What is the bright side to a tragically lived life, with the last thirty years spent committed to an insane asylum, only to die without your true story every being told? Finding someone almost 100 years later to tell it! I realize it sounds a bit far fetched, but that is exactly what I plan to do.
The idea struck me during a tour of Flagler’s Whitehall Museum in Palm Beach. Whitehall was a wedding gift from Henry to his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan after his second wife, Ida Alice Shourds, was institutionalized in 1895. Gilded Age ‘buffs’ know that the reason that the Standard Oil magnate came to Florida in the first place was due to the poor respiratory health of his first wife, Mary Harkness. And that Whitehall was a gift to his young new bride Mary Lily Kenan. But little is known about his second wife Ida Alice, and her brief marriage to Henry between the two Marys.
The docent led us up the staircase of the Grand Hall to the second floor exhibits informing us “after the death of his beloved first wife, and having to put his second wife in a sanitorium, he finally found love again in Mary Lily… this is the Lace Room.” That was it - after the entire first floor dedicated to his first wife and family life, the second floor was going to be about his third wife, and wife # 2 was presented as an unfortunate setback between the two. I was immediately intrigued. I’m pretty sure I was googling information on my phone throughout the rest of the tour. I had to know more about this woman who served as a nursing aide for the first Mary, went quickly insane and was replaced by the next Mary shortly afterward.
I’ve been researching madly ever since and have developed several theories, none of which fit nicely into this commonly told narrative. She was an actress before she became the nurse of Mary Harkness Flagler. She traveled back and forth between New York and Florida with them caring for the ailing Mrs. Flagler. Two years after her death, Henry married Ida Alice and they moved to Florida where Henry embarked on his Eastcoast Railroad ambitions. During this time, Henry was very occupied with developing Florida as a summer retreat for his wealth friends and development in Florida consumed most of his time. In the meantime, Ida Alice, relatively new to her socioeconomic station, lived an extravagant and increasingly reckless lifestyle. She threw many parties, dabbled with the Ouija board and likely became addicted to drugs and alcohol, which were readily available to the wealthy socialite set in the day. Another thing that was common in the nineteenth century was committing women to asylums when they became difficult.
There must be more to these stories that go mostly untold. Perhaps I will break out a Ouija board and ask Alice to help me find the answers I’ve been unable to unearth so her story can be told completely. I’ll ask Alice. I think she’ll know.