by admin | June 20, 2007 6:21 pm
In late April of 1906, a one-paragraph news item appeared on an inside page of the New York Times:
Justice Blanchard of the Supreme Court has granted Brodie L. Duke an interlocutory decree of divorce from his wife, Alice Webb Duke, to whom he was married on Dec. 19, 1904. She did not appear at the trial of the case.
The cursory notice signaled the end of a marriage that got sensational front-page headlines in both New York and Chicago 15 months earlier, when readers learned that Brodie L. Duke, one of the Dukes of tobacco fame, had married an attractive, mysterious woman with a checkered past and a talent for attracting men.
By the early 1900s, family patriarch Washington Duke had turned a modest tobacco company into a force in North Carolina and throughout the South, with the help of Brodie and two other sons, James and Benjamin. Brodie was the oldest, borne by Washington’s first wife, who died a year after Brodie’s birth in 1846. Washington soon remarried and sired Buck and Ben, as the two were commonly called. All three sons worked with their father in the tobacco business after Washington returned from the Civil War. The Duke boys peddled various brands of tobacco, including the famous “Duke of Durham” label.
Brodie initially was the most ambitious, described as a hard-working teetotaler, a reputation that long had vanished by the time he met Alice Webb in 1904.
Washington Duke was moderately successful, but younger sons Buck and Ben Duke made the family into one of the most powerful in the South by eventually dominating the exploding American market for cigarettes. At the same time they invested in banking, textile mills, and cotton production. Brodie, by the early 1880s, had developed a pronounced taste for liquor. While he remained an equal partner in what became known as the American Tobacco Company, his half-brothers ran the company.
Brodie’s first wife died in 1888 after bearing three children, and his second marriage ended in a bitter divorce in 1904. He was prominent in Durham because of his extensive real estate holdings and civic involvement; his boozing benders were also well known. He was institutionalized in Illinois for a drinking problem severe enough that his brothers donated $20,000 to establish a similar alcoholism-treatment center in North Carolina, presumably so Brodie would be closer to such a facility each time he leaped off the wagon. Brodie also displayed what one writer called a “dangerous taste for speculation in the commodity market and especially in cotton futures.” In 1893 his brothers had to bail Brodie out and severely limit his access to the family fortune, which by then was considerable.
The family wealth was often threatened by Brodie’s ability to fritter it away. He invested in land companies in Virginia, North Carolina and Alabama that went belly-up. He sank a quarter-million dollars into building a street railway from Memphis to Raleigh Springs, Tenn., which also flopped. He speculated wildly in cotton futures, invariably with disastrous results. Time and again, his long-suffering brothers or aging father would bail him out, but it wouldn’t be long before Brodie was headed on another misadventure.
The aging, alcoholic Brodie was the perfect mark for Alice L. Webb. Shad come to New York City in a last-ditch attempt to raise the money needed to complete the option on a tobacco field in Nacogdoches, Texas — and to stave off the creditors hounding her and Charles Taylor, her business partner in the fancily named Texas-Cuba Tobacco Company. Webb and Taylor, both operating out of Chicago, proposed to import 200 families from Holland to work on a red- dirt farm in Deep East Texas, growing tobacco that would rival Havana’s finest. They had taken an option on a 734-acre farm, creating great ballyhoo in a small town starved for any economic boost. The editor of the town’s only daily newspaper quickly dubbed Alice “The Tobacco Queen of Texas.”
Boosters in American towns of all sizes have always been eager to latch on to a scheme that would raise their community’s fortunes — whether it’s a new industry, a novel agricultural product, land promotion, a new college, or a tourist attraction. This constant craving for more is part and parcel of the American dream — more business, more people, cash registers ringing ever more quickly.
In the early part of the 20th century, the small Deep East Texas town of Nacogdoches, whose slogan long had been the “Oldest Town in Texas,” was no exception to this addiction to progress — however it is defined. Town leaders courted oilmen, railroad magnates, timber barons, excursionists (as prospective land speculators were called), and agricultural specialists willing to try a new crop in a red-clay soil that was primarily suitable for growing pine trees. Surely, that pot of gold was just a scheme away. Back then, “scheme” didn’t have the pejorative sense it does now and was often used to describe the latest roadmap to wealth being bandied about.
