THE VERNON DOSSIER
The Truth about the Legend
Dai Vernon mentioned that his wife’s family had owned Coney Island and had been cheated out of it by Tammany Hall. It had been handed down, as he understood, from English royalty. Had they not been cheated, Jeanne’s family would have been worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the Professor opined. This wasn’t something he made up or even particularly embellished. It was part of Jeanne’s family lore.
In January, 1901, Elizabeth Morey was testifying on behalf of her daughter, Nina (Jeanne Verner’s mother), who was in a dispute over lumber she claimed had been stolen from her. Nina was described as having “the same determined disposition” as her mother and was now looking after affairs the mother had formerly managed. During the trial, Elizabeth took the time to declare she owned the land lying south of the uplands of Gravesend and the lowlands south and west of Coney Island. Naturally, this made the papers. The Morey story at this point was reported to be that she did not own the whole of Coney Island, just the swamps and sand hills. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle quotes the Morey attorney as saying that “Mrs. Morey inherited the property, according to old documents in her possession, from her mother, Mary Simpson.” Essentially the same story was put forth in the New York Tribune. This story would change.
On November 26, 1911, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle devoted a half page above the fold to the question: Who Owns Coney Island? “There are Millions in it.” The article reprints three documents. The first is a deed dating from the 1600s conveying property from Barrant (spelling varies) Johnson to his nephew Barrant Johnson, 3d. The second is the title page from the 1793 Johnson family bible, important for the family birthdates it contains. Third, and most important to the Morey family decedents, is a deed conveying Coney Island from Elizabeth Johnson to Elizabeth Morey.
Elizabeth Morey, who for many years had been mentioned in the papers as claiming to own Coney Island, died in 1907. Her claim was treated as another part of her colorful character, which made such good fodder for the Daily Eagle. But now the claim had been taken up by Senator Wray, a long-time politician and attorney who once lived in the area. He represented James E. Morey, sister Mrs. Nina Hayes (Jeanne Verner’s mother) and sister Mrs. Elizabeth Pine (the aunt Jeanne would later be raised by). The Morey group claimed to own two thirds of the island by virtue of grant from an old Indian deed and from deeds from old Dutch governors. Attorney Wray also represented the Lott family, who claimed to own the remaining one third of the island.
Wray asserted for his clients that with the exception of 30 acres, “all of Coney Island … is held only by quit claim deeds granted by one Nicholas Johnson, who had no right whatsoever to the property.” Wray said the first legal mention of the island came in 1645 when the Dutch bought parts of it from an Indian Chief for a blanket, a kettle and a gun. Additional segments were apparently bought from another Chief. Subsequently the Dutch governor granted most of the Island to various lot holders, one of whom was Barrant Johnson. That grant was in turn confirmed by a colonial governor during the reign of James II of England. Johnson continued to gain possession of additional parcels of land by various methods.
The property passed down through the Johnson family, eventually residing with another Barrant Johnson who died in 1873, survived only by his mother. Additionally, the Lott family had married into the Johnson family. Subsequently, Mrs. Elizabeth Morey, described as “a New York woman of more than moderate means” became friends with the family and was deeded the Coney Islands in 1883.
While large parts of Coney Island initially appeared to be worthless sand dunes, John Y. McKane recognized their worth. McKane was a building contractor who worked his way up through local government positions that often involved leasing out Coney Island properties to local businesses. McKane eventually got six years in Sing Sing prison but up until that point he remained a powerful force in Coney Island land use. The website “The Irish Mob” bills McKane as “Brooklyn’s Very Own Boss Tweed.” Elizabeth Morey, as one might expect, resisted all this and it was alleged that McKane was behind many of her legal issues and the attempts to have her declared insane. The Brooklyn Eagle describes her as having died worn out and penniless in 1907. McKane died in 1899, a year after getting out of prison. Elizabeth Morey left her rights to her children James, Nina and Elizabeth.
The article goes on to say that when James Morey began to assert what he perceived as his rights to Coney Island land, efforts were made to have him declared insane. Around 1910, Senator Wray took up the battle and lawsuits ensued. The first lawsuit was joined against the Neptune Ice Company and the battle was on. Additional suits against businesses occupying land in various areas followed. Some of these businesses were large and powerful entities.
So the Morey/Lott argument, as described by the Daily Eagle, seems to have boiled down to justifying rights handed down through the Johnson family while asserting the quit claim deeds granted by Nicholas Johnson were illegal.
It should be noted that the Morey family’s claim to ownership comes quite late in the sequence of events and it came not from any relative but from a woman Elizabeth Morey apparently was friends with. It should also be noted that the properties were, indeed, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Overall, this article appears to put forth the point of view represented by Senator Wray and those he represented.
