THE VERNON DOSSIER
Jeanne Hayes Verner’s Family History
Dai Vernon sometimes commented that his wife’s grandmother had been the first licensed female dentist in America, had inherited Coney Island from an English King and had been cheated out of her property by Tammany Hall. Fanciful as this may sound and inaccurate though the precise wording may be, as we see so many times with the Professor, there is a basis for this contention. One thing cannot be denied: Elizabeth Morey was quite a character.
Elizabeth Beckett was born in Montreal, Canada circa 1842. Her father was Sir Walter Beckett; her mother was Mrs. Mary Flood. Elizabeth married Montreal dentist John Garner Morey and subsequently the two moved to New York City where he continued his practice. Dr. Morey taught dentistry as well and his wife, Elizabeth, learned the craft from him. Although she practiced dentistry in New York in conjunction with her husband, I’ve found no evidence that she was licensed or possessed any formal degree. The first woman to obtain a dental degree was Lucy Hobbs Taylor according to Wikipedia.
An 1881 interview appeared in the Vancouver Independent sourced to the New York Sun in which Mrs. Morey describes her dental practice, her preference for male patients, and her dental inventions.
Dr. and Mrs. Morey had five children, as best I can determine. They were Tiety (b. abt. 1872), James (b. abt. 1874), Jeanne Verner’s mother Nina (abt. 1875-1937), Elizabeth (b. abt. 1879), and Clara (b. abt. 1883).
The New York Times obituary of July 2, 1907 states that Dr. and Mrs. Morey amassed a fortune and moved to Coney Island around 1887 though it may have been earlier. Dr. Morey died circa 1895, according to the Times, and while Elizabeth continued her dentistry to some degree, she shifted her focus to hauling lumber and equipment in remote portions of Coney Island. The area in which she operated appears to have been rural and distant from the developed portions with which we are most familiar.
Other accounts given by Mrs. Morey, herself, gave 1878 as the time she moved to a remote part of Coney Island to operate a freight business. Her husband does not seem to be in the picture and she claimed economic conditions had negatively impacted her dental practice.
Elizabeth Morey was known far and wide to be both confrontational and litigious. She was frequently fined for relatively minor transgressions such as allowing her cows to wander on the local road, would get fined, argue with the police, and end up in court. She would refuse to sit in the courtroom, refuse to pay her fine and end up in jail. She constantly claimed she was being persecuted and was constantly involved in legal disputes with her neighbors, tenants, and the local constabulary. She appeared in the newspapers dozens of times and at one point was put behind bars for carrying concealed weapons in a dispute over property rights. She claimed she had been continually robbed and that justice had been denied her.
As far away as Utah, the following article appeared in the Salt Lake Herald on April 10, 1890 under the headline A CONEY ISLAND CHARACTER:
"Mrs. Elizabeth Morey, Like the Red Haired Queen, Terrifies all the Male Inhabitants
"[Special to the Herald – Examiner Dispatch.]
"New York, April 9. --- Mrs. Elizabeth Morey is a great institution of Coney Island. She came to Coney Island twelve years ago and hung out her shingle and began the practice of dentistry. She had it all her own way, and pulled and plugged and killed nerves and inserted plates at her own sweet will and at her own price. Three years ago young Dr. Hill came over to the island and then trouble began to brew. He didn’t think much of Mrs. Morey’s work, and said so. Mrs. Morey was shocked at the doctor’s disregard of professional etiquette. Her pocket also suffered, for the doctor brought a dentist friend of his to his office every Saturday, and people waited for Saturday to have their teeth pulled instead of giving Mrs. Morey a chance at them.
"So Mrs. Morey declared war on the doctor. Saturday night she entered a car at Van Sickle’s station and found the young doctor in it with three or four other passengers, all men, and she scolded him a bit and then blackened his eye with a billet of wood. The doctor had intended going to the matinee, but he went to Long Island hospital instead.
"On several occasions she had insisted on riding under a South Bay railroad pass which had run out, and she had so intimated [sic] the conductor that sooner than put her off, he whispered to the other passengers to go into the front cars, and then he detached the last car in which Mrs. Morey sat and pulled out the train without her. But the conductor was so frightened at what he did that he came back on foot after dark for the fear that Mrs. Morey was laying for him. One night she and her daughter carried on so at a masquerade ball that they were arrested and Doctor Hill laughed at the women while in a cell, which so enraged Mrs. Morey that she slapped his face and when she met him on the street she banged him over the head with her umbrella.
"Mrs. Morey’s record is a very lively one. She was arrested once by the board of supervisors and locked up but she refused to sit down in the cell and remained standing five hours. She has Conductor Scott of the Culver route in such good training that he does not dare collect her fare and she rides free whenever she wants to. The police sergeant says he is afraid to stay alone in jail with her. In fact, she has terrorized all the male population of the island."
In 1894, the Brooklyn Eagle described her as not unattractive yet also noted “It is believed by many persons throughout Coney Island that Mrs. Morey is insane.” At this point she was said to be living in a squalid old stable with four children.
Elizabeth Morey’s reputation as a local character was summed up in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1902 when the 64 year old [?] married 82-year-old Benjamin Franklin Hobby, a man both reputably quite well off and smitten with Elizabeth Morey.
"Mrs. Morey is the most remarkable character that was ever known in Coney Island. She has been arrested more than a hundred times and has always enjoyed newspaper notoriety in big doses .... She has deeds to all of Coney Island but has never been able to get the courts to recognize them as legal."
In its October 13, 1903, edition The Times Union of Brooklyn tells of MOTHER AGAINST SON as James Morey is charged with vagrancy in that he has no home. He claims his home is the one occupied by his mother prior to her moving to the Hobby mansion. Mrs. Morey-Hobby “looks daggers” at her son and declares: “I’ll have you out of there all right.” We can see that Elizabeth use of litigation even applied to her destitute son.
After Mr. Hobby died in 1904, officials sought to dispose her from the large home in which they had lived. They claimed Mr. Hobby did not own the property at the time of his death but had a “life right.” Mrs. Morey-Hobby claimed she had a right to live there as his widow. Another court argument ensued. The New York Times obituary recounts the following:
"After the death of her second husband she was involved in vexatious litigation over the possession of Hobby Park, and when finally ousted made her home in an old house at the foot of West First street."
Elizabeth Morey-Hobby died July 1, 1907 at the home of her daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Pine.
The Times obituary sums Elizabeth up as follows:
"She was regarded as an eccentric and was often arrested for violating health ordinances by keeping pigs, cows, and poultry, but always regarded these arrests as persecutions and returned to her former habits as soon as liberated. She once stood on her feet in jail for thirty-six hours because the couch provided for her by the authorities was not soft enough."
"Mrs. Morey became involved in difficulties, antagonizing John Y. McKane, the old-time ruler of the island. She persisted in fighting him in the courts and much of her property melted away."
This brings us to Coney Island, which we will discuss in a separate section. Suffice it to say for the present that the claim was based on a 17th century deed. This was not something that had come down through the Beckett, Morey, or Hobby families from an English King. Rather Mrs. Morey had either purchased all or part of the claimed rights from her neighbor or had convinced the neighbor to will the rights to her (accounts differ).
So, yes, Jeanne Verner’s grandmother was a dentist who fought with Tammany Hall over the rights to a large part of Coney Island. Whether or not she was cheated is another matter, as we shall see.
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