An article from the New York Herald Sunday, March 10, 1907
Two women lead fight for land worth millions
Abraham Bassford’s grandchildren in hunt for estate that has vanished
Tweed day frauds figure in story
Confiscation and illegal transfers are charged in amazing case now near culmination
Ancient records searched
Sisters, Estelle Clayton Evasson and Isabelle Evasson have enlisted aide of a $100,000 corporation
Interspersed with romance, intrigue and tragedy, there is soon to be told in the courts of New York a most interesting story of the hunt for a dead man’s millions. The dead man was Abraham Bassford, a wealthy manufacturer, who died in the city in 1864.
Those who have led the persistent search for his scattered estate are two grandchildren, Estelle Clayton Evasson, a well-known dramatist, and her sister, Isabel Evasson. The estate they are seeking to recover comprises lands in nearly every section of New York City, but is chiefly located in the Bronx and covers many acres of the most valuable property in that section.
With a capital of $100,000 a corporation has been formed to carry on the work begun by the two sisters and by experts. It is asserted that if the heirs regain anything approaching the holdings of Abraham Bassford at the time of his death, it will be one of the largest estates in this country. Even now it is said title has practically been established to many millions of dollars’ worth of property north of the Harlem River.
Claims to valuable lands in New York City based on ancient titles are by no means unusual, but this particular case of the Abraham Bassford heirs is viewed with much seriousness by many important interests because nearly all the facts and records come within the last half-century, and may be supported by indisputable proof. In many respects the contest is bound to become extremely important to many persons in New York City.
Tweed regime recalled
First, if the many original titles of Abraham Bassford are established, a very large number of individual owners, besides some of the title guarantee companies, may be affected. Even the present maps and records of the city will be disturbed and may have to be revised. And back of the whole matter comes the story of the alleged confiscation and fraud of the Tweed regime, through which the estate was craftily taken from its rightful inheritors. Many of the man who are said to have been interested in the transaction are dead. A few of them became exiles following the exposures of the Tweed administration, but some are still living, and will, it is expected, be called on to give valuable information concerning some of the things that happened after Abraham Bassford’s death.
Large tracts of the farms owned by Abraham Bassford, in the Bronx, have since been sold for taxes, and at the last annual tax sale in the Bronx, December 26, 1906, Fluorine A Evasson, the only surviving child of Bassford, bought in 37 parcels of these lands and a half interest in this property has been turned over to the Corporation recently formed for carrying on the work of reclamation. This step it is expected will form a basis upon which to carry on the contest for other tracts. It is stated that at least 40 acres of the most valuable part of the Bronx will be shown to have been parts of the original Abraham Bassford farms, and to which title may be acquired. In addition to this are many other tracts the title to which will be contested.
Abraham Bassford’s life and the singular heritage of vicissitude that followed him would be supremely more fitting in a tale of fiction than in a cold narration of facts. He was born in England of an aristocratic family in 1785 came to this country when he was a boy, had amassed a large fortune in the manufacture of pianos and billiard tables at the age of 49, retired from business at that time and died in August, 1864, at the age of 79, supposed to be one of the wealthiest men in the city. His wife was Abby Kathryn Kipp, a member of one of the old Knickerbocker families, and in her youth one of the most distinguished society beauties of the city
His family consisted of five sons and two daughters, the only one now surviving being Fluorine A Evasson, an aged woman and the mother of Estelle and Isabel Evasson, who for more than two years have been devoting a large part of their time to digging up the old records of their grandfathers estate.
Of artistic instincts
The family home was number 28 Jones St., where the children were surrounded with every luxury, and as they grew up they were told they would all inherit much wealth, and that instead of wasting their lives in money making pursuits it was the desire of their father that each one should follow and develop his or her highest ideals. The father possessed an artistic nature and most of his children followed along the same lines. William Bassford, who is described in the old encyclopedias as one of America’s first musicians, toured this country and Europe as a very young man, giving concerts, and later became a noted composer, teacher and organist in New York.
