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In 1923 it became widespread public knowledge W. E. D. Stokes had been trying to prove his wife was a prostitute at a notorious Chicago club prior to moving to New York City in 1910. In the meantime, the alimony question was addressed in preparation for the second divorce trial.

On February 17, Supreme Court Justice Charles S. Guy increased Mrs. Stokes’ alimony to $2,500 a month and awarded a lump sum to cover legal expenses. Said the judge, “The proof fully establishes that plaintiff is a man of large means and that he has prosecuted this action with utter recklessness in the multiplicity of charges made against the defendant which were found to be without any foundation of fact."

In August, Helen Ellwood Stokes filed suit for $1,000,000 damages against her stepson, William Earl Dodge Stokes Jr., who graduated from Chicago University in 1922 and went to work at the law firm of Fisher, Boyden, Kales & Bell.

“Certain accusations were made against me by young Mr. Stokes,” she said. “They are baseless, profoundly untrue, and both my husband and his son are best aware of the fact.

"I have communicated with the young man and I have given him full opportunity to confess that his statements against me were not true. I had no desire to disgrace Stokes Jr. and for that reason I gave him the opportunity of publicly repudiating his misstatements.

"I have relentlessly traced every person who had anything to do with the baseless accusations made against me, and I am now after the last one of them. I am tired of courts, of this bitter struggle with my husband and his friends.”

In this instance Mrs. Stokes was behaving like her husband, filing a lawsuit that would go nowhere.

IN OCTOBER, as the second Stokes vs. Stokes divorce case began, Max D. Steuer, new chief counsel for W. E. D. Stokes, produced what the press called his "star witness": Mrs. Emma E. Goodwin, a corset manufacturer with a shop at 13 East 35th Street, where Edgar T. Wallace, alleged corespondent, had his apartment.

Like almost every witness called to testify against the former Helen Ellwood, Mrs. Goodwin did more harm than good for W. E. D. Stokes.

Mrs. Goodwin identified Mrs. Stokes as the woman she frequently saw going up and down the stairway leading to Wallace's apartment. She said it was "either Mrs. Stokes or her double." This was an unfortunate choice of words.

The theory that witnesses had mistaken another woman for Mrs. Helen Ellwood Stokes had been floated by her previous defense lawyer. Stokes' lawyers considered the idea ridiculous, but testimony this time around would indicate some witnesses indeed had mistakenly identified Mrs. Stokes, confusing her with at least one, perhaps two other women. She had that kind of face.

Before the trial ended, these two "doubles" would be identified, and one of them, Mrs. Margaret Pell, would appear in court on behalf of Mrs. Stokes.

LINGERING over Stokes throughout this divorce proceeding, as it had two years earlier, was the suspicion he had paid witnesses to lie on his behalf.

Even those who probably weren't receiving money from Stokes handled themselves poorly on the stand. On October 10, Mrs. Stokes' former chauffeur, Albert E. Henshaw, claimed he had improper relations with her.

Mrs. Stokes leaped to her feet and screamed, "You're a liar!", after which, under cross-examination, Henshaw explained he did not have sex with her. What he meant by "improper relations," he said, was she offered to pay him to uncover evidence against her husband. Mrs. Stokes interrupted, once more calling him a liar.

TO ME, the strangest detour this second trial took had to do with something that allegedly happened in 1904, seven years before Helen Ellwood married W. E. D. Stokes. She was 17 years old at the time. Stokes' lawyer attempted to prove she had visited Edgar T. Wallace in Bunceton, Missouri, as though this would indicate she and Wallace must have done something inappropriate at that time, and, apparently, to make the jury think this relationship continued after she was married to Stokes.

This was the most blatant example of the peculiar double standard that guided the thinking of W. E. D. Stokes, who not only had sexual relations with women between and during marriages, but did so after insisting they sign statements that they had been with other men. He felt this would protect him from claims that he alone could be responsible if any of these women became pregnant.

The Bunceton episode was treated as comic relief by reporters who covered the trial. It also provided free trips to New York City for a few Missouri residents.

There was a three-day recess in the trial to allow Mrs. Stokes to visit Missouri. She returned with depositions refuting testimony of two witnesses for Mr. Stokes that she had been in Bunceton, Mo., in 1904. One document alleged Mr. Stokes offered Bunceton grocer Hayden Moore $1,000 to testify against the defendant.

Mrs. Stokes also charged that a dictograph was found in her hotel suite by W. C. Dannenberg, a Chicago investigator.

While it might not have been true that Mrs. Stokes' hotel suite was being "bugged" by the use of a dictograph, it was just the kind of thing many people believed her husband might try.

