Monday, August 22, 2016

A Scandalous Past

While the moss draped live oaks along Rockledge Drive evoke a pervasive sense of calm, in it's heyday little Rockledge was a bustling destination for travelers looking to escape winters in the frigid north. They packed into several rambling wooden hotels along the bank of the Indian River where they sat on the porch, went on boat tours, hunted and fished, checked out the alligators and were even entertained by trained bears! Many guests came year after year and some, who had the means to do so, eventually decided they wanted permanent places of their own. While most of these early snow birds were merely here for a change of climate it turns out some of them might have been escaping a little "heat" of their own. Such is the case with a man by the name of  Edward Newton Rowell who spent his winters in the charming cottage below at 1119 Rockledge Drive, that he purchased from the Van Deman family. His daughters went on to spend even more time there, although not without some scandals of their own, but that's a story for another time!! 

VanDeman-Rowell House 1119 Rockledge Drive
Drawing by Robert Kronowitt from the book At First Glance by Roy Laughlin
It turns out that in addition to being a wealthy New York industrialist, he made a fortune manufacturing boxes, Mr. Rowell was also an accused murderer! In a case that captivated the press of the day Mr. Rowell was accused and tried for having shot and killed his wife's lover. Apparently Mr. Rowell's success in business had been matched by his marriage to a younger, very attractive lady named Jennie. However, since Mr. Rowell was described as being "cold as an iceberg" this was bound to end in trouble, and boy did it! Mrs. Rowell began looking for comfort in other places and among several dalliances was Johnson Lynch, an attorney and friend of her husbands. Eventually Mr. Rowell came to suspect his wife was being unfaithful and so he hatched plan to catch her in the act. Telling her he was going out of town on business, he instead got a hotel room and waited. Sure enough Mrs. Rowell dropped off her daughters with a friend and met Mr. Lynch at the train station. On October 30, 1883 after a pleasant dinner in her home Mrs. Rowell and Mr. Lynch went upstairs to her bedroom. No sooner had they gotten in bed than Mr. Rowell burst through the door and without saying a word, fired two shots into the bed. Mrs. Rowell was grazed by one bullet and the other missed entirely. Mr. Lynch, wisely proceeded to bolt from the bed and to hightail it down the hall. Mr. Rowell followed in hot pursuit and fired two shots at him as he went down the stairs. One shot entered his shoulder and the other went right through his heart killing him instantly. Mrs. Rowell escaped and ran outside calling for the police who came and took her husband to jail.

E. N. Rowell Mansion at Batavia New York. Built 1923
Despite the fact that it was clearly a premeditated murder, Mr. Rowell was only charged with manslaughter. Since things like this didn't happen very often at that day in age, the trial was widely covered in the press. When it was all over on February 8, 1884 the jury acquitted Rowell on the grounds of self defense! And while it isn't known how the people of Rockledge felt about Mr. Rowell, the townspeople of Batavia celebrated his acquittal with cheers in the courtroom and fireworks that evening.

As you can probably guess, Mr. Rowell filed for divorce from his wife in April of 1884 and received full custody of his two daughters. While the former Mrs. Rowell is said to have lived out her remaining days in need, Mr. Rowell went on to find happiness in arms of, yes you can guess it, his former secretary for whom he built the lovely house pictured above, and who became President of his company upon his death.