In 1921, coroners had Edward Searles body exhumed months after his death. Their conclusion, after examination, was that he had not been poisoned with arsenic as they had suspected. He died of natural causes. And when they planted him back in his Methuen, Mass. tomb they laid to rest a man who had controlled one of America’s greatest fortunes.
Edward Searles didn’t earn his fortune in the typical sense. He married into it. But in another sense he did earn it, because marrying a wealthy widow was the easy part of getting rich for Edward Searles. Keeping his wealth would prove far more difficult.
Over the years, Edward Searles (known by his middle name Frank) had many occupations. The way they were characterized varied depending on who was describing him. People who liked him called him interior decorator, architect, financier. His enemies – and there were many – called him a bric-a-brac salesman or a paper-hanger.
Edward’s first job was as a mill hand in a Methuen cotton mill. Searles’ family had moved to Methuen from Nashua, N.H. so that his father could get a job in the Methuen mill. His father and two of his siblings died when he was just three-years-old, reducing the family to just Edward, his brother Andy and their mother.
Edward was given piano lessons, but little formal education. At age 12 he began working in the mills. As a young man, he went to Gardner, Maine and taught music to support the family. When his brother returned from serving in the Civil War and stole Edward’s fiancé, Edward departed Methuen for Boston to work for the furniture company Paul & Co.
When the furniture company went bust, Edward took his accumulated savings and traveled to Europe to study the palaces. In 1874, at the age of 33, he moved on to New York and went to work at Herter Bros., an upscale interior design firm. Herter Bros. was best known as the design firm preferred by the Vanderbilt family.
Searles’ had an eye for furniture and a polished and pleasant manner that went down well among the company’s wealthy client base. In 1881, at age 40, Searles went to San Francisco. His health had weakened him and he needed time away, he would say. Armed with a letter of introduction from Herter Bros., Searles began introducing himself to the California elite.
In April of 1883 he approached the home of Mark Hopkins, a multi-millionaire who had died in 1878. Searles said he hoped to get a look at Hopkins’ famous castle on Nob Hill. The visit led to a dinner invitation. Soon he was approached by Hopkins’ widow Mary. She asked if he would accompany her on a trip back to Massachusetts. She was travelling east to tend to family affairs in Great Barrington, Mass. Searles agreed to go.
There he and Mary developed plans to build a mansion. He became her companion for three years, traveling with her to New York, Block Island, Florida and Europe. Their relationship gradually morphed from patron/interior designer to husband/wife in 1887.
Edward would finish work on Mary’s Great Barrington mansion and build another on Block Island. They had an apartment in New York. All the while, he continued expanding his childhood home in Methuen into an enormous estate, Pine Lodge. When he needed money, Edward would simply send a request to San Francisco and the funds would be sent.
In San Francisco the Hopkins fortune was being managed by Timothy Hopkins, Mary’s son. Mary and Mark Hopkins never had biological children. But they had taken in Timothy Hopkins (Nolan) when he arrived in California from Maine. Timothy’s father had gone to California to work for Hopkins, and he sent word for his family to come join him. By the time the family arrived, however, Timothy’s father had drowned. The Hopkins looked after the family. Shortly before he turned 21, Mary had adopted Timothy.
By 1887, Timothy had trained in business and was managing the Hopkins fortune. Timothy did not like Edward, but having the continent between the two men seemed like a big enough buffer. In 1891, however, things would change. That was the year Mary Hopkins died and Timothy would learn that his mother had changed her will.
While an earlier will left the Hopkins fortune to both Timothy and Edward, a codicil added to the will declared that Mary was purposefully disinheriting Timothy, leaving most of her money to Edward. The news that the Hopkins fortune, estimated at $30 million, was heading east rattled California society. And Timothy vowed to overturn the will.
Mark Hopkins and His Millions
The money at issue was earned by Mark Hopkins. Mark Hopkins made millions of dollars from the California Gold Rush. However, he never lifted a pick or shovel to do so. Hopkins went west from New York with the 49ers gold craze and sold shovels, picks, clothing and mining equipment to the prospectors who were eager to get into the hills.
Many thought Hopkins a poor businessman. He offered easy terms for his wares, sometimes taking no money and letting miners work on credit for years. From many of his customers he took payment in the form of shares of their eventual claims, many of which proved valueless. While some men searched the California wilderness for gold themselves, Mark Hopkins had a small army of men searching for gold for him. When they struck it rich, he and his New England Mining and Trading Company did too.
Thrifty and level-headed, Hopkins parlayed his gold fortune into a railroad fortune when he joined with three other men – Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Corliss Huntington – in founding the Central Pacific Railroad.
In 1854, Hopkins married Mary Sherwood, his first cousin. She eventually persuaded him to build a lavish mansion on Nob Hill in San Francisco and have the interior designed by New York’s Herter Brothers.
Mary’s death and the terms of her will rocked society from coast to coast. She was one of the wealthiest widows in America and her son Timothy had a lot to lose. The ensuing lawsuit was nasty.
Edward said that Mary had changed the will because she learned that her son Timothy had hired private detectives to investigate Edward’s personal life and follow him around.
Timothy countered that it was his mother who hired the detectives. She had grown suspicious of her husband’s affairs.
In a grueling trial, Timothy’s lawyers painted Edward as a gold digger of a different sort than the men who worked for Mark Hopkins. And Edward admitted on the stand that his marriage to Mary had been prompted by romance, but also her money.
