Advice from the dead haunted lawsuit against Hugh Eldridge

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 2, 2013 

Hugh Eldridge

Hugh Eldridge

WHATCOM MUSEUM — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

It was the early summer instead of Halloween, but spirits from the netherworld were big news in 1905.

San Francisco newspapers had a field day covering depositions in a lawsuit filed against Hugh Eldridge, Bellingham's postmaster and the son of Whatcom pioneers Edward and Teresa Eldridge.

The suit was filed by the heirs of Erastus Bartlett, a wealthy Californian who believed in spiritualism and whose business dealings included transactions with Edward Eldridge.

According to the depositions of two female "trance mediums," Hugh Eldridge tried to defraud Bartlett by having the women spoon-feed him advice from the dead urging him to deed his interest in some property in Bellingham to Teresa Eldridge.

Editors had fun with the story, conjuring such headlines as "Spirits Make Big Land Deal" and "Go-Between for the Shades Declares They Advised Transfer of Property."

Several newspapers published the content of more than 20 letters to the women entered into evidence, letters often on Post Office letterhead and said to be written by Hugh Eldridge.

THE PLAYERS

Scottish native Edward Eldridge sailed to California in 1849 to try his luck in the gold fields. He had better luck finding a bride and soon married Teresa Lapin, a native of Ireland. Eldridge bumped into Henry Roeder, an acquaintance from their sailing days on the Great Lakes, and agreed to move to Bellingham Bay, where Roeder and Russell Peabody had started a mill on Whatcom Creek.

Eldridge helped run the mill and went on to earn a fortune as a land owner and as president of a bank and other companies. His wife, known as the "Mother of Whatcom," cooked for the mill workers and raised several children, including Hugh, born in 1860.

Hugh Eldridge inherited a fortune from his father, who died in 1892. He also inherited his dad's interest in politics, winning election as county auditor twice and winning appointment as postmaster.

Erastus Bartlett sailed to California in 1850, where he had better luck making money in the mines. He enlarged his fortune by controlling ferry steamers in the Bay Area, and invested in real estate up and down the West Coast and in his native Maine.

Bartlett and Edward Eldridge were partners in several deals. With Bartlett as a silent partner, they owned a mill where Boulevard Park is now located. In 1890 they sold the Bellingham townsite to Fairhaven developers for $1 million, called the largest real estate deal ever in Whatcom County.

And in an 1889 deal they co-owned 640 acres along Whatcom Creek, property that become the focus of the "spirits" lawsuit.

THE COMPLAINT

Erastus Bartlett died July 24, 1902, in Oakland, Calif. He was in his early 90s.

Interestingly, Elizabeth Tully, one of the "trance mediums," sued his estate seeking $1,450 that she said Bartlett owed her for services rendered "in the capacity of nurse, massager and rubber."

According to the heirs' lawsuit against Hugh Eldridge, Tully and the other medium, Hattie Arens, rendered bogus spiritual advice to the elderly Bartlett at the behest of Eldridge.

Both women testified that Eldridge offered them $2,500 each to relay messages from dead people, real and imagined, to persuade Bartlett to submit writings saying he had transferred his share of the 640 acres to Teresa Eldridge.

After several years the women convinced Bartlett to send the necessary paperwork. To do so they relayed messages from Edward Eldridge, then deceased; from Bartlett's two dead sons; from a deceased lawyer friend of Bartlett's; and from two Indian spirits, "Buffalo Blanket" and "Mina." The trance messages, according to the letters, were suggested by Hugh Eldridge.

Early news stories said the Bellingham property was worth $75,000 to $80,000. A later story said Eldridge and his mother not only obtained Bartlett's share of the property but also Bartlett's claims against Fairhaven Land Co. and another parcel in Bellingham, together valued at about $200,000, or about $5 million in today's dollars.

Eldridge's problem, according to news accounts, was that he didn't pay the two trance women as promised, which presumably left them angry, if not dispirited.

It was also reported that Bartlett's grandson, one of the heirs, paid the women $1,000, with a promise of $2,500 later, for use of the incriminating letters.

It's fortunate that newspapers covered the testimony closely, because the case, filed in Whatcom County Superior Court, was settled in 1908 for an undisclosed sum and with the provision that depositions, letters and other evidence be removed from the court file.

Poof! No more record of spooks, even if they were, as alleged, only concocted to bamboozle an aging tycoon.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com.

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