Franklin Bassford, another son, was also a composer of considerable note. Early in life he produced an opera, “The Phantom Ship” and at the request of his father and several influential persons abroad he decided to bring it out in Italy. With his young bride he sailed on the French ship Leonie which was lost at sea
When he and his wife sailed they left behind a three month old son, who also bore the name of Franklin Bassford. The child was reared in his grandfather’s home, and almost from infancy had a singular fondness for ships and the sea. He became a marine artist and yachting expert well-known in New York and on June 27, 1897, committed suicide by shooting himself on the deck of the steamship, the Laruda, at the foot of Communipaw Ave., Jersey City. It was said at the time that the great disappointment and being left without the fortune he had expected from his grandfather’s estate was doubtless the fundamental cause of the despondency which led to his suicide.
Romance, Intrigue, Tragedy In a Battle for Millions
Confiscation One of the Accusations Made in Connection
with the Amazing Disappearance of
the Great Estate of Abraham Bassford
TWO WOMEN LAY CLAIM TO BIG TRACTS
So in the history of nearly all of the direct heirs there appears to be some tragedy which seem to be traceable, directly or indirectly, to the loss of the Bassford millions. The elder Mrs. Bassford was a saintly gentlewoman of the old school, to whom all business affairs of her husband were entirely unknown. She was prominent in the society of the day and, as she had inherited a considerable fortune from her own father, the thought of moderate poverty never entered her mind. With her own funds supplemented by gifts from her husband, she helped to build several churches. The Chapin Home and the Hahnemann Hospital in New York and was always a liberal contributor to charities. The happiness and education of her children were her greatest cares.
In his early business life Abraham Bassford and Commodore Vanderbilt were neighbors on Staten Island, and through life they had many interests in common. Some years before his retirement the elder Bassford began purchasing farms in the Bronx, then known as Westchester County and the old deeds show that a considerable portion of the land obtained for the Harlem and Hudson River Railroad was purchased by the elder Vanderbilt from his neighbor Bassford. The first railroad station in Fordham was built by Abraham Bassford, and in doing this he evinced his shrewd business instincts by recording at that time that he proposed making more attractive and available “My tracts of land in Westchester traversed by said railroad.” He also had a private railroad running from Fordham station to his marble quarry, several miles distant
His investment in lands, particularly in the Bronx, continued on a large scale for many years. It was known generally that he was one of the wealthiest and at the same time one of the most conservative investors in the city. It was also known to his family a few weeks before his death that his estate was unencumbered, and that his only outstanding obligations were a few relatively small accounts among various tradesmen. He was known as a large lender of money on real estate and held many mortgages.
In August, 1864, he died very unexpectedly of apoplexy or it was supposed his death was from that cause, as his body was found on the ground beneath the third story window, near which he had been sitting. As he had suffered several apoplectic seizures there was no doubt that he had fallen from the window during a similar attack. For some time after his death little thought was given to the settlement of his estate, as it was believed by his family that he had left a will and all of his affairs were in good shape. Two of his sons were already dead, and the surviving heirs having abundant funds for all immediate purposes, were in no hurry to bring about a settlement.
All his affairs were left in the hands of certain lawyers, then prominent in the Tweed administration, and as they had been for many years thoroughly conversant with the business of the estate everything concerning its adjustment was left in their hands.
Several months after the death of Mr. Bassford, Mrs. Bassford received a visit from one of the lawyers and was greatly surprised to learn from him that, after weeks of diligent search here been able to find a will. This lawyer then informed Mrs. Bassford that, in the absence of a will the wisest course would be to institute a “Friendly Suit in Partition,” and that the procedure with reluctance on the part of the heirs was agreed upon.
Finally after an unexplained delay of nearly 2 years, the “Friendly suit” was begun. In 1865 and the following commissioners in partition were named: John H Haskins, James M. Miller and John Bussing. Mr. Haskins was a representative in Congress and a prominent politician. Mr. Bussing was a sheriff in Westchester County and Mr. Miller was a politician.
As guardians of the minor heirs, the court appointed Richard B Connelly and Frederick Coe. Mr. Connolly was City Controller under the boss Tweed and he was familiarly known as “Slippery Dick.” As a result of the Tweed exposures he went to France and finally died there. The referees appointed by the court were Daniel P Ingraham and Philo T Ruggles.
