In 1890, the descendants of two of America’s first families – the Sargents and the Hamiltons – traveled to Wyoming to start a new life. Their story of murder and insanity, if it wasn’t provably true, would seem like the plot of a soap opera about the pioneers who opened the west.
How exactly John Dudley Sargent and Robert Ray Hamilton became friends isn’t clear. Sargent was a member of New England’s Sargent family – with roots back to colonial times.
In 1861, John’s parents – Henry Sargent and Alice Hemenway – married in Machias, Maine. As a baby born into two New England wealthy families, it might seem John arrived on earth with a silver spoon in his mouth. The Sargents and Hemenways were in remote Machias to develop their real estate and shipping interests.
But there was an oddity in Sargent’s lineage. His birth came only five months after his parent’s marriage – not exactly scandalous in itself. But Sargent would later say that his mother introduced him to a man and told him that Henry was not his real father. And that he would ultimately be disinherited.
John was never Henry’s favorite, so his decision to move west would have been a relief to the entire clan. In 1885, John had married Adelaide Crane – a member of one of Machias’ well-to-do shipping and timbering families. The couple had three children and John sporadically explored the western United States looking for opportunities.
He drove a stage, worked the railroad and was a ranch hand. Intermittently he would return to Machias. On some occasions Adelaide traveled with John and on other occasions she did not.
Finally, in 1889, John made a more permanent move west with his family, establishing a ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Sargent belonged to a class of men known as remittance men – the offspring of well-to-do families who were paid by their families to move west, more or less to get them away from everyone else.
John’s move put him on a collision course with Robert Ray Hamilton, who was himself heir to a famous family name. Hamilton was a fourth-generation descendent of Alexander Hamilton. He had a career as a lawyer and politician in New York. But no one would mistake Robert Ray Hamilton for a genius. His life took on a soap opera quality in 1888 when he discovered some shocking information about his wife, Eva.
Eva was an irascible, greedy woman who spent the years of her marriage to Robert siphoning off his wealth. She had conned him into marriage by presenting him with a baby that she claimed was his. In 1888, the wheels came off her scheme. Eva stabbed the nurse looking after the baby and was charged with attempted murder. In the lead-up to the trial, the details of her story emerged.
Eva was actually already married before she and Robert got married. Eva and her mother and husband bought the baby she said belonged to Robert for $10. Robert – whose friends had abandoned him because of his wife – was disgraced by the episode. In its wake, he travelled West to restore his peace of mind.
In Jackson Hole, Hamilton met up with John Dudley Sargent. The families probably knew one another, and Hamilton and Sargent hit it off famously. Together they decided to build a lodge – Marymere – with an eye toward eventually operating it as a tourist destination for the growing numbers of people who were coming west to see the wonders of what’s now known as Yellowstone National Park.
What happened next has always been a matter of controversy. In August of 1890, while on a hunting trip, Hamilton disappeared. Sargent raised an alarm about his disappearance, and Hamilton was eventually found, drowned in the Snake River. His body was stuffed into a box and hastily buried until friends retrieved it and returned it to New York.
Officially the circumstances leading up to the death were never resolved. He had simply drowned while fording the river on horseback. Unofficially, everyone in Jackson Hole knew what had happened: John Dudley Sargent had killed Robert Ray Hamilton to take full control over their property.
The New York press had a field day with the allegations, but no proof ever came forward. Sargent settled into the business of running Marymere for the wealthy easterners who wanted a luxurious trip through the western wilderness. Hamilton’s heirs did not challenge him.
In 1897, however, the ranch would claim its second victim: John’s wife Adelaide. In March of that year, a soldier stopping by Marymere discovered Adelaide in a terrible condition. She was sick and John was doing nothing to help her. When his story reached Jackson Hole, the townspeople made a visit to the remote Marymere.
The News-Register of Evanston reported on what the posse found:
Upon arrival at the Sargent place they were confronted with the puritan visage of Sargent and ordered off the premises, with all the lordly eloquence of a diseased mind.
The visitors forced their way into the house.
“A harrowing and sorrowful sight met their gaze. Lying upon a couch, was a woman, wasted and worn by disease and suffering. Inquiry developed the fact that during her long illness no hand of pity, no heart of love, had been held out to her by the brute who, fifteen years before, had sworn to love, honor and protect her. Lying there alone, neglected and dying, was the mother of his children, while Sargent, steeped in the fumes of opium and morphine, calmly awaited the moment of her death.”
The rescuers returned Adelaide to town, but she didn’t survive.
John Dudley Sargent briefly fled the state, but on his return he was arrested and charged with his wife’s murder. The rumors flew thick and furious. Some said Adelaide had said John admitted to killing Robert Ray Hamilton before she died. Others said that Adelaide said nothing incriminating, but that she had been trampled by a horse at the ranch and Sargent had simply taken her inside. Sargent himself would later claim that Adelaide died in childbirth.
At his trial in 1900, Sargent was acquitted. By now, Sargent’s children had been returned to Maine to live with relatives.
In 1906. Sargent married again. Edith Drake of New York was his second wife. In town, she was rumored to be at least as eccentric as John. She sunbathed in the nude and the couple had turned Marymere into an oasis of civilization in the wilderness.
A piano was brought to the home, along with expensive furnishings. Edith was known for frequently playing her violin. The couple listened often to the Victrola, and John even took to selling them for a time. But this relatively tranquil period in John’s life ended quickly.
It was rumored that John was being paid by Edith’s family to keep her comfortable and out of the public eye. He was definitely receiving financial support in the form of loans from Edith’s brother.
In 1912, Edith traveled to visit family in California. She had grown tired of trying to make a successful life in Wyoming, and she hoped to persuade John to open a hotel with her in California. John resisted. After all the years in the Wyoming wilderness, he was reluctant to move.
In July of 1913, Marymere claimed its final victim: John Dudley Sargent himself. Despondent, Sargent had sat in his chair and listened to his Victrola one final time. He had attached a string to the trigger of his rifle and tied it to his toe. As the music came to a stop, he used his toe to fire the rifle and blast a hole in his head.
Sargent’s suicide was discovered within several days. He was buried at Marymere and to this day there is no final assessment about his life, beyond his legend as a pioneer who carved a home out of a remote and hostile wilderness. Murderer? Eccentric? A stain on his wealthy family? A persecuted soul? His story simply ended.
Thanks to: A Tale of Dough Gods, Bear Grease, Cantaloupe, and Sucker Oil : Marymere/Pinetree/Mae-Lou/AMK Ranch by Kenneth and Lenore Diem and William Lawrence.