By Jim Holmes
Live Oak —
When Henry Flagler’s name is mentioned in Florida today, the tone used by historians is often almost reverent.
And with good reason.
After all, the so-called “Sunshine State” owes most of its 20th century success as a prime tourist destination to this one man’s early vision. In the late 1800s, most saw Florida as a sparsely populated peninsula…one step up from a sand bar, good for little more than raising blood thirsty mosquitoes.
Henry Flagler however, saw a potential paradise. And he spent millions and millions of dollars - earned as one of the founders of Standard Oil - to make his vision become a reality.
There is some irony however, in the icon status the Flagler name enjoys today. That’s because there was a time when he was despised in the state.
Rather than a historic visionary, he was considered by many as nothing more than a lecherous old man lusting for a woman young enough to be his daughter and willing to do anything, no matter how immoral, to possess her.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Henry Flagler may have been lucky in business. Unfortunately, he did not enjoy the same good fortune in his personal life.
His first wife died after a lengthy illness when he was in his early 50s. Two years later, Flagler took his second mate, 35-year-old Ida Alice Shourds, a fiery redhead with bright blue eyes.
By 1894, Flagler was deeply engrossed in his efforts to develop Florida, while on the home front, things were deteriorating rapidly.
Ida Alice had become mentally unhinged. She was so delusional she was institutionalized and eventually ruled by a New York Judge to be “terminally insane.”
This was Henry Flagler’s personal situation when several years later, at the age of 71, he met and fell in love with another young woman; 34-year-old Mary Lily Kenan.
A third marriage however, appeared to be out of the question. Under both New York and Florida law, Flagler did not have the legal grounds to divorce his institutionalized wife.
Changing the law in the Empire State was seen by Flagler and his attorneys as an impossibility. Florida? Well, that was a completely different situation. After all, Flagler virtually owned the state lock, stock and barrel. Documents discovered in the mid 20th century show that the cost for changing an inconvenient Florida law in 1901 was $125,000. That translates into about $2.5 million today. Under the measure adopted by the Florida Legislature and quickly signed into law by the governor, divorce was now legal if one of the married partners had been institutionalized for at least four years. Ida Alice’s unfortunate situation easily fit the bill. Ten days after the new law went into effect, Mary Lily Kenan became the third Mrs. Flagler. Florida’s clergy however was outraged! So were many others who shared the commonly held viewpoint in the early 1900s that divorce was a near mortal sin. In their eyes Flagler was little more than an agent of the devil, with deep enough pockets to buy anything and anyone he wanted. It wasn’t long before they made their objections known to their legislators in Tallahassee and just four years later, the law, seen my many as an obscenity, was repealed.
In its time on the law books, only one person, Henry Flagler, ever took advantage of it.
Jim lives in Live Oak.