The Mary Lily Kenan Conspiracy

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Most visitors to St. Augustine are well aware of Henry Flagler and his legacy as an American business tycoon. In the Oldest City, two of his hotels, the Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar, remain standing to this day; while the Florida East Coast Railway continues to transport goods up and down the Atlantic coast of Florida. Such lasting entities are a testament to his starring role in developing the Eastern Seaboard of Florida. What is lesser known about Flagler’s life are the stories of his three wives, Mary Harkness, Ida Alice Shourds, and Mary Lily Kenan. The story of Mary Lily Kenan, much like that of Ida Alice, stands out for its controversy. Her sudden death in 1917 under suspicious circumstances after marrying Robert Worth Bingham in 1916 generated countless speculations that there may have been foul play. Numerous books in our collections recount her story, with some even going so far as to suggest that Bingham may have had a hand in murdering her to obtain some of the wealth she inherited from Henry Flagler after his death in 1913.

Mary Lily Kenan’s story began in 1867 when she was born in Duplin County, North Carolina, just north of Wilmington. Growing up in an affluent household, she soon moved with her family to Wilmington in the late 1870s. Her affluence afforded her education, uncommon for a woman on the cusp of the twentieth century. She first met Henry Flagler in 1891 at a party in Newport, Rhode Island. Kenan was only twenty-three years old; Flagler was sixty-one, and still married to Ida Alice. As they became more romantically involved, Mary Lily’s family grew suspicious of Flagler’s intentions, at least until the tycoon gifted her two million dollars’ worth of jewelry and stock in Standard Oil, along with a mansion in Palm Beach that would come to be known as Whitehall. Flagler also set about divorcing Ida Alice, which resulted in him paying Florida state legislators off in order to have insanity declared a viable reason for initiating divorce proceedings. Two months after the law was passed, Flagler divorced her, and he married Mary Lily on the Kenans’ family plantation ten days later in 1901. The law was repealed shortly thereafter.

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Henry Flagler and Mary Lily Kenan Flagler by most accounts had a comfortable and loving marriage, though Mary Lily’s youth proved problematic for a slower and older Mr. Flagler in social circles. Their marriage lasted until May of 1913, as after a fall down the stairs at Whitehall, the 83-year-old Flagler passed away, leaving his massive fortune to her. Mary Lily Kenan thus became the world’s richest woman. Three years later, she married Robert Bingham. Much like her, Bingham was a North Carolinian socialite from a wealthy and respected family. The Kenans, however, were none too fond of the Binghams, a feud which stemmed back to the days of the Revolutionary War. Nonetheless, Mary Lily and Robert Bingham had been romantically involved in 1890 prior to Kenan meeting Flagler. It was during this time too that Bingham likely transmitted syphilis to Kenan, something that at the time was considered incredibly scandalous, and would prove to be instrumental later. After Flagler’s death and the death of Robert Bingham’s wife in an automobile accident, it seemed fate would have them meet again. The two married in 1916, though their marriage was hardly similar to that of Mary Lily and Flagler. Mary Lily’s health took a turn for the worst by December of that year.

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Kenan complained of chest pains, and rather than hire a qualified cardiologist, Bingham hired a close friend, Dr. Michael Leo Ravitch to treat her, despite his lack of experience. Ravitch instead merely provided her with large doses of morphine, so much so that Kenan became addicted. Bingham, meanwhile, hoped to gain from the incredible wealth of his wife, using this dependency to get her to sign a codicil to her will, allowing Bingham access to her wealth. Once she signed the document, which was kept secret until her passing, Mary Lily Kenan practically disappeared from public life, while Robert Bingham carried on his politicking in Louisville. Kenan’s condition remained on the decline until she passed away on July 27, 1917 under the care of doctors hired by Bingham with minimal qualifications to handle any heart issues. The Kenans were understandably enraged, and quickly challenged Bingham in court regarding the alteration to Mary Lily’s will. Private detectives working on the family’s behalf also found evidence of Kenan’s drugging at the hands of Bingham’s chosen doctors, which prompted an exhumation of Kenan’s body after her burial. The Kenans failed in court to overturn the edited will, and the results of the exhumation and autopsy were never made public. Author and historian David Leon Chandler speculates that this likely had to do with Mary Lily having syphilis, and both families not wishing for that information to become public given the scandal it would generate. The matter settled with Bingham receiving the five million dollars Mary Lily Kenan had signed over to him in the codicil, helping him to build his political and publishing empire.


Sources Consulted

Mr. Flagler’s St. Augustine by Thomas Graham, 2014

The Binghams of Louisville- The Dark History Behind One of America’s Great Fortunes by Daniel Leon Chandler, 1987

Murder in the Tropics- The Florida Chronicles, Vol. II by Stuart B. McIver, 1995


Written by Robert Covert