Nancy's Notes From Florida

Author Nancy J. Cohen discusses the writing process and life as a Florida resident.

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Setting the Scene

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on March 13, 2011

Last week, I took a trip to the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach. In my WIP, my sleuth visits there to interview one of the docents who has information on the victim in the story. Claire goes on the tour with a friend and then they treat the docent to lunch in the café. Claire gets the scoop from Ann, the part-time docent who also has a business selling faux jewelry to wealthy women. I took pages of notes and lots of photos at this National Historic Landmark. Back home, I condensed this information into my story, trying to focus on the mystery rather than a history lesson. It’s not easy when the history is so fascinating.

Flagler Museum

Flagler Museum


Grand Hall

Grand Hall

Henry Morrison Flagler was one of the founding fathers of Florida real estate and a railroad magnate as well as being a founding partner in Standard Oil. He built the railroad going all the way down to Key West and erected many of the resort hotels in Florida still standing today. But what intrigued me more was his family history. He had three wives and only one surviving heir.

His first wife was Mary Harkness. They had three children: a daughter, Jennie Louise; a second child, Carrie, who died when she was three years old; and a son, Henry Harkness, nicknamed Harry. Mary’s health deteriorated after the birth of their son and she died some ten years later. In 1883, Flagler married Mary’s nurse, Ida Alice Shourds. Then tragedy ensued. His daughter Jennie died in childbirth in 1889, and the baby girl didn’t survive. Flagler’s wife, Ida Alice, became insane and was institutionalized. Flagler later divorced her after providing for her care. Then in 1901, Flagler married an old family friend, Mary Lily Kenan. He died at age 83, less than eighteen months after his Florida East Coast Railway reached Key West.

Gold trim

Gold leaf trim


Grand Ballroom

Grand Ballroom

Breakfast Room

Breakfast Room

Drawing Room

Drawing Room


Here the plot thickens. I’ll let my characters show you how the story unfolds. Characters: Claire, the amateur sleuth, her friend Grace, and Ann the docent. This is unedited material from my first draft:


“After Henry Flagler died, Mary Lily married Robert Worth Bingham in November of 1916. She died within the year under mysterious circumstances.”

My interest peaked. “Tell us more.” Outside, a barge drifted past on the Intracoastal.

Ann took a sip of her brewed tea. “When Flagler died at age eighty-three, he left Mary Lily a fortune worth millions. His first wife had died after an illness, and he’d divorced his second wife, who’d been the first wife’s nurse. She was declared insane and institutionalized. So Mary Lily became one of the wealthiest women in America.”

“Didn’t Henry leave any money to his son, Harry?”

“They were estranged. Henry left his son shares in Standard Oil stock. When Harry died, he was survived by three daughters. He left each one twenty thousand shares of Standard Oil stock, giving them an inheritance worth over a million dollars apiece.”

Grace’s brow folded. “So Mary Lily inherited most of Flagler’s fortune.”

“Correct.” Ann sat back while the waitress delivered a two-tiered platter, cut triangular sandwiches on the bottom and desserts on the top. “Bingham was an old family friend. He was a lawyer, newspaper publisher, and politician. He and Mary Lily signed a pre-nup before their marriage waiving any claims to each other’s fortunes.

“Upon their marriage, she presented him with a wedding gift of fifty thousand dollars. From what I understand, he gave her nothing in return. Within six weeks, her health deteriorated. She had chest pains. Her husband hired a doctor who gave her shots of morphine. Sometime before June 1917, she’d added a secret codicil to her will giving Bingham five million dollars upon her death. The following month, she was found unconscious in her tub. They treated her again with morphine. She had convulsions and died.”

“That certainly sounds suspicious.” I stuffed a cucumber and cream cheese sandwich in my mouth.

“The family thought so, too. Her brothers had a team of doctors perform a secret autopsy. Presumably they found high levels of morphine and heavy metals, like arsenic or mercury. They sued Bingham but the case was dropped. It could have been murder, or she might have died from syphilis contracted from her first husband as some people suspect.”

I gulped down a morsel. “Mary Lily didn’t have any children, did she? Who inherited the rest of her fortune?”

Ann helped herself to a tuna salad and apple sandwich. “She left Whitehall to her niece. The niece sold the estate to a group of investors, and the property was turned into a resort. Eventually the hotel fell into financial distress. Flagler’s granddaughter, Jean Flagler Matthews, bought Whitehall and formed the nonprofit corporation that runs it today.”

So tell me how you like this excerpt. Does it hold your interest? Isn’t this bit of Florida history an intriguing story?

Nancy at high tea

Nancy at high tea






Outside on the grounds


Don't you wish you were here?


8 Responses to “Setting the Scene”

  1. Wonderful pictures. It’s funny how history seems to write wonderful stories. These are things that if you put in a book as fiction, readers would find almost impossible to believe.

  2. You do the best blogs I’ve ever seen Nancy!!!!

  3. Thank you, Mary. And Kathryn, you’re absolutely right. If I were writing historicals, this would be great fodder for a murder mystery. It wouldn’t work so well today with forensic science.

  4. To Nancy’s readers:
    I blogged here a month ago about my new book, THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY. It has been reshuffled in my publisher’s line-up and is now scheduled for APRIL 1,2011. The crazy world of publishing!! However, in the meantime, it did get a great review, which you can see at
    Paperback preorders get an autographed copy.
    Peg Herring

  5. In school I found history a real ‘turn-off’ and myattitude din’t change until I dipped into a couple of historical novels. I found the background information intriguing and it sparked a new interest in general history.
    I love your pics. Thanks for saharing

  6. I learn a lot about history by reading historical romances. It’s a much more fun way to learn.

  7. Tracey D said

    Wow, what nice pictures. I wish I were there now because it’s cold and damp in MD!

  8. It’s nearly April though and you’ll get beautiful flowers in MD in the Spring.

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