a solemn way and prepared for business.
Mr. Bishop, one of Amy’s team of attorneys solemnly rose to his feet and said, “Your honor, in this matter, a misunderstanding arose as to the substitution of Mrs. Ashe for Mrs. Jennie Bender. We only had a few minutes in which to prepare our answer and Mrs. Ashe did not intend to bring any charges against Mr. Ashe. We move to dismiss all proceedings.”
Senator Del Valle: “And the child, Alma A. Ashe to go to its father.”
The Court: “Is that the understanding?”
Del Valle: “It is.”
The Court: “Very well. It is so ordered.”
Outside of court Ashe, told reporters that he was given custody and that the baby would be taken to Ashe’s mother’s home. His lawyers confirmed that Ashe would always be the rightful guardian.
“Oh she will be with me. I intend to take her to my mother’s at Merced where I will leave her for a while.”
“How about the report that you are to turn her over to Mrs. Crocker your mother-in-law in a few days?”
“Oh, I may do that, but I don’t know. I can do what I please. I’ve signed no papers and I don’t propose to.”
Ashe’s attorneys spoke to possible divorce proceedings, “I don’t think she’ll do such a thing, but if she does it will be opposed. Ashe does not propose to let her have a divorce if he can help it. The child will probably be put in Mrs. Crocker’s hands until she’s old enough to be with her father…He has not signed any papers whatever nor relinquished one iota of his right in the child. He will always be its rightful guardian. So you see he couldn’t have been bought off, for he has the baby.” Ashe’s lawyers signed a statement that was released to the press: “We deny that $50,000, or any other amount whatever, was or is to be paid Mr. Ashe, or that any monetary consideration entered into the disposition of the action at all.”
Mr. and Mrs. Porter Ashe did, however, sign an agreement conferring the care and custody of the child upon her grandmother Mrs. Margaret E. Crocker until the child should attained the age of 7 years, at which time either parent could apply for her custody if so disposed. Porter Ashe could visit the child anytime while she was with Mrs. Crocker.
Alma arrived in Sacramento to stay with Mrs. E.B. Crocker on June 10th. Amy was granted a divorce the next day. She was given permission to resume her maiden name. Margaret adopted the baby the previous week in an open court and Porter signed the necessary papers. Alma’s name was changed from Alma Amy Ashe to Gladys Crocker. How much money Porter got from Mother Crocker to reverse course, halt his mud-slinging, and sign over custody is anybody’s guess.
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 Amy 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 Jennie’s and Amy’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 conventional moral standards. The two transgressions that most frequently caused women to lose custody of their children were adultery and leaving their husbands without, in the opinion of the judge, just cause.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Ashe had damning cases against the other. Had Margaret not intervened, however, Gladys (aka Alma) would most likely have remained in Porter’s custody.