So it’s not surprising that, in early 1904, the town’s boosters, which included Bill Haltom, the grumpy editor of the Daily Sentinel — the town’s only daily newspaper — practically fell all over themselves in lavish praise of a pair of promoters who rolled into town from Chicago.
The idea was not that far-fetched — a characteristic of all good con games. The railroad industry was then the principal corporate impetus behind economic development in rural areas. Southern Pacific had teamed with the United States Department of Agriculture, which determined in 1903 that the soil of Deep East Texas was capable of producing a high-quality cigar leaf tobacco that could compare — and compete — with leaf imported from Havana.
The USDA that year established a federal Government Tobacco Experimental Station in Nacogdoches, which already was home to two modest cigar factories. H.S. Edler, who came to town a few years earlier — “preaching the doctrine of tobacco from the start,” as Haltom put it — operated one of the factories. The editor credited Edler with having piqued the government’s interest with the fine taste of his “Blue Ribbon” cigars. Thousands of stogies were produced weekly in his small factory, which employed three cigar makers.
The government station owned eight acres of tobacco under cultivation, while Edler and a partner held two acres on which they were trying to produce a wrapper that could compete with the beloved Cuban version. Haltom claimed that there was some “lively bidding” going on for land located near the experimental station — the reasoning being that if the government thought it was good tobacco land, than it must be true.
A similar move was under way near San Augustine — the county east of Nacogdoches — led by W.H. Prince, who also once worked for the experimental station. Haltom warned that the boosters of that town, an old rival to Nacogdoches, “are awake to the scheme and putting up liberally to carry it out. They know a good thing and they have the favorite red lands there that will beat Cuba growing Cuban tobacco. Now, we don’t want to be left in such a scheme.”
Colonel S.F.B. Morse, who was manager of the Atlantic passenger system for Southern Pacific Railroad, became enamored of tobacco’s potential and saw a new source of revenue for the railroad, through shipping tobacco from East Texas to Houston for manufacturing into cigars. The railroad’s backing brought in a number of speculators. By February 1904, a new tobacco- packing house had been formed under the direction of L.H. Shelfer, who also had been with the experimental station. The Florida, Havana and Sumatra Co. announced it was willing to enter into contracts with farmers across East Texas and would pay a guaranteed price of 15 cents a pound for cured tobacco. Seed would be provided for free, but farmers were required to cure the tobacco themselves.
Tobacco proved to be a moderately successful crop for East Texas. Cigar-filler tobacco grown in East Texas from Cuban seed won a gold medal at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition and for two years in a row at the Texas State Fair.
Plans soon were under way for a local cigar factory, in addition to the tobacco-packing house started a year earlier. The Nacogdoches Cigar Company’s backers promised the “best five and ten cent smokers ever placed on the market.”
“Tobaccodoches,” as Haltom wittily dubbed his county, received national attention in
early 1905 for its attempt to become the next Havana, but the publicity wasn’t exactly positive. A pair of get-rich-quick artists had arrived, hoping to cash in on the tobacco craze, or at least fleece a few local investors before hitting the road. Before it was over, the saga was being played out in the front pages of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, with a cast of colorful characters that provided newspaper fodder for several months.
Charles S. Taylor and Alice Webb operated a Chicago firm called Taylor, Webb & Co. The pair were seasoned promoters whose stories shifted as circumstances warranted. At the height of the East Texas tobacco frenzy, Taylor and Webb presented themselves to the town’s shakers and movers as the key to the city’s future financial success.
The couple had big plans. The Texas-Cuba Tobacco Company would “experiment on the growth of fine cigar wrappers under canvas shade” at Redfield, a hamlet six miles northeast of Nacogdoches on the HE&WT railroad line. The Houston East and West Texas narrow-gauge line, established in the 1880s, was more popularly known as Hell Either Way Taken for its constant breakdowns and rough ride.
The Texas-Cuba Tobacco Company incorporated in Texas in March 1904, supposedly with a capital stock of $150,000. Besides Taylor, the principals listed in the charter were L.H. Shelfer, formerly with the experimental tobacco station, and J.G. Smith.