There followed 11 years of dreary dickering’s and delays which the inexperienced Mrs. Bassford and her children could not understand. By degrees the funds in bank began to dwindle and they could not understand that as a matter of fact there were five of these partition suits. At last, in 1878, 11 years after the first “friendly suit” in partition was started, the commission announced that their work was finished, and report filling 400 pages was submitted. The Bassfords could make very little out of the report except the one fact that was impressed upon them— their estate had somehow dwindled to a mere nothing and that the little left was heavily encumbered with mortgages in unpaid taxes. Somehow farms had disappeared as if by evaporation, and where they had supposed they had large tracts only odd corners of undesirable land remained and these heavily encumbered. Other lawyers were retained but oddly enough their interest in the case always soon flagged, and they reported that recovery of the land would involve great expense and years of litigation.
Among the transactions the Abraham Bassford heirs never could understand but which the present investigation now reveals is the fact that the commissioners in partition turned over large tracts of the Abraham Bassford lands to an alien branch of the family into which branch one of the principal attorneys had married.
It was known to the heirs that on March 27, 1861, three years prior to his death, Abraham Bassford had deeded to his grandson Franklin Bassford three large parcels in what was known as the Mulherring farm. That land is now in the vicinity of 179th and 180th Streets, the Bronx. In the partition settlements two other plots were awarded to Franklin but up to the day of his suicide he never had realized upon any of them. It was represented that they were made worthless by mortgages and taxes. Examination of the old records in White Plains and elsewhere recently in are said to have revealed some amazing facts about these transactions.
In 1875 Mrs. Evasson met a man who represented that he held a mortgage for $1300 on some property of hers in Fordham. He asked if she had the money to make a settlement and when she tearfully told him that she had not, he consoled her with the statement that if she would execute a deed to him of the property in question he would sell it at auction and turn over the balance for the use of herself and children. Mrs. Bassford insisted that she knew nothing of any mortgage, but at last she signed what was purported to be a deed of a small parcel. There was no sale, so far as the heirs ever knew and no return of any money to them.
Afterwards the same individual repudiated any agreement to sell and return the balance of the widow. Recent examination of the document executed by Mrs. Bassford at that time reveal that instead of a small parcel, they cover the whole of her share of the estate under the first partition award and this property is now worth about $500,000.
This state of affairs might have gone on forever, but after the breaking up of the Tweed ring there came a time when it was necessary to gather up the loose ends in the carefully woven structure. Titles had to be cleared in some cases and there were many persons who grew solicitous about the records in the affair. So long as all those interested in “settling” the Bassford estate remained in close touch with one another, there was little danger of annoyance from the outside, but some of them had become involved in the disclosures of the period, others had left the country and here and there strangers began looking for Bronx bargains.
It is not likely, however, that the Bassford heirs would ever have realized the true condition of affairs had it not been for the activity of a veteran real estate dealer in the Bronx, who called on Mrs. Evasson for the purpose of obtaining the quit claim deeds for the purpose, as he represented, straightening out certain technicalities of title. Mrs. Evasson with the usual Bassford placidity, signed two of these documents without question. On one occasion she was told only a few acres of land was involved in the matter and that the interest of the estate in the transaction was really infinitesimal. It was when the third request for a quit claim deed was made that Miss Estelle Evasson refused to allow her aged mother to subscribe to any more mysterious documentation and this began the tedious investigation which now seems certain to reveal many interesting things. For several years preliminary inquiry was carried on and two years ago began the personal search of the two women.
When Estelle Evasson started on the actual quest for records, her first inquiry was made in the office of one of the city departments where she expected to find certain maps and records that would support the groundwork for her further investigation. She was referred to the head of the department who had been many years in the same position. He at once informed her that most of the records and especially a certain map relating to the Bassford estate, had been lost or destroyed many years ago and that any and all efforts to unravel the old tangle would be fruitless. That refusal to produce the records which she felt sure existed, she says, was the basic inspiration to follow the search to some definite conclusion.
“I knew,” she said, “by the man’s very manner that’s some very important facts were being withheld.”