A FEW DAYS later Edgar T. Wallace stoutly defended the honor of Mrs. Stokes, but denied he had ever had any affection for her. He contradicted every bit of evidence given by witnesses for W. E. D. Stokes. He said he didn't meet Helen Ellwood and her mother and sister, Beatrice, until 1906, in California.

As the trial neared its end, Max D. Steuer, counsel for W. E. D. Stokes, harped on two things that today most likely would be ruled irrelevant in a divorce case. One was the rather pointless allegation Mrs. Helen Ellwood Stokes had visited Bunceton in 1904.

The other Steuer obsession involved photos his client had stolen from his wife a few years earlier. Almost all of the photos entered as exhibits were taken of Helen Ellwood before she married Stokes.

Steuer was asking jurors to judge Mrs. Stokes against a puritanical standard that might get her shunned in some religious colonies, but should have no standing in a court of law. However, Justice Mahoney's rulings on this matter eventually worked to the advantage of Mrs. Stokes, whose explanations of the photos, some of which were taken at a public beach, some involved student high jinks, proved more believable than attorney Steuer's implications.

She said her relations with Edgar T. Wallace were nothing more than platonic. She said she never heard of Bunceton, Missouri, until this trial, which finally ended on November 9.

Here's how the United Press reported the verdict:

NEW YORK, Nov. 10 – The divorce suit of W. E. D. Stokes against his wife, Helen Ellwood Stokes, having been decided in favor of Mrs. Stokes, the latter will begin action immediately in a countersuit for separation. The action is on the calendar for next Monday and will determine the financial status between her and Stokes.

Since Justice Finch gave a verdict in her behalf at the first trial two years ago, but which was never made final on account of a technical error, Mrs. Stokes has been receiving $18,000 a year from her husband. The litigation, it is said, has cost thus far more than $1,000,000.

The verdict in favor of Mrs. Stokes was returned by a jury in Justice Mahoney’s court late yesterday afternoon. The finding of the jury related to only one charge which named Edgar T. Wallace as corespondent. The other 15 corespondents were eliminated from the action on agreement before the trial and on these charges the jury was instructed to vote “No” when charged by the presiding justice. The jury was out only one hour and eight minutes.

Four days later W. E. D. Stokes seemingly gave up without a fight against his wife's separation suit. Isidor Gainsburg, counsel for Stokes, announced his client had refused to contest the action on the ground it was for the best interests of the court and he was tired of having his affairs paraded before the public in the press.

But W. E. D. Stokes made one last, desperate, solo effort to win his case – call it a "Hail, Mary" if you will – but came up empty:

NEW YORK – (United Press) – W. E. D. Stokes appeared in person at the Hudson County Court House, Jersey City, to obtain the official record of his marriage to Helen Ellwood, Feb. 11, 1911.

Stokes refused to answer questions as to his motive for looking up details of the marriage, but from the nature of his search court officials inferred he was contemplating an attack on the validity of the ceremony.

At the request of the aged millionaire, who lost a suit for divorce from his wife last week and now is defendant in her counter suit for separation, officials of the county board of health looked up the records of the law as to witnesses set forth in the marriage law.

Officials in New York expected Stokes’ investigation today might have a bearing on the hearing in his wife’s separation action, scheduled to be resumed in New York Monday.

At this point, while reading about the case, I half-expected Stokes would claim the wedding wasn't valid because the groom had lied about his age.

He did violate some incredible clause in the divorce agreement that ended his first marriage. Supposedly he wasn't allowed to re-marry. Ever. Although it's possible, I suppose, that restriction applied only to New York State, which might be why he insisted his second marriage take place in New Jersey.

A week later it was announced agreement had been reached. A trust fund of $500,000 was awarded to Mrs. Stokes and her two children, who remained in her custody. Mr. Stokes was granted the privilege of visiting them at any time, with reasonable arrangements.

In addition, she was granted a legal separation from him and his promise not to appeal the divorce decision. Lawyers estimated the long litigation cost Mr. Stokes not less than $2,000,000, which was twice as much as the press had speculated a few days earlier.

I didn't see it spelled out, but the latest ruling on her alimony — $2,500 a month — meant she would be receiving $30,000 a year, instead of $18,000.

And in another example of the craziness of this domestic war, Mrs. Stokes agreed once again to release all claim on her dower rights in the Stokes fortune.

At this point Mrs. Helen Ellwood Stokes may have believed her children, at least, would be included in their father's will. If so, she was in for a surprise.

1924: We knew this was coming
On January 12 the New York Evening Post reported that a judgment for $15,155 obtained by attorney Max D. Steuer against W. E. D. Stokes was paid the day before. Stokes gave the lawyer three checks for $5,000 for representing him in his divorce case. These were drawn on November 17; payment was refused on November 26. I guess that means Stokes had to write a new check to cover the slightly increased total of the bill.