The Texas-Cuba Tobacco Company managed to quickly garner favorable publicity, both in Nacogdoches and beyond. The Houston Chronicle reported favorably on a conference held in the office of T.J. Anderson, the general passenger agent for Southern Pacific and the latest pursuer of Col. Morse’s dream of Cuban-quality tobacco grown throughout East Texas and later manufactured into cigars in Houston. Taylor, Shelfer and Webb announced they had purchased a 734-acre plantation in Redfield from Col. Morse, who had since left the railroad. Shelfer, who seems to have been unwittingly lured in by the two promoters, was named plantation manager. Alice Webb, variously described in ensuing reports as being 34, 38 or “nearing 40” years of age, was gushingly described as the “Tobacco Queen of Texas,” the other newspapers picking up on Haltom’s nickname for her. She certainly seems to have had a mesmerizing effect on a number of men, as later events would show.
Certainly Bill Haltom was entranced. After Webb addressed the Nacogdoches Business League, the editor wrote, “The lady is thoroughly conversant with every detail of business and is interested in large schemes for colonization and promoting plans for developing the resources of a place where requisite capital is lacking.” Nacogdoches, late to get a railroad line and whose boosters were constantly casting about for the next big thing that would improve the town’s fortunes, definitely lacked capital.
Webb told the league about her Dutch-immigrant plan. She asked for no money right away, promising that when the time came she and her partners would look for appropriate investors. The league was so entranced with her spiel that the Nacogdoches Business League made Webb an honorary member.
Taylor and Webb managed to talk Commercial Bank of Nacogdoches into loaning them $3,000, putting up the 734 acres as collateral. The pair also persuaded other investors into putting up cash and induced a builder to construct three tenant houses and two barns on the property, at a cost of $1,500.
A minor detail was overlooked. Taylor and Webb had never actually purchased the property but had only taken an option on it. The couple slipped out of town by late summer, when it became apparent their ploy was unraveling. A Nacogdoches County grand jury indicted them for theft in October, but the indictment was kept secret until mid-January of 1905, in hopes Webb and Taylor would return to town and save the county the expense of extraditing them.
Alice claimed she met Brodie Duke in autumn of 1904 at the Park Avenue Hotel, where Brodie often stayed when in the city. He soon was persuaded by Webb to help raise the money for her Nacogdoches land deal by putting up a $2,000 escrow check to hold the land, while he tried to raise the $18,000 needed to complete the deal. So estranged was Brodie from the fabulous wealth enjoyed by his half-brothers that he had to return to North Carolina to snare some securities in order to secure a bank note for the $18,000. It appears Alice Webb had found a sugar daddy, perhaps in time to save the farm and avoid the still-secret indictment, kept sealed in hopes of catching Webb and Taylor while in Nacogdoches.
Webb and Duke made the front page of the New York Times when, on December 19, 1904, the two were joined in marriage by the Rev. W.E. Coe, assistant pastor of what, in press accounts, is simply called Dr. Parkhurst’s church. The marriage license listed Brodie’s age as 58; Webb claimed to be 37 but left blank her place of birth and current residence.
Brodie’s family did not take the news of his marriage well. Within days, Ben Duke — who along with one of Brodie’s grown sons had tried to talk his half-brother out of marrying Alice — began marshaling the resources of the family to annul the marriage and, in their view, to protect Brodie from himself. After the wedding, Brodie, Alice, and a female friend of the bride’s with the extravagant name of Agnes Des Plaines again ensconced themselves at the Park Avenue Hotel. Alice appears to have quickly set about spending Brodie’s money. She cashed a $4,000 check from him, which was added to the $15,000 in notes that Brodie signed just before the couple was married.
Ben Duke quickly filed a suit claiming his half-brother was insane. On January 6 — just 18 days after his marriage to Alice — Brodie was forcibly removed from the Park Avenue Hotel by two detectives and taken to Bellevue Hospital. Two “alienists,” as psychiatrists were called a century ago, examined Brodie there. The new Mrs. Duke attempted to stop the detectives from taking Brodie away, to no avail. After Brodie arrived at Bellevue, authorities locked away for safekeeping $40,000 worth of cash, bonds and securities that were stuffed in his pockets when he was seized.
The bride fought back through an attorney and temporarily went into hiding. She offered “determined resistance” to the detectives, and, when that failed, called the hospital in a vain attempt to find out where Brodie had been taken.