In February of 1912, the New York Times reported A. A. Wray, a former Brooklyn Assemblyman, had filed an action against Dreamland for the Morey Heirs. They were not only taking on Dreamland, but the trust companies and banks who held parts of the sizable mortgage. On February 17, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, an article told of Senator Wray gathering reporters to his office to apprise them of his upcoming litigation which would claim most of Gravesend and the Amusement Parks. They repeat the story that the island had been bought in 1645 for a blanket, a tea kettle, and a gun. This article presents a more complete version of how Elizabeth Morey obtained her rights saying she had purchased two-thirds of the island from Elizabeth Johnson on January 22, 1883.
This seems the most logical explanation for the Morey involvement in this Coney Island property dispute – that Elizabeth Morey had purchased what she perceived to be rights to the Island. This would seem to be a speculation on her part, assuming that she could assert those rights and become fabulously wealthy. Given what we know of her personality, it also may have fueled her belief of her place in the grand scheme of things. Regardless, ownership of Coney Island, real or imagined, did not come to the Moreys through their family tree but rather it was purchased from an acquaintance.
On December 26, 1912, the Brooklyn Chat reported that Supreme Court Justice Maddox had dismissed the suit of Dreamland et al against the Moreys and Lotts that claimed they had no title and no right to pursue their action. This was good news for the Moreys and Lotts who could now move forward with their suit. They claimed title to 10,000 lots including ocean front from the Concourse to Sea Gate. It was perhaps the last good news they would get.
Things continue to progress through the courts but on October 6, 1913, the Brooklyn Citizen headline screamed: “MOREY CLAIMANTS FAIL TO APPEAR IN ANSWER TO TITLE TEST ACTION” and “Railroad Lawyers say Heir’s Case Has Collapsed” and “End of Long Litigation Over Island Now Near, Is Belief.”
Likewise, the Brooklyn Eagle wrote: “CONEY ISLAND SUIT WON BY DEFAULT” and “Morey and Lott Heirs Fail to Appear in Action to Clear Title.”
“Another stage in the gradual collapse of the so-called Morey and Lott claims in the ownership of Coney Island was marked today, when a suit to determine the title to a part of the old Dreamland site was won by Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad, by default.”
The railroad lawyer said: “This is considered by those interested in Coney Island to be an end of the complicated and expensive litigation to which the property owners have been subjected for more than two years.”
On October 27, 1913, the Times Union reported: “Morey Heirs Lose, Justice Blackmar Decides Their Coney Island Claim is Invalid.” On October 31, 1913, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle quoted the judgement:
“That under patents from the Dutch and English the Town of Gravesend was created a corporation, which became vested with the title to the land composing Coney Island, and none of the patentees or inhabitants acquired any individual title to any part thereof.
“That the town at different times divided the arable land on the island among the freeholders, but since 1645 retained possession of the remainder as common lands which it held as owner, and controlled, leased, and finally sold.
“That the deed from Thomas Stillwell, dated December 12, 1727, under which the defendants claim of title is founded, did not cover any part of the common lands.
“That neither the defendants nor any of those from whom they assert title have ever been in possession of the common lands or any part thereof.
“That at the time of the execution of the deeds under which the defendants assert title the land in question was in the possession of the railroad and its grantors claiming to be the owners.
“That the railroad is the owner in fee of the premises described in the complaint and none of the defendants have any title to it.
“That the various suits and claims brought by the defendants to the ownership of land on Coney Island have not been made in good faith and are unjust.”
The Morey group was also required to pay $1000 in costs. The idea that Elizabeth Morey could buy a neighbor’s deed dating back hundreds of years and end up owning Coney Island was never to be, Tammany Hall or no Tammany Hall. One can only imagine what infighting would likely have occurred had the Moreys and Lotts prevailed.
A number of events can be seen to have taken place in fairly close proximity to each other. In July, 1907 Elizabeth Morey died; in August, 1908 Nina Hayes accused her sister, Elizabeth, of assaulting her with a sledgehammer; in July, 1909 James Morey was arrested for attempted murder; between 1911 and 1913, the Morey family was involved in the Coney Island law suit; around 1915, Jeanne’s parents Nina and George Hayes apparently divorced and Jeanne was left to be raised with her aunt.
Jeanne Hayes Verner was born in 1903 and was a child during all of these events. She was 10 years old during the Coney Island trials. A lot for a little girl to handle. Hopefully, her aunt brought some stability into her life.
Just as Dai Vernon was a product of his parent’s values and the social structure in which he was raised, Jeanne Hayes Verner was a product of hers.
Next we will look at another Vernon story that appears to be misrepresented.
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