Three months later Daniel F. Nugent and his brother, John A. Nugent, also counsel to W. E. D. Stokes in his recent legal battles with his wife, filed suit for $61,000 fees they claimed were due them. They excoriated the aged millionaire hotel man bitterly in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

1925: Finally, a victory for W. E. D. Stokes
Mrs. Stokes, in proving her husband had tried without cause to prove she had been a Chicago prostitute, attracted the attention of Illinois authorities who decided to prosecute W. E. D. Stokes, for conspiracy to defame his wife. Mrs. Stokes, weary of courtroom wrangling, wanted the case dropped, but Illinois officials proceeded. They should listened to her.

Schenectady Gazette, March 14, 1925
CHICAGO – W. E. D. Stokes was acquitted today of conspiracy to defame Mrs. Helen Ellwood Stokes. The jury returned a verdict for the 73-year-old defendant after deliberating one hour and five minutes.

Stokes was highly elated. His face was wreathed in smiles as he thanks the jurors and posed with them for photographers.

Milton D. Smith, assistant state’s attorney, had no comment, except to say, "I am surprised." Smith led the long fight to send Stokes to the penitentiary for illegally trying to prove his wife once was prostitute at the notorious Everleigh Club which until 13 years ago flourished in Chicago.

One of the interesting sidelights of the Chicago trial was the appearance of former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, a local resident, testified — not convincingly, obviously — that two people referred to as agents for W. E. D. Stokes had asked him to swear he knew Mrs. Stokes from her days at a notorious Windy City nightclub. He admitted he had never met the woman and hadn't seen her until the trial. That part of his testimony was believable.

 

A YEAR LATER W. E. D. Stokes was dead, but the legal battle continued, which undoubtedly would have pleased him.

Not pleased were Helen Ellwood Stokes and her two children, Muriel and James. (Spelling of her maiden name was always uncertain, it's back to Ellwood in the story below, and I believe that's how it appears most of the time in family trees that can be viewed online.)

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 26, 1926
The will of W. E. D. Stokes, banker, filed with the Manhattan surrogate this morning leaves his entire estate, estimated at $7,000,000, to his son, W. E. D. Stokes Jr.

Albert H. Gleason is named as executor. The will was signed October 17, 1924. No mention is made of the other two children by his wife, Helen Ellwood Stokes, nor of his wife.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 27, 1926
A move is under way to contest the will of W. E. D. Stokes, under which an estate estimated to be as high as $10,000,000 is left to W. E. D. Stokes Jr., a son by a former wife. The widow of Mr. Stokes, Mrs. Helen Ellwood Stokes, and their two children were not mentioned in the will.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 28, 1926
The value of the estate of W. E. D. Stokes was set between eight and ten million dollars in a statement today by Samuel Untermyer, attorney for Mrs. Helen Ellwood Stokes and her two children, who were not mentioned in a will that left the Stokes estate to his son W. E. D. Stokes Jr., according to the Associated Press.

A. H. Gleason, attorney for W. E. D. Stokes Jr., claims the estate is worth only $852,000.

"Mr. Gleason has fallen heir to the same old tricks and subterfuges practiced by his erratic client throughout his lifetime," Untermyer said. "The equity in the Ansonia Hotel alone is worth over $5,000,000. There were from 35 to 40 other valuable residential properties, besides which there were the famous Patchen Farm and millions in securities which, I suppose, it will be claimed were ‘given’ to Stokes Jr. This same ‘gift’ story was tried in the divorce suit, but it did not work.”

The case was settled out of court. The disinherited children were to receive $3,000,000 worth of property when they became of age. Mrs. Stokes received $156,500 for her services as guardian of the children under an order issued by Ben Lindsey as judge of the Juvenile Court.

As I read the next item, it seems A. H. Gleason's estimate of the worth of the W. E. D. Stokes estate, which seemed to some to be ridiculously low, may actually have been a bit high. So much for that $3,000,000 worth of property to be handed out somewhere down the line.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 16, 1928
William E. D. Stokes, during his lifetime the city’s leading litigant, left gross assets of $596,286 and a net asset of $306,934, it was shown by a transfer tax appraisal filed yesterday by Deputy State Tax Commissioner Maurice A. Stephenson at the local State Tax Office, 230 W. 40th St., Manhattan. The entire estate goes to a son, William E. D. Stokes Jr. of 40 Wall St.

Helen Ellwood Stokes and her children settled in Denver. What happened to this rather remarkable woman I do not know. One can only hope she found happiness – and forever after managed to stay out of courtrooms.

 
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