Alice maintained that Brodie pursued her, not the other way around, and that she certainly didn’t marry him for his family fortune:
I never married Mr. Duke for his money. If our different fortunes are carefully examined, it will probably be found that I have more money at my command than Mr. Duke. I married him for love. From the first time I met him I cared for him, but did not let him see it, and was as much astonished as a woman could be when he proposed to me … Our marriage, however, has been a happy one. He was almost wild with anxiety until I went with him to Dr. Parkhurst’s church and was married to him.
From that time on he was ridiculously happy. He told me repeatedly that all he wished was to make me as happy as he was…
Alice Webb Duke’s claim that she had more money at her command than Brodie proved to be ludicrous — even with the latter’s cash-flow woes. And, while the Dukes’ 21-day-old marriage may have been blissful, it was fueled by a steady diet of alcohol and drugs — beginning on the wedding night. Carodan Thompson was a business associate of Brodie’s and at one point participated in one of Brodie’s failed get-rich schemes — the Greater New York Crude Oil Burner. In the Times, Thompson said Brodie:
…Hunted him up at his home and told him to put on evening clothes and come out and see him spliced. He (Thompson) says Duke could find a drink quicker than a minister, but Duke told him his fiancée was waiting in a carriage, and urged him to hurry up. They first drove to Grace Church, but an assistant of the Rev. Dr. Huntington refused to marry them on the ground that both had been divorced. They had several drinks and then drove to Dr. Parkhurst’s church, where they found the Rev. Dr. Coe, who performed the ceremony.
The Times continued to play the Duke drama on its front page. Mrs. Desplaines (spelled differently in the second Times article) was interviewed by a reporter, as she waited to talk to the New York district attorney, who was exploring whether charges should be filed against Alice Webb Duke. Mrs. Desplaines claimed Duke was smitten with a “case of love at first sight. The second time he called he wanted to marry her.”
The Dukes had a constant entourage during their brief courtship and marriage, including a masseuse and a doctor. Dr. Maurice Sturm told the Times that he treated both husband and wife for “nervous disorders” but didn’t notice that Brodie was on a bender. But a Harlem nurse sent over by the doctor on December 21, two days after the wedding, told a different story. Charles A. Ochsen minced no words after being sent to the Hotel Winston to look after Duke:
It was plain to see that the man was suffering from alcoholism, and he suffered from it from that time on until I left the place on Dec. 27. Mr. Duke was maudlin most of the time, calling for his wife and whiskey… When I first got to the place and saw Duke’s condition, I asked the proprietor of the hotel how long this had been going on, and he said for about three weeks.
Brodie’s attorneys filed a writ of habeas corpus to get him released from the sanitarium; a ruling was set for January 21. At the first hearing, Duke was described as having a heavy black beard, and walking with “faltering steps, straightening up every few minutes in a peculiar, jerky way.”
The Times reporter conceded that, while Brodie was pale and appeared frail, “there was nothing in his manner to indicate that he was not in possession of his mental faculties.”
Alice obtained an order allowing her and Dr. Sturm to visit Brodie, but he refused to see either of them. Brodie asked Alice to allow his appeal to go forward and to drop hers, apparently because he had more faith in his attorneys than in hers. In a lengthy statement issued by one of his attorneys, Brodie blamed his estranged son, Lawrence, for having him committed:
I know only too well who is behind this affair. Several years ago I forbade my son to come near me. My son is lazy and a trifler and would rather have almost anybody manage the business of Brodie L. Duke than Brodie L. Duke himself.
He added that he had just learned of the “shocking” charges against his wife. His attorney told the press:
… He hopes that those who have furnished information to the press, to the counsel for those who have imprisoned him, and to others, will come forward and to his own counsel repeat these accusations which seem to militate against the honor of his wife.
The Duke family was represented by a phalanx of lawyers, including the former New York City district attorney, who dramatically proclaimed the family’s sole purpose in pursuing this commitment was to “rescue Duke from one of the worst band of criminals banded together to rob him and perhaps murder him … His alliance with a disreputable woman should be sufficient to show that he could not have been sane” when he agreed to marry Alice Webb.
Any slim chance Alice had of holding on to her marriage to Brodie Duke vanished the next day. The indictments handed down in September in Nacogdoches against Alice and Taylor were made public, and the Times published a short report in the January 15, 1905, issue — the day after its story about the hearing into Brodie’s sanity:
Telegrams from Nacogdoches, Texas, state that the Grand Jury of Nacogdoches County several months ago returned bills of indictment against Alice L. Webb, now Mrs. Brodie L. Duke, charging her with swindling citizens of Nacogdoches to the extent of several thousand dollars.
