by Tim Gilmore, 4/9/2021
1. Power on Earth
The summits between world leaders here, helicoptering American and Egyptian presidents, are well known. So are Alfred duPont’s infusions of personal wealth into the state’s banks to avoid a widescale economic panic in Florida during the Great Depression. Less well known is the theory that duPont was murdered, poisoned at his own table, here at Epping Forest, Jacksonville’s grandest historic estate, six miles south of Downtown. The claim may be dubious, but every history keeps secrets and raises questions.
Fanciful impressions hover here. Strange angles momentarily glimpsed. Improbable truths. Possibilities you can’t rule out. Certainly there’s no need to attempt any “full history,” as though such a thing exists, of Epping Forest. All the same, some things come from around corners, ask not to be ignored.
Of the many “revival” styles of architecture, “Mediterranean Revival” features rough plaster walls, clay barrel tile roofs, grand arches and courtyards. It mushroomed across Florida during the land boom of the 1920s, which brought the duPonts south and ended in the stock market crash and the Great Depression.
Alfred I. duPont first gained position through the family gunpowder factory, and much of his family’s wealth, via E.I. duPont and de Nemours and Co., came from explosives. The company would later become famous for its motto, “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry,” adopted in 1935, the year of Alfred’s death, its manufacturing of Teflon, and some of the worst environmental crimes in American history, chronicled in attorney Robert Bilott’s 2019 book Exposure and the 2019 film Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo as Bilott, the attorney who fights DuPont for environmental justice for decades.
After Alfred duPont left the family business and his first wife died, he married Jessie Ball in 1920. When Florida’s thriving banking and real estate economies drew the couple south from the duPont home in Delaware, they bought controlling interests in Florida banks and decided to build their home at Christopher Point, south of San Marco.
The duPonts built where the Vanderbilt Hotel was planned, while immediately south was the San Jose Hotel, also “Mediterranean” and one of the grandest new accommodations in Florida. Now Bolles Hall, the old hotel forms the center of the Bolles School’s main campus.
When Alfred duPont died in 1935, he had lived at Epping Forest for eight years. Several infusions of his own wealth in Florida banks during the Depression stemmed financial panics. Even heading into the Depression, the duPonts kept opening banks across Florida. In 1931, duPont told a friend on the Virginia Supreme Court, “Let this Depression pass, and it will surely pass. They all pass.” His politics settled decidedly with Herbert Hoover and against the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He still maintained, “There is no power on earth that can stop the growth of Florida. It’s the nation’s last frontier.”
Jessie continued to live at Epping Forest, which she referred to as “the shack,” until her own death in 1970. After her husband’s death, her politics shifted left of his, as she supported Roosevelt’s New Deal and focused her wealth increasingly on charities. Her leftward leaning stopped at support for civil and human rights, however, as she ended contributions to educational institutions she discovered admitted black students. “As long as the Virginia Theological Seminary is open to Negroes,” she wrote in a 1951 letter, “I have made my last contribution to it.”
Her brother, banker and financier Ed Ball, sold Epping Forrest in 1972 to Raymond Mason, president of the Charter Company, an oil, insurance and communications conglomerate, and in 1976, Mason hosted a conference at Epping Forest with President Gerald Ford and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, conducted by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
In 1984, Mason sold Epping Forest to Herb Peyton of Gate Petroleum Company, who decided to turn the residence into a yacht club and hired architect Ted Pappas for the job. Pappas speaks of a small group of Italian plasterers who moved through Florida in the 1920s and ’30s, unrivaled craftsmen who worked on Epping Forest, the San Jose Hotel and Pappas’s own historic home in Avondale, each designed by architects Marsh and Saxelbye. I’d give anything for even the shortest history of those immigrant craftsmen working their way across Florida, simultaneously lost and immersed in time and space, in history and place!
2. Ghostless Gardens
In truth, the story I wrote four years ago about Epping Forest was a bit unfair. I’d attended an Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis conference here, and since my mother died from ALS when I was 12, I needed badly to feel her presence in these gardens or in this dining room. I’ve spent three quarters of my life missing my mother, so when I couldn’t find her at the conference, the grandest historic estate in Jacksonville just fell flat.
I’d walked the back gardens by the river, those acres so often pictured on old postcards. I’d noted the statuettes of owls and alligators. I’d looked through silver gelatin print shadows of wrought iron river gates, silhouetted with birds and squirrels and fleurs-de-lis, to a silvered salmon sky from a dream remembered vaguely from a lost afternoon.
I’d noted how diplomats from around the world convened here in the 1970s, but I was focused that day on how ALS “presents” and wrote, “I walk here with my wife after this Florida ALS Association symposium among coy and capricious ghosts who won’t ‘present’ as ghosts at all.”
3. Murder Theory
I suppose, if a ghost were to “present,” it might be that of Alfred duPont himself, whether or not he died at the dinner table. Whether or not his grandson’s allegations that his wife murdered him are true.
In October 1985, Alfred Dent told Forbes Magazine that his grandmother, Jessie Ball duPont, and her brother Edward Ball murdered Alfred duPont. Dent said Alfred had written a new will the January before his death, reducing Jessie’s inheritance by half and cutting Ed’s power over the estate by having it run directly as a charitable trust.
