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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Edith S Billings

Edith S. Billings wrote a couple of historical novels and is not the kind of author I would normally stumble across. However, she popped up on the radar of my mate John Herrington, who dropped me a line asking what thoughts I had on her somewhat erratic claims about how old she was.

It begins with a rather straightforward claim on a passport application in which Edith S. Billings claimed she was born in Merthyr Tydfil on 14 April 1878. The application (above), made in 1919, revealed a little about her, including the fact that she was married and had lived in the USA for many years.

A little digging turned up a marriage certificate for Stanley Billings with enough clues to identify him fairly quickly. His story is relatively easy to tell. Born in Hinckley, Leicestershire, in 1867, he was the son of John Billings and his wife Hannah (nee Beardsmore) and was working as a clerk when he emigrated to the United States in around 1884. He had become a naturalized American citizen on 9 October 1890 and by 1900 was describing his occupation as working in 'dry goods'. He lived in Passaic, New Jersey, until 1918 when, it is thought, he died.

Stanley had married his wife on 5 February 1888 in Manhattan. Their marriage reveals that Edith was born Edith Davis, the daughter of John H. Davis and his wife M. J. (nee Thomas).

Births in Glamorganshire in the period around the supposed birth of Edith S. Davis include only three suspects of which one seems highly likely: Edith Susan Davies (sic), b. Merthyr Tydfil, 2Q 1868 (the other two were born in Neath, 1Q 1872, and Bridgend, 1Q 1874). In 1881, Edith, aged 12, was living in Alma Place, St Mary, Tinby, Pembrokeshire with her mother, Mary Jane Davies (sic) (33), and siblings Charles H. (9), Arthur E. (6), Thomas H. (5) and Gladys M(arie?) (4 months). The middle three children were all born in Hyde Park, Pennsylvania, whilst Gladys was born in Tenby.

According to the 1910 census, Edith arrived in the USA in 1882 (1885 per 1900 census) and was 35 years old, having added only 5 years onto her age since the previous census ten years before when she claimed she was 30 and born in May 1870. Her husband had also shed some years, aging only six years (36 to 42). The latter was correct as, curiously, he had given his birth as April 1864 in the 1900 census, making his three years older than he actually was.

The 1910 census also notes that they have a son, Harold, aged 14, born in New York in c.1895. Passenger record for the Lucania, which arrived in Liverpool from New York on 16 November 1895 and returned to New York a month later, arriving on 30 December 1895, shows Stanley (27) and Edith (25) travelling without any child in tow. Nor is Harold to be found living with them at the time of the 1900 census, when Stanley and Edith were boarders with George and Madeline Alvord in Manhattan, N.Y. Harold may be the Harold Billings found in the 1930 census, aged 33, living in White Plains, Westchester, N.Y., with his wife Anna. The census return notes that he was born in New York and both parents were born in England, which matches what is known.

Edith S. Billings began writing and published An Egyptian Love Spell in 1914, which has been described as "Tells in a popular way about the theory of reincarnation." This appeared under the byline Maris Herrington Billings, as did her first novel, Cleomenes, set in Nero's court and climaxing with the burning of ancient Rome. The novel, published in 1917, was dramatized as a 4-act play by Keith Wakeman in 1919. Wakeman then adapted A Priestess of the Sun in 3 acts and an epilogue "from the book of Maris Warrington [Billings]" in 1920.

Following her husband's death, Edith was living at 7522 17th Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, and described herself as an author and editor. She returned to England  in 1919 and sold the rights to Cleomenes to Jarrolds, who published it under the byline Maris Warrington in 1920. This was followed by a second historical novel, The Knight of Ravenswood, about Richard the Lionheart, published in 1922.

On 14 February 1922, Granby Billings, a 90-year-old chemist, arrived at Southampton from New York. Billings was described as having lived in Canada; with him was Edith Billings, a 42-year-old widow from New York. Both gave the same London address: 7 Endsleigh Gardens. Soon after, in 2Q 1922, it is recorded that Edith S. Billings married Granby S. Howard in Pancras, London.

It is thought that this was Granby Staunton Howard who had quite a fascinating background. In 1894, Howard — then around 60 years of age — was accused of swindling $5,000 from Mrs. Joseph H. Sprecht, wife of a wealthy St. Louis clothing dealer who lived at Gunton Hall, VA.

Howard was living in Montreal and styling himself as "Dr.", although he held no medical license in Canada and was making a living selling patent medicines. Dr. Howard stood over six feet in height, and was described as having "a really handsome face and courtly address, he has the added advantage of a splendid education and great power of self-command." Howard claimed at various times to have been descended from the historical Howards of Norfolk on his father's side; that he was a baron by descent, one of the original thirty barons of England; that while he was heir to the baronial estate he went to India, entered the Brahmin-Indian order and gave up his heirship to his younger brother.