The county officials of Nacogdoches have kept the finding of the indictment from the public in hopes that the woman and one Charles F. Taylor, indicted with her, would return to Texas and there be arrested before learning of the indictments.
In the same issue, Alice made the first public statement in her defense, which the Times displayed prominently on Page Two under the headline, “No Evil Past To Hide, Says Mrs. Brodie Duke.” Alice blamed the Tobacco Trust (a merger of the five leading tobacco companies into a monopoly that was eventually broken up by the federal government under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act) for Brodie’s commitment to an insane asylum, and for the smearing of her name. She claimed the Duke family feared that the alliance between her company and Brodie could threaten the trust’s hold on the tobacco business.
Sitting in her attorney’s office, Alice faced two-dozen reporters, photographers and sketch artists. She averred to be 37 — a claim others would prove false within days. She claimed to have personally sunk $21,000 into the farm, which wasn’t true. At first she met with Benjamin Duke — Brodie’s half-brother — whom Alice said tried to talk her into selling the lands. She demurred and met with Brodie, who supposedly proposed marriage to her on the third day after they met:
I told him that I was not looking for anything of the kind, but he continued to urge it on every day until the very day we got married… I told him in the presence of a witness that I would sign articles of agreement waiving my claim to any part of his property except what might accrue to us through our tobacco deals.
Brodie gallantly replied, according to Alice, that he would never forsake her if she agreed to marriage, no matter what his children thought, and would find a way to transfer stocks and bonds to her, “and let them fight for the rest after they’re gone.”
In a Chicago Tribune article published the same day, Alice claimed her father was a retired corporation lawyer, and her mother was the daughter of a language professor. Alice said she came to New York at age 12 to live in a boarding house run by Mrs. Desplaines (apparently the mother of Agnes, Alice’s companion). She admitted that she had “run off with George W. Hopkinson, in what she termed a “girlish scrape.” A Tribune reporter did some digging and discovered Alice had brought a divorce suit against Hopkinson, described as a wealthy perfumer, some 11 years earlier in Buffalo. Hopkinson successfully maintained that Alice was not his wife, and at the trial she admitted to earlier signing a release, for $1,500, from any claim on property or for alimony.
At that trial, according to the Tribune, evidence was presented that three years earlier, in 1890 Alice was living with a transplanted Arizonan with the alliterative name of Murat Masterson on West Thirty-Sixth Street in Chicago:
… On the 13th of that month she shot at him (Masterson) because he was jealous of a visitor of hers named Hardman. At that time Masterson told police he was a mining man and worth $5,000,000. She said that she was his cousin and that she was in business with him. She was taken into court, but the case was dropped. Justice Lawrence dismissed her suit against Hopkinson. Alice claimed in her interview on January 15 that actually Masterson tried to shoot her because he thought she had some Mexican land-deal papers, and that she suffered a broken finger in the struggle. Her friends, Alice claimed, dissuaded her from filing charges.
When contacted, Masterson, not surprisingly, had a different version. He told the Tribune that he was an attorney trying to regain papers he’d given Alice because she promised to find financial backers for a Mexican mining deal. When he confronted her, two men protected her, but Masterson managed to drive them out of the room:
When I returned to her room Mrs. Hopkinson (Alice’s name at the time) held a pistol in her hand (and) fired point blank at me.
The bullet whizzed past my head and buried itself in the door frame.
I wrenched the pistol from her and threw it into the hall. I then took possession of the documents and left.
Both Mrs. Hopkinson and myself were arrested and taken to the Jefferson Market police station, and the next morning we were both taken into the police court, but the case was dismissed and that was the end of it. The Tribune story further stated that a few years later Alice was “known as the wife of E.H. Powell, formerly a Pittsburg hotelkeeper.” The couple lived at several hotels and flats in and about New York City before Powell left for Chicago.