Alfred died, however, before the will could take effect. As Francis X. Donnelly explained in The Florida Times-Union on October 17th, “Under the Florida Probate Act, passed in 1933, the new will could not be validated until six months after it was signed.” With the old will in effect, Jessie Ball duPont received more than $10 million a year until she died in 1970 and Ed Ball grew the estate by acquiring Florida National Banks, the Florida East Coast Railway and the St. Joe Paper Company, accumulations that running the estate as a charitable trust would have prohibited.
Dent said Ed Ball’s former wife Ruth had called him in 1981, just after Ball’s death, eager to talk about a letter Jessie Ball duPont had sent Ed just after Alfred’s death. Every step of Ruth’s half century history with Edward Ball was steeped in poison. In 1943, after 10 years of marriage, Ruth sued for divorce, but Ed Ball fought it, countersued for annulment. The case went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court and in 1949, six years into the divorce battle, Ed finally agreed to pay Ruth $250,000 alimony, almost $3 million today. And now, 40 years after she first filed for divorce, now that Ed was dead, Ruth was ready to reveal a secret.
“I can’t eliminate the thought from my mind that there was a slip somewhere,” Jessie Ball duPont wrote her brother, though the context of that sentence was never made public. Ruth Ball claimed that on April 28, 1935, she and her husband were eating dinner at home when he received a phone call telling him to head to Epping Forest right way. It was an emergency.
Said Ruth: “He jumped up and said, ‘This is it.’ Then he spun around, pointed his finger at me and said, ‘Don’t you ever tell anyone I said that!’” Ruth believed Jessie Ball duPont and Ed Ball had colluded to poison Alfred duPont.
When Ruth Ball first shared her “secret” with Alfred Dent, he discussed it with his brother Richard, then flew out to St. Louis to meet her. He recorded their conversations. She said Jessie and Ed had always seemed “unnaturally close,” and believed their murderous secret was the reason.
Forbes said Ruth hated her former husband. Ed Ball had insisted on a prenuptial agreement with 19 stipulations, including that “neither spouse could have a close friend of the opposite sex or contradict or criticize the other in front of anyone.” Then Ball had been angered by Ruth’s inability to have children. In his countersuit, he claimed she’d violated the prenup by having an abortion that left her infertile. Ruth said she couldn’t tell anyone about the murder until after Ed’s death on June 24, 1981, because, she said, she’d lived in terror of her former husband’s “ruthlessness.”
4. Questions for International Diplomacy
“Mr. Sadat’s children ski quite a bit on the Nile,” said Priscilla Jenerette, girlfriend of Raymond Mason, Jr., whose father owned Epping Forest, “but the St. Johns River is kind of dirty.” It had long been the filthiest river in Florida.
“PRESIDENT SADAT!” shouted a full page ad in The Florida Times-Union. “We have acknowledged the welcome you have received by our city.” The Jacksonville Jewish Community Council had placed the ad on November 2, 1976, the morning of the Egyptian president’s visit. “However,” it warned, “hospitality is not approval! Welcoming is not condoning!”
American President Gerald Ford met Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Epping Forest to discuss worsening violence in Syria and the possibility of a $1.2 billion nuclear reactor deal, then rode in motorcades to the homes of other wealthy businessmen in a moveable feast across the city. Earlier in the year, Mason had opened Epping Forest to King Hussein of Jordan and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran. In May, Mayor Hans Tanzler had presented the key to the city to the Emir of Sharjah of the United Arab Emirates.
These were important meetings. But I don’t know what they achieved. And I don’t know what they cost. They made important men feel important. They made local history in that important men met at Epping Forest, helicopters filled the sky, one crashed near President Ford, thousands of people thronged alongside the motorcade and newspapers quoted members of the Secret Service. If the meetings made world history, however, they’re footnotes.
Then again, every leaf that falls is world history that rarely leads to videos of assassinations at annual victory parades, nor snuff films that crisscross the Internet and spawn conspiracy theories. So I’ve another set of questions I’d go back in time to ask world leaders at Epping Forest in certain purple angles of declining green sunlight.
Did they know why the pelican was used as an architectural motif? Did they notice the lone stone pelicans on the rear exterior wall behind the bar? Did they know the motif developed from the ancient erroneous belief that pelicans fed their young from the blood of their own breasts, so that early Christians saw the pelican as a symbol for Christ?
Did they notice the pagan Green Man motif on the oak capital that served as a ceiling bracket near the bar? What about the colored hand-stenciled snake winding its way about a solid oak beam of the coffered ceiling over the living room?
What did they think of those strange faces peering from stucco acanthus leaves above recessed pilasters and that shape that looked like a cow skull attached by stucco ribbons between those faces? The faces themselves—who or what were they? Gaunt. Pointed ears. Shadowed eyes. And what appeared in certain light from particular angles to be fangs!
Where did Sadat and Kissinger stand with regard to these images and idioms? What would they say to Ruth Ball’s accusations of murder? Was everyone innocent at Alfred duPont’s Last Supper? With the world’s waters so filthy, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching fire in ’69, mightn’t the St. Johns be next?
Who stares out from arches high in the entrance tower, recessed in shadow, in earliest photographs? How does an artist “speak truth to power” when power is so very good at defining and dominating truth? And most importantly, if only to me, if I’d believed in ghosts, if I’d fooled myself upfront, would my mother have visited me here? And if not, why not? That’s not the last question.