He also claimed to have been a Colonel in the 17th Lancers, the "Death and Glory Boys", and that he had served through the Indian Mutiny with that distinguished company. He also claimed to have cultivated 20,000 acres of land in Northumberland and that he owned several millions of acres of land in Canada. He was, he said, an intimate acquaintance of Her Majesty the Queen, and to have accompanied the Prince of Wales of Canada and the United States in around 1861; he was acquainted with the Duke of Newcastle and a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

Howard also claimed this his mother was an East Indian Begum and, through this connection, he was the Prince of Praagaya. He also styled himself the The Sage of Aru (Aru being, supposedly, in the Himalayas) and was a disciple of occultism. He had lived in Montreal in 1887-91 — being declared insolvent in 1889 — before moving to St. Louis where he was introduced by one of his followers to Mrs. Emma Sprecht. Over the next few years she became more and more engrossed in Howard's order and he obtained various sums of money from her and her husband. After Joseph Sprecht eventually took out an action against Howard in 1894, his wife left him and moved to Ontario where Howard was said to have obtained most of her money, pawning her jewellery and  encouraging her to auction her clothing.

Howard moved back to Canada where he attempted to sue the Montreal Star for libel in 1898 over reports it had carried about his activities in St. Louis, which led to a great deal of testimony being heard in Ontario. Howard himself appeared. He claimed that he had come to America in 1884 and obtained his medical degree from The Wisconsin Medical College and practiced medicine in Washington and other places, specialising in nervous diseases and nose and throat. Prior to that, he had travelled around the world a number of years for the health of his wife and was crossing America intending to return to England when, in 1886, he met with an accident in Quebec and, returning to Montreal, had set up in business there.

The libel action failed and costs were awarded against the plaintiff. It was not the last time that Dr Howard found himself in trouble. The New York Times on 24 January 1922 reported that a New York pearl merchant named David I Rogow was launching an action against Granby Staunton Howard of Carleton Place, Ontario, for selling him $150,000 worth of paintings which Howard claimed were the original works of old masters and famous modern artists but proved to be copies.

Three weeks later, "Granby Billings" and Edith S. Billings arrived in Southampton aboard the Cunard liner Aquitania. Howard, over six foot in height and reputedly aged 90, accompanying Edith Billings, under half his age at 42 and small at 5 feet 2 inches, with blue-eyed with dark brown hair. They must have made an interesting couple.

After their marriage in 1922, there is almost no trace of Granby or Edith Howard. Edith's novel, Cleomenes was re-registered for copyright by Edith S. Howard, of Rutherford, N.J., in 1944, so we have to presume that she returned to the United States some time in between. By then she was in her late 70s, so it seems likely that she died in New Jersey.

As for Granby, he is even more elusive. Virtually nothing turns up on a search for him, other than two passenger records noting his arrival in Canada in 1921, where his age is given as 60 and his birthplace as Northumberland, England, and his arrival in New York on 29 December 1921 from Bermuda. Again, the age is 60 and he is English. In the latter it would appear, although the record itself isn't easy to read, that he is travelling with his niece.

Are 60-year-old Granby Howard and 90-year-old Granby Howard one and the same? Was Edith Billings the niece he was travelling with from Bermuda to New York in 1921 and was Howard the "Granby Billings" who travelled from New York to England in 1922?

Was Granby Howard even his real name? It doesn't turn up on any birth records in the UK (although if he was born in c.1831, that would predate births being centrally registered) or marriage records — and the court case in 1898 revealed that he was married. It is also known from the court case that he adopted the name Wilson for some time, so other identities are also quite possible.

And how did Edith Billings end up marrying a man who appears to have been a serial conman?

All mysteries for another day.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels as Maris Warrington Billings
Cleomenes. The new "Quo Vadis". New York, John Lane Company, 1917; as by Maris Warrington, London, Jarrolds, 1920.
The Knight of Ravenswood. A romance of Richard the Lionheart (as by Maris Warrington). London, Jarrolds, 1922.

Non-fiction by Maris Herrington Billings
An Egyptian Love Spell (ser: The World, Nov 1913). New York, The Central Publishing Co., Jul 1914.

(* Most of the information about Granby S. Howard is derived from Report of the Trial of the Libel Suit of Dr. G. S. Howard, of Carleton Place, Ont., against the "Montreal Star" - reprint from the "Star", 1898, available online here.)

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