Edgena de Lespine: Of Mansions, Movies, and Murder

Today we scratch out a few lines on an obscure and minor figure whom we stumbled across while (of all things) making corrections on Wikipedia. (Making factual corrections is not my bag at all, it was a point of word usage and style that sometimes crops up in relation to vaudeville that I was addressing.)

At any rate, the person in question is actress Edgena De Lespine (Edgena Stoddard Brown, 1882-1920). De Lespine was the daughter of a local hardware baron in Galveston, Texas. Her marriage at age 18 to a young man named Eugene W. Tips was considered significant enough that the New Orleans Times-Picayune covered it (New Orleans being 500 miles away). A description of the Brown family mansion Live Oak Terrace, built by her father, and society life in Galveston, can be found here.

In 1910 Edgena appeared in The Turning Point, a play by Preston Gibson, another society figure of the region, the son of Louisiana Senator and Congressman Randall Gibson. The New York production of this play was panned due to extenstive plagiarism on Gibson’s part — he copped many of his witty lines from the plays of Oscar Wilde. De Lespine also toured with stock companies and appeared in vaudeville in two sketches, “Mammy Lou” and “The First Baby”. These are what brought her to the attention of the Reliance Film Company, then run by Harry Aitken. From 1912 to 1913, she appeared in over two dozen films for Reliance, including an adaptation of Boucicault’s London Assurance, and several films where she was teamed with child star Runa Hodges.

In early 1914 it was announced that De Lespine was signing with Biograph but she appears not to have acted in any films there, at least not under any of the names heretofore attributed to her. Over the next few years, however, she advertised her services as a high end personal shopper, offering to purchase New York fashions for the ladies back home. In 1915 she married Wall Street stock broker Henry G. Hemming…and thereby hangs a series of tales that outlive our original heroine.

Edgena died in early 1920, just a few weeks prior to her 38th birthday. Within a matter of months, Hemming then proceeded to marry Edgena’s older sister Helen, who had been married twice previously and had a fourteen year old daughter. Helen’s second husband Richard Thorne had vanished mysteriously, and she continued to live on their estate called “Viewpoint” on Duck Island, near Northport, Long Island. Two months into her marriage to Hemming, Helen had found him to be violent and abusive. According to her testimony she had sought protection from a caretaker at the house named Frank Eberhardt. Eberhardt, an Austrian immigrant with limited English and perhaps limited intelligence, was supposed to have misunderstood Helen’s instructions. Following a brief altercation with Hemming, he shot the man to death in front of Helen and her daughter, then walked upstairs and shot himself. Naturally, these unsavory doings caused much scandal, and there was a wealth of speculation that Helen had ordered a murder-for-hire, and newspapers called for an investigation. If there was one, apparently it turned up too little to merit charges of a trial, for the case appears to have died out within a couple of years, amidst grumblings that “Justice had given up her seat for a lady”.

And so with typical cruel pleasure I leave you with several unanswered questions. What happened to Edgena’s first husband? What was Edgena’s cause of death, given that Hemming was no pussycat? What became of Thorne? And what was Helen’s role in Hemmings’ murder? Four mysteries of varying degrees of intrigue. If I knew the answers, I would tell — I’m not that cruel! But the solutions, if they are there to be found after being buried for over a century, are for someone with other priorities to unearth.

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For more on the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous and for more on silent film please read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.