February 19, 2024




Note: February 2024 - I recently did a presentation for the Sullivan-Sorrento Historical Society (SSHS) about the owners of one of the first cottages built in the new resort of Sorrento and their connection to this intriguing wedding -- the very first in the newly built Church of the Redeemer -- held in 1891 in Sorrento - CLICK HERE.

More about Isaac and Lee Gwynn Lawrence and their Sorrento compound they called "Grassmere" is found in my post here - CLICK HERE.


In 1892, an ongoing series of violent attacks across the South against black citizens by white vigilantes enraged a local African-American journalist and political advocate in Memphis Tennessee named Ida B. Wells.  In The Free Speech, the local newspaper where she was an owner, Wells began to write articles describing the lynchings and calling for authorities to prosecute assailants.

In March of 1892, the violence took a more personal turn when three African-American men, among them a local grocer and friend of Ida's, were arrested after a minor disagreement at his store.  A mob attacked the local jail, dragged the men out, and killed them.  Wells wrote a heated editorial condemning the police for not protecting the men and called on the local black community to abandon the city and move West. 

As a result of her stand, a few months later a group of white men ransacked and destroyed her newspaper's office. Luckily at the time of the attack, Wells was traveling on the East Coast and decided it was unsafe to return to Memphis to resume her journalism career. Instead, she accepted an offer made by publisher T. Thomas Fortune, to join his Black-owned newspaper called the New York Age

On June 8, 1892, an Associated Press dispatch from Memphis Tennessee reported on an assault and attempted rape that had occurred a few weeks earlier against an African-American cook at a house owned by a local resident named A. J. Doleson (it is possible this name was misreported and may have been the son of Andrew Jackson Donelson Jr.).  The article identified the victim as Mattie Cole, and she alleged her drunken assailant was a 29-year-old local cotton broker named Ellerton Dorr Jr. who lived in the neighboring property. 

Ellerton Lodge Dorr Jr. circa 1922 at age 59

Luckily for Mattie, before Dorr could finish his assault her employer heard her screams and was able to chase her attacker away.  Dorr fled the scene in his carriage possibly to Oakhurst Plantation, 75 miles south in Clarksdale Mississippi, where he lived with his wife and children.  An investigation ensued and while a local grand jury did not return an indictment, Judge Julius J. DuBose who was assigned to the case was convinced by Mattie's story to swear out a bench warrant for Dorr's arrest. Rather than face the authorities, Ellerton Dorr, reportedly the first white man charged with assault and attempted rape against a black woman in the United States, fled the state.

A picture of Oakhurst Plantation from a 1909 article 

Despite also being forced to flee her home in Memphis after her newspaper offices were looted in 1892, Ida B. Wells continued to speak out and lecture about the violence against African Americans in the United States.  In October of that year, she published her first book, which included an introduction written by Frederick Douglass, entitled Southern Horrors; Lynch Law in all its Phases. 

The pamphlet documents many horrible attacks that were occurring around the country, especially against Black men accused of sexually assaulting white women. She wanted to make the point to her readers that the "...Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning." In the second chapter entitled The Black and White of It, she writes about specific cases of African-American men involved in relationships with white women that were seemingly consensual. While "...Southern white men in insatiate fury wreak their vengeance without intervention of law against Afro-Americans who consort with their women.

At the end of the chapter she decries the injustice that when the situation was reversed, and a black woman was attacked by a white man, no such outrage was ever expressed. She provides several examples of these attacks by white men, including an attempted rape that had occurred only a few months earlier in Memphis that involved a local white businessman named Ellerton L. Dorr 

Dorr -- the perpetrator of that attack -- had been the bridegroom at a hastily called ceremony in Sorrento Maine held in the newly built Church of the Redeemer only a year earlier in June of 1891. (Note: this newspaper misspelled Dorr's first name as well as his bride's maiden name.)


Many weddings had no doubt been held on Waukeag Neck before Sorrento was established, and the beautiful resort may have even hosted a few at the new hotel in the years since its founding in 1886. However, on a Thursday morning in late June 1891, the first wedding documented as taking place in the Church of Redeemer in Sorrento Maine was held.  The church building was a gift from Eva Smith Cochran to the community and had been consecrated the previous summer on Sunday, August 24, 1890, St. Bartholomew's Day.  And the wedding was a hastily planned affair hosted by summer residents Lee and Isaac Lawrence who owned two of the new cottages at the resort.

The bride at this intimate ceremony was Lee Lawrence's sister, Elizabeth Gwynn Hancock, the widow of Russell Hancock.  Elizabeth's husband had died suddenly seven years earlier in 1884 at the age of 34 at their home in Mississippi.  At the time Elizabeth was widowed, she was 31 years old and the mother of three young children.

Russell's father, Elizabeth's father-in-law, was Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. The General's other child, Ada Elizabeth Hancock had also died suddenly ten years earlier in 1874 at the