Edward was painted as indulging a dotty, older woman to get at her fortune. They noted that he encouraged her spiritualist beliefs and attended several séances that she held in her Nob Hill mansion.
Edward’s lawyers countered that Timothy had received an education, considerable money, a Menlo Park mansion, and a high-level job at the Union Pacific Railroad thanks to his relationship with the Hopkins. His mother Mary felt he didn’t need any more from her estate.
But both sides seemed to dance around some issues. The judge ruled in favor of Edward, but noted in his ruling that the parties were holding back secrets. “This decision of mine is not at all on the merits of the case. Why we have had only about of the third of the evidence put in, and the most important witnesses have not been examined,” he wrote.
Whatever the detectives had found, Timothy was apparently holding back as a bargaining chip to be used as he appealed the judgment. Within a year the fight was settled. Timothy received money, stocks and land valued at more than $3.2 million. Edward received a promise that Timothy was done challenging the will. The Nob Hill was mansion was split, in a manner of speaking. Timothy received the contents. The building was donated to an art school.
Edward Searles, Recluse
Following the trial, Edward Searles went on an 18-month traveling binge. In Methuen, he continued buying land around his childhood home, creating a mammoth estate. He furnished it opulently. Searles had his genealogy researched in hopes of finding a connection to British royalty. (None was found.)
He used his money to persuade the town to let him close streets to expand his property, and he fought the construction of a trolley that he felt was too near his home. The local newspaper dubbed him “Millionaire Searles” in reporting on his activities. But it did not deter him from expanding his estate or buying houses, demolishing them and replacing them with parks.
Most viewed him as a generous, if eccentric, benefactor. He built the town a high school and a music hall. He bought the town newspaper to counteract his critics and staffed it with a friendly editor. And he financed businesses throughout town.
Searles bought an organ factory and began donating organs to local churches, but under the condition that he be allowed to ornately redecorate the church interiors to keep his decorating skills at work. Further, he set about commissioning new church buildings as gifts.
He did not limit himself to churches, either. Searles would travel the countryside in nearby New Hampshire. If a farm or rural setting struck his fancy, he would buy it and alter the scenery to his liking. He came to own hundreds of acres of land in southern New Hampshire this way. He would buy a farm, remodel it to resemble an English country house and then rent it or sell it.
By 1905, Searles fixated on one final obsession. He wanted a proper castle. Searles had purchased 1400 acres of land in Windham, N.H. His plans called for a one-quarter size replica of the Stanton-Harcourt Castle in Oxfordshire, England, complete with battlements. His masterpiece, dubbed Searles Castle, was finished in 1915.
Five years later, at the age of 79, Searles would die in Methuen at his beloved Pine Lodge mansion. And his death touched off one final scandal. In his will, Edward Searles left $250,000 to his nephew Victor Albert Searles. But the will contained a threat. Should Victor challenge any portion of the will, he would be disinherited.
The bulk of Edward Searles’ fortune – some $35 million – was left to his personal secretary, Arthur Walker. The will was drafted and signed just 14 days before Edward Searles died.
Edward Searles’ Second Trial
Victor Searles determined to challenge his uncle’s will. He announced that his uncle’s behavior was so unusual and unorthodox that he would prove that his mind was unsound. Aside from his penchant for buying buildings and moving them willy-nilly, Victor Searles promised to unearth a hidden side of his uncle.
Homosexuality was a crime in 1921 throughout America. It was considered a mental illness, and if Victor Searles created a compelling case that his uncle was a homosexual he could use that to challenge the will.
Victor lacked the money to pursue the lawsuit on his own, but he found an ally. Mark Hopkins’ old partner Leland Stanford came to his aid to bankroll the lawsuit. Stanford was quiet about why he joined in the fight, whether it had to do with the railroad stock that was included in the estate or his old friend Hopkins. Some even whispered that Mark Hopkins had been murdered for his money.
Victor’s first court filings hinted at the mud he was preparing to sling: “Edward F. Searles at the time the will was being executed was . . . in the charge of three New York nurses, none of whom can now be found. His intimate friends were excluded from the Searles home within two days of the making of this instrument on the grounds that he was too ill to see anybody.
“Mr. Searles was a recluse. He was especially shy with women and was what might be called a woman hater. He spoke disrespectfully of women, not wanting them to be around him at all. “
Walker, they charged, had cooked up the will to steal Searles’ money. Searles’ body was exhumed and tested to determine if Walker had poisoned him. And Victor’s lawyers unearthed Angelo Ellison.
Ellison was a young elevator operator who had accepted Edward Searles’ offer to become his companion. Searles had showered clothes and gifts on Ellison and even tried to influence the military to keep the boy out of World War I. He was hiding in the Catskills when Victor’s lawyers found him, giving ammunition for Victor’s lawsuit.
Walker settled the suit and gave Victor $4.5 million rather than drag the matter through the court. He came out of it a millionaire many times over, though he never altered his modest lifestyle.
What Remains Today
Today, some of Edward Searles creations are still standing. His mansion in Methuen was torn down in 1930, but his Windham, N.H., Searle’s Castle is operating as an events facility. His Great Barrington mansion is a private school. The Searles High School in Methuen is now municipal offices. And at Bowdoin College, Searles Science Building still serves students today.