Biggar than life: The forgotten story of how a girl from Delaware gained wealth and fame through the power of charm, talent, and lawyers
In 1902, the nation’s newspapers couldn’t get enough of the story of Delaware’s Laura Biggar, a moderately successful actress, who inherited a large fortune from a millionaire admirer and was willing to go to great lengths, not all of them legal, to keep it. Like many 19th century actors, she embellished her biography in newspaper interviews, but it is possible to verify some facts. Laura was born in Delaware in 1866, the only child of Joseph and Jane Bigger. (She changed the spelling of her last name to Biggar after she began her acting career.) Although she claimed in later interviews that her parents were wealthy, they seem to have been a modest working class family. They lived originally in Delaware City, where her father was a carpenter. By 1880, they had moved to Wilmington and lived in the Quaker Hill section of the city in a row house on 6th street.
She began performing at an early age. In 1876, 10 year old Laura appeared in charades in Delaware City, playing her part “in a manner truly wonderful for one of her age” according to a local paper. As a teenager she sang and gave dramatic readings in student recitals and charity concerts in Wilmington and nearby towns. By 1884 she was appearing in Philadelphia in light operas like Princess Ida. She then performed with several touring companies, primarily on the west coast. In 1886 she married J. W. McConnell, a fellow actor, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They had one son, J. W. McConnell, Jr., but eventually divorced. By 1887 she and McConnell had joined producer William A. Brady’s touring company, initially playing supporting roles in After Dark and She. By 1890 she was playing the lead in Brady’s production of The Clemenceau Case, a popular melodrama with a scandalous nude modeling scene.
In 1892 she began appearing in her most successful role, as the lead in the hugely popular early musical, A Trip to Chinatown. A Trip to Chinatown was the Hamilton of the 1890s, so popular that at one point there were two productions running in New York at the same time, as well as multiple touring shows. Laura starred with Bert Haverly, a popular actor, who she may or may not have married. They claimed to be married at the time, but both denied it later. They toured together throughout most of the 1890s.
At some point in the late 1890s she met and moved in with Henry Bennett, an elderly millionaire, who owned a theater in Pittsburgh and various properties in New York and New Jersey. When Bennett died in 1902, he left Biggar the majority of his fortune, valued at approximately $1,500,000 according to the New York Times. Bennett’s other heirs quickly challenged the will.
At this point Biggar played her trump card. She retreated to a sanitarium in New Jersey, where her doctor/lawyer, C. C. Hendrick, announced that Biggar and Bennett had been secretly married and that she had given birth to Bennett’s son shortly after the millionaire’s death, the baby then dying several days later. The infant would have inherited Bennett’s entire fortune and Laura Biggar would now inherit from the child.
During the civil trial over the will, in a dramatic turn worthy of a 19th century stage melodrama, Dr. Hendrick and the chief witness, an ex-justice of the peace named Stanton who claimed to have performed the secret marriage, were arrested right in the courtroom. The marriage was a fraud. The dead infant had been procured by Dr. Hendrick from the morgue at his sanitarium. Biggar, Hendrick and Stanton, were charged with conspiracy. After a sensational trial, Hendrick and Stanton were convicted but Laura Biggar was acquitted.
A triumphant Laura eventually settled her civil suit with Bennett’s estate, receiving $620,000 plus $1,800 a year for life. This is the equivalent of about $17 million and $50,000 today. One newspaper account claimed that when she sold her share of Bennett’s Pittsburgh theater, she insisted on receiving the money in gold coins weighing 713 pounds, which had to be carried to the train station by 6 porters.
She next moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico with Dr. Hendrick, whose conviction had been overturned on appeal, where she bought a newspaper and made Dr. Hendrick the editor. The paper went out of business after a year and she then moved to California. In 1910 she was living in a hotel suite in Los Angeles.
But Biggar wasn’t done keeping lawyers in business yet. In 1903, she was sued by Dr. Hendrick’s wife for alienation of affection. That case continued until 1910 when Mrs. Hendrick won a $75,000 judgement, said to be the largest alienation of affection judgment at the time. Laura married Dr. Hendrick in 1916. They were married until his death two years later. She was also involved in a lawsuit over the sale of Bennett’s theater and was sued several times for failing to pay her bills.
After 1910 Laura Biggar dropped out of the newspapers and lived the rest of her life quietly, in the wealthy Jefferson Park section of Los Angeles with her son and his wife. She died in 1935. I have been unable to find an obituary for her.