Alice’s past rapidly returned and enveloped her, like smoke from a cigar puffed in a crowded room. The Tribune published a story called, “Woman With Many Schemes,” and proceeded to outline several of them, along with her subsequent considerable financial difficulties. For example, in the prospectus for the Texas-Cuba Tobacco Company, Alice used Gilbert B. Shaw as a reference. Shaw was president of a Chicago railroad tie company and had been dodging Alice’s get-rich schemes for a dozen years. He quickly disclaimed any knowledge of the tobacco company, saying with no small amount of satisfaction that, “I never lost any money through her, because I never invested any. She used to bore me to distraction with her visits. The last time I saw her she had a package of tobacco under her arm and promised to send me some cigars as soon as they were made.”
Alice, the Tribune reported, skipped out paying rent on a Chicago apartment; the new tenant received regular visits from bill collectors seeking Alice, such as the Wootner Bros. Grocers, who were owed $28. A detective across the hall from the offices of Taylor-Webb said she stiffed him for $88, while an unfortunate professor at the University of Chicago apparently fell prey to her wiles and loaned her $500 — which he presumably never saw again. Another Chicago businessman discounted her claims of being the daughter of a wealthy Buffalo attorney and said she was raised in an orphanage. Of her financial prowess, he said, “She could not run a peanut stand.”
Meanwhile, the wife of Charles Taylor, Alice’s partner, was not immune from nosy reporters. Contacted at her home at 8957 Exchange Avenue, she admitted to having met Alice once or twice but said she had declined a dinner invitation.
“My husband has not been at home much lately,” she is quoted as saying.
The next day, as the Tribune phrased it with a present-tense headline, “Mrs. Duke Fades Away.” She left the Union Square hotel before its proprietors could kick her out, which they were on the verge of doing. Her attorney claimed to know her whereabouts and promised she would be in court the following week when the hearing on Brodie’s sanity was to be held.
The Tribune reporter kept digging into Alice’s past, in the “cellar of the county courthouse,” as the article phrased it. The indictment in Nacogdoches loomed large, and Alice’s colorful past was once again splashed across the front page.
Possibly the unkindest cut stemmed from the old alimony suit against George Hopkinson, which Alice had lost. It revealed that she had been raised in a Buffalo orphanage, where her father had taken her at the age of six on June 2, 1860. She lived there until nearly 13, according to orphanage records entered into evidence, the article said. That meant that in 1905, Alice Webb Duke was not, as she claimed, “nearly thirty-seven,” but either 50 or 51 years old.
Two thousand miles south, in Nacogdoches, attorney June Harris was filling in as the interim Sentinel editor while Haltom served his first term in the Texas Legislature. Harris had his dander up. The alleged bilking of the contractor who built the tobacco barns for Taylor and Webb but was never paid especially galled him. Harris called it “the meanest and most contemptible of the many misdoings of the sharpers.”
A.W. Henning, the Plaindealer editor (a competing weekly in Nacogdoches), at first defended Alice and Taylor:
It is quite likely that Miss Webb did not intend to beat small accounts like this, and it is known that she made frantic efforts in Beaumont and Dallas to raise money on Texas-Cuba stock. Failing in this she was bound to let all creditors fare alike. People who go out on the flim-flam usually go for big piles. She was undoubtedly out after big fish.
It is doubtful if the indictments here will really amount to anything if this is all the criminal charges that are brought.ii
In the same issue, Henning repeated Alice’s claim that she was being persecuted because she refused to sell out her tobacco lands to the tobacco trust operated by Brodie’s half-brothers. A few weeks later he wryly pointed out that Nacogdoches cigars would “be the best advertised in the world. We suggest that the first brand be named ‘Alice Webb.’”iii
Oddly enough, legendary East Texas lawman A.J. Spradley — then out of the sheriff’s office but serving as a U.S. Marshal — came to Webb and Taylor’s defense with a front-page letter that said the two were “being persecuted among strangers.” He even bet the Sentinel editor a box of cigars that the indictments would be quashed — a bet he won. Neither Alice nor Taylor was ever prosecuted for their Nacogdoches land scheme. It’s not known if Haltom paid off the bet.
On January 19, Alice came back to New York from her hiding place in Connecticut to meet with Brodie in the office of his attorney. Brodie’s bid to be released on a habeas corpus writ until the question of his sanity was ascertained had been successful. After being locked up for 13 days, Brodie presumably was sober and possessed somewhat clearer faculties. That might explain why Alice was greeted coolly when she arrived. Through his attorney, she was told that Brodie would have nothing to do with her until her legal problems had been settled, and the court proceedings against Brodie had been completed.
