Copyright © 2002 T. Mark James
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In the 1850s, several members of the Bowden family of Virginia, North Carolina and elsewhere were approached with the following story:
Elias Bowden (1763-1843), ancestor of the Bowden family in question, had married a woman named Celia Lawrence (1768-1852). This Celia Lawrence’s parents were John Lawrence and Mary Towneley, who had eloped in England and fled to Virginia because John’s family was Protestant, and Mary’s Catholic, and Mary’s father would not agree to the union. As it turned out, Mary’s father, the very wealthy Sir Richard Towneley, later regretted her departure, and left her an immense fortune when he died; but Mary, cut off from her family, had never learned of it. Now, over a century later, the estate, valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, was still held in trust, waiting for Mary’s descendants to appear. The Bowden family was entitled to the entire estate if only they would apply for it — and, of course, pay the appropriate fees.
Over the course of a decade, similar stories were offered to members of other Lawrence families in New York and Ohio, each descended from a different John Lawrence. Each family was told that John Lawrence’s wife was Mary Towneley, daughter of Sir (or Captain) Richard Towneley, sometimes said to be of Yorkshire, sometimes of Lancashire. In one variant of the story, Sir Richard had four daughters (Margaret, Cicely, Dorothy, and Mary). Two of them became nuns; one married but had no children; and only Mary, who ran off to America with John Lawrence, gave Sir Richard any heirs. Not only were Mary’s descendants the sole heirs to Sir Richard’s massive estate, but Mary’s widowed and childless sister Dorothy also left her husband’s money to Mary.
Each family was invited to subscribe to a fund for the prosecution of its rightful claim to the “Lawrence-Towneley Estate” being held in trust. Several Lawrence-Towneley Associations were set up. Subscribers were given impressive-looking certificates entitling them, for each $20 subscribed, to a $1000 share of the recovered estate. In one case, a Mr. Jasiel Lawrence, of Lewis County, New York, was presented with a document entitled “Genealogy and Decree of Chancery” in which he was proclaimed “the SOLE HEIR to the Lawrence-Townley Estate.” Every one of these stories was, of course, fraudulent, and the certificates worthless. In most cases, the perpetrators simply vanished with the money. In this first round of Lawrence-Towneley scams, not a single claim to the fortune of Richard Towneley was ever filed. This is because there was no fortune to be recovered.
A member of the Bowden family, Benjamin Tynes Bowden (1803-1863), grandson of John Lawrence and the supposed Mary Towneley, proposed to go to London to investigate the story, but died before making the trip. Ironically, he could have saved himself the trouble if he had simply researched his own name. His middle name came from his grandmother, whose maiden name was not Towneley at all, but Tynes. John Lawrence is referred to as a son-in-law in the 1769 will of Benjamin’s great-grandfather, Thomas Tynes, of Isle of Wight County, Virginia. There was no Towneley connection at all.
There really was a Richard Towneley, proprietor of a large estate in Burnley, in Lancashire. He died sometime between December 1706, when he wrote the last codicil to his will, and April 1707, when the will was proved in court. He did not have a daughter named Mary, although he did have daughters named Cicely and Margaret. More to the point, he had sons named Charles, Richard and Thomas. Charles, apparently the eldest son, received the bulk of the estate. There were no absent heirs, and no part of the Richard Towneley estate was ever placed in trust. And there was no one named Lawrence in the picture at all. In fact the John Lawrence who was the ancestor of the Bowden family was not even born until 1744, thirty-seven years after Richard Towneley’s death.
By a curious coincidence, the Towneley estate — the real one — ran into genuine trouble at about the time the “Lawrence-Towneley” scam was running out of steam in America. Colonel John Towneley, last of Richard’s male line of descent, died in Burnley in 1878, leaving no one to administer the extensive estate. The British Parliament devised the Towneley Estates Act in 1885, which divided the estate among seven heirs. However, by this time word of the break-up of the estate had reached America, where several of the “Lawrence-Towneley” associations revived and joined together to challenge the distribution. They engaged an English High Court solicitor named Howell Thomas, who made effusive promises to the Americans as to the likelihood of a successful outcome. In 1886 he filed an action in the High Court to recover possession of the estate. The court dismissed the action as frivolous, which indeed it was, since it was based upon the patently false stories and genealogies that the Americans had been sold during the first round of the scams.
But Howell Thomas knew a lucrative line of business when he saw one. Charging handsome fees all along the way, he appealed the decision, first to the Court of Appeal, and when that failed, to the House of Lords, which threw the case out in 1890. By this time the American clients were becoming belatedly aware that Howell Thomas was milking them for all they were worth. Thomas was hauled before the Central Criminal Court in 1894, charged with forgery, perjury, and fraud. By one account, he had taken $80,000 from his clients, essentially for nothing.
Meanwhile, Frank Alden Hill, a descendant of one of the northern John Lawrences, conducted his own investigation into the matter. He obtained a copy of Richard Towneley’s will and found no daughter named Mary mentioned. He researched the history of the Towneley estate, and discovered that none of it had ever been placed in trust for American heirs or anyone else. He published his findings in 1888, in a book called The Lawrence, Chase, Towneley Estate: The Mystery Solved.
None of this, however, was enough to quench the wishful thinking on the part of some Lawrence descendants. Around 1900, several of them in Texas took up the cause again. They included two brothers, B. T. and Nathaniel Howard, of Moore, Texas, who were the above-mentioned Benjamin Tynes Bowden’s nephews, and Mrs. R. J. Parker, of San Antonio, granddaughter of Benjamin Tynes Bowden. Together they engaged a New York lawyer (who, one suspects, may have approached them in the first place) to pursue the claim. This lawyer had hooked himself a good fish, since the Howards and Parkers were well off. The situation was described in a letter written by Nathaniel Howard in 1911. The lawyer, not named, had persuaded them to pay for a trip to England, from which he had returned with bright promises: The family pedigree which Benjamin Tynes Bowden had been given was genuine, the estate was in the final stages of settlement, and just a few more pesky but somewhat costly steps remained to be taken. His Texan clients would soon be very wealthy indeed.
The affair, of course, dragged on, and then World War I intervened to provide an excuse for further delay. The victims of this scam were nonetheless upbeat. In 1916 an article appeared in the Sunday society section of the San Antonio Express, recounting in glowing terms the prospect of immense riches for the Howards and the Parkers; the title of the article was “War’s End Means Fortune For These Texans.” It had sumptuous photographs of Towneley Hall, listed the bogus genealogy of Mary Towneley, and displayed the Towneley coat of arms. The article stated that “Mrs. Parker’s share of the estates approximates $850,000, and a fortune equivalent to about four times that figure will go to Mr. Howard, who represents one generation nearer the estate.”
They never received a penny, because the Towneley estate trust did not exist. But the desire to believe in such good fortune is very strong, as indicated in the San Antonio Express article. One of the Texas claimants, whom the article did not name, went so far as to invent old family stories about the estate, and to express faith that they would “in time to come bequeath the old remembrances to their children as our parents have done to us when we used to sit by the fireside and talk late into the night about this old estate and the bright prospects for the future.”
Most of the material for this Webpage was provided by Joyce Hornback, a genealogist in Houston, Texas. Much of it comes from research by Bettie Schnee. Specific sources:
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Towneley Fraud Page revision 1.00, last updated on 6 April 2002.
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