After this rebuff she appealed to a higher authority, and finally obtained the information from the same man who had refused her first request that some of the records were in his office and that she might find others in White Plains.
She was soon joined by her sister, and for two years the two women have worked most of the time from early morning until late at night delving among the musty records of unused vaults in this city and the adjoining counties. They have known no vacations since the work began and have excluded themselves from all social affairs in order that every minute and every spare dollar might be given to the work of receiving their lost millions.
They live with their aged mother in West 98th Street and their cozy little apartment provides the picturesque illustration of their faithful work as title searchers. The walls are literally covered with maps dotted with many strange marks which indicate where the original Bassford lands were located and where changes have been made in the more recent maps. Some of the maps are old and some stained and still others too precious to be left on the walls are securely locked in a strong chest. A huge cabinet built for the purpose, stands on one side of the room and that is stuffed to overflowing with copies of all deeds, tax sales, letters and other documents telling the long story of what happened to Bassford’s millions.
All told there have been found seven different maps known as “Bassford maps.” Nos. 63, 826, 377, 442, 416, 454 and 840, which show the extent of their original holdings of Abraham Bassford in the Bronx.
Only city atlases, Hyde’s Atlas and certain old maps of White Plains act to tell the story.
Maps are precious
But there are still others which cannot be found. One very important old map official and about the time of Bassford’s death, was unearthed, which showed where nearly all the sections of Bassford lands had been stripped off, leaving other parts of the map intact. Maps subsequent to that time had been made in some instances, that the tracts formally held by Bassford have disappeared altogether.
It was not until after the search had been continued for more than a year that the women discovered to what extent the Bassford estate had figured in the tax sales since Tweed’s time. Among their records they have one book of several hundred pages nearly filled with copies of these transactions showing where hundreds of parcels were sold and realigned and sold again.
Names of scores of men who had figured prominently in the political life of New York appear as purchasers of large blocks of the Abraham Bassford lands. These sales are recorded as leases for one thousand years, and in many instances the land so purchased to work quickly turned over for enormous profits. These records indicated that many city officials and not a few corporations in the city more or less remote have been very extensively interested in these negotiations. There is a considerable amount of this property still held in the name of the city and it was a part of this that was bid in by the heirs last December. It is stated that some of these pieces on which only five dollars was paid at the tax sales are worth from $10,000-$20,000.
It was not long after the investigation began before several leading lawyers of New York offered their services and carrying the work to completion and now corps of experts is engaged on the records for the purpose of getting the necessary proof to be used in the final contest. Many men whose names stand for all that is best in the financial and business world have purchased stock in the Bassford estate Corporation and are confident that the contest will be successful.
The Misses Evasson have power of attorney for all of the other heirs. While very confident that they are going to recover at least part of their grandfather’s estate, they say it is not their desire or intention to impose great loss or hardship on any persons who have innocently established homes upon these lands.
Should he succeed improving their claim even to a small part of the old Bassford farms, it will cause many very important changes in the present official maps of the city, and the possibility of such a contingency has caused controller Metx considerable concern. Speaking of the matter recently he said:– “I have caused a very thorough investigation to be made of the claims of the heirs of the Bassford estate, and the maps and records of the city as they exist today show they have little on which to base their claims. But it cannot be denied that there may be other records antedating those we have and of course they have the right to prove title if they can. We must rely on the records we now have. We cannot go back of those.”
“It is a very common thing for persons to come to this office with old maps and deeds of which they base claims for valuable property all over the city, but as a rule these alleged claims are so ancient that I pay no attention to them. This Bassford claim is more recent than most of them, and what success they may have of course I cannot tell.”
“As to the confiscation that is charged in the Bassford matter I know nothing about it. It isn’t the duty of the present administration to answer for the sins of those that have gone before us.”
Mr. Metx said the records showed that large tracts of the Bassford estate had been sold for taxes and that a considerable amount of it was still held by the city. This, he said, the rightful heirs could reclaim. It is understood that the accumulated taxes and interest on these lands now amount to several millions of dollars, but if the title can be established beyond question the present value of the land is many fold greater than the cost of reclaiming it.