On January 24, Alice L. Duke — nee Webb — was arrested on the Nacogdoches indictments in front of the Broad Exchange Street in New York City, as she prepared to enter the building.
One Sgt. O’ Connell walked up to Alice as she was getting out of a horse-drawn cab and held the door open for her. He asked if she was Mrs. Duke, and she said indeed she was. He then got in the cab with her and placed her under arrest. She protested angrily, saying, “His (Duke’s) family are (sic) trying hurt me. I have done nothing wrong.”
At the bail hearing, Alice protested that she had provided a deed and a life insurance policy as collateral for the bank loan now characterized as a theft, and that she and Brodie planned to travel to Nacogdoches any day now to clear up matters.
The New York magistrate, perhaps feeling some sympathy, made an exception. Generally, bail was not granted in extradition cases, but he generously set bail at a modest $3,000.
Alice Webb Duke — bride of an heir to a tobacco fortune; a self-described promoter who claimed to have earned $1 million by the time she was in her mid-30s; and a woman who boasted she had a greater financial worth than her husband — couldn’t raise a paltry three grand. She was taken to the Tombs, New York City’s infamous jail, to spend the night.
A hearing was held in early February to have Brodie’s sanity determined. Alice’s new attorney, Henry W. Unger, opposed the application, which was filed by Duke’s son. The latter’s attorneys claimed Brodie was insane and “an habitual drunkard.” Brodie’s attorney challenged the court’s jurisdiction, noting that Brodie was not a resident of New York State and defended his “habits,” claiming that Brodie “simply drank whisky and milk as a tonic for a weak stomach.”
Brodie Duke won his competency hearing in March and then filed for divorce from Alice, who spent 16 days in the Tombs before word came from Texas that the indictment against her had been dropped in early February. It’s unclear why the charges were dropped, but Nacogdoches District Attorney W.M. Imboden wrote the New York court to say the case wouldn’t be pursued against Alice, though charges were being pressed against Taylor.
Alice was brought from the Tombs to court, where the magistrate told the New York prosecutors in disgust that they had “been dancing up to the tune of these fellows in Texas, who have been simply trifling with you.”
Finally, more than two weeks after being jailed, Alice was a free woman again. Meanwhile, Charles Taylor, still out on bond in Chicago on the same charges dropped against Alice, fought extradition on the grounds the indictment was faulty. A Tribune article put a humorous spin on Taylor’s attempt to stay in the Windy City in mid-February — not the most pleasant of months to live in Chicago:
One man was found in Chicago yesterday who declared he had no desire to migrate southward — to the balmy lands where the temperature still maintains aspirations toward a higher life. He said old Chicago with its snow and wind and cable cars were good enough for him.
The judge granted Taylor’s plea for a hearing in his absence, disappointing Moss Adams, the Nacogdoches deputy sheriff who had taken the train nearly 1,000 miles to bring Taylor back. Adams arrived to a brutal winter wearing a light suit and a sombrero, according to the Tribune. To make matters worse, the Brevort Hotel in which he was staying caught fire. Like the other guests, Adams was forced to flee in his nightclothes, though he stopped to help other guests escape.
Moreover, Adams was forced to leave his revolver behind as the hotel burned.
Taylor lost his battle against being extradited and headed back to Texas with Adams on February 25, 1905. Taylor successfully challenged the indictment, even as the district attorney was persuading the Nacogdoches grand jury to hand down two additional indictments — both simple variations on the same alleged offense.
The charges against Taylor were dropped two months later, but Alice had no intention of giving up her claim that Brodie’s half-brothers were persecuting her. In late March, she announced her intention to rent Carnegie Hall in New York to deliver a speech exposing the Tobacco Trust for its monopolistic practices. She further claimed that she “had been summoned to Washington, where she will help the government in probing the tobacco trust.”
There is no evidence that Alice ever rented Carnegie Hall or testified in Washington.
Alice sued for alimony but lost in August 1905, when a New York judge issued a scathing opinion. She had sued for a weekly stipend of $250 after having lost a breach-of- contract suit against Brodie, in which she sought $250,000 in damages from him for not honoring his commitment to help her buy the tobacco plantation in Nacogdoches. New York Supreme Court Justice Leonard Giegerich denied the application for alimony, ruling that Alice was “a notoriously immoral woman and has been for years and has continued her immoralities since marriage.” Further, the judge wrote, “she and a group of women she consorts with have made a practice of extorting money from men with whom they have illicit relations.”
Brodie headed back to Durham, forever estranged from his half-brothers. He married once again, in 1910, at the age of 63 to Wylanta Rochelle, a young woman four decades his junior. He died in 1919.
The Plaindealer reported in 1906 that Alice was “dying of general nervous collapse.” But
Alice Webb Duke and Nacogdoches weren’t quite through with each other. Two years later, in 1908, she was on trial in Chicago for writing a worthless check for $50 to the Great Northern Hotel. Her defense was that she accidentally wrote the check on the wrong account because she was “under the influence of stimulants and narcotics taken to alleviate pain due to an attack of pleurisy.” Dressed entirely in black with a “Merry Widow’s” hat veiling her face, she blamed the Duke family for continuing to hound her after the divorce. She predicted her acquittal:
I’m going to win. Here is where my luck changes. Another thing — I am not penniless. I still have money and interests that will make a great fortune for me.
Her prediction was ill-timed, because it came the day before M.C. Parish, clerk in Commercial Bank of Nacogdoches, testified. He rode a train to Chicago to tell the jury that Alice had written a check on a non-existent account. Alice’s response, while sticking to the “writing under the influence” defense, was that she had spent more than $50 on postage in a single day, and that she couldn’t quite believe all this trouble was being taken over such a trifling matter.
The jury didn’t take long to find Alice guilty of writing a $50 hot check. She could have faced up to a year in prison, but it isn’t known if she ever actually served any time.
The last extant account of Alice Webb Duke was the following year, in September 1909, when she was again arrested in Chicago. In a rather overwrought style, the reporter described her appearance in court:
An unkempt, illusion-haunted woman, whose feverish lips answered to the name of Alice Webb Duke, in Judge Gimmell’s court today there was little to remind the spectators of the former wife of Brodie Duke, the millionaire tobacco man.
Mrs. Duke was arrested last night, charged with having failed to pay a forty-dollar automobile bill. In her cell last night she sang snatches of opera for hours.
Today, Judge Gimmell, on the statement of a physician that the defendant was insane, held her for examination to the count court as to her mental state.
Cotton prices began to rise again as the decade came to a close. Tobacco growing declined rapidly, because once again it was more profitable to grow cotton. Tobacco production in East Texas, as had so many crops before, once again became subservient to King Cotton, even as the boll weevil continued to cut yields. By then, Alice Webb’s dream of dozens of Dutch immigrants harvesting tobacco in the red-dirt fields of Nacogdoches County had been long forgotten.
There are two photos of Alice in the digital archives of the Library of Congress, scanned from the morgue of the now-extinct Chicago Daily News. The photos reportedly are from 1908. In both, Alice stares off camera, dressed in a “Merry Widow’s” hat and veil. Her bearing is regal, and she wears what appears to be a velvet dress with a collared blouse. There is sorrow in her expression. Whether it’s regret for a misspent life or for the low circumstances in which she ended up, one will never know.
SOURCES: “Andrew Jackson Spradley: A Texas Sheriff,” a master’s thesis by John
Ross while at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, first alerted the author to the story of Alice Webb and Brodie L. Duke. It was invaluable in providing dates for the original newspaper stories both in the Daily Sentinel and the New York Times. Other sources included:
• Daily Sentinel (Nacogdoches, Texas) 1903-1909, microfilm copies at Stephen F. Austin and the Center for American History at the University of Texas.
• New York Times, digitized online archive, 1905. • Dallas Morning News, 1905. • Chicago Daily Tribune, digitized archive, 1905-1909. • Plaindealer (Nacogdoches, Texas) 1905-1906. • New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser (As quoted in the Plaindealer), 1905. • “The Dukes of Durham, 1865-1929,” by Robert F. Durden, Duke University Press,
Durham, N.C., 1975. • “The Production of Tobacco in Texas,” by George T. McNess; Southwest Historical
Quarterly, January 1945, Vol. 48.
i Ibid. ii The Plaindealer, January 19, 1905.
iii Ibid., February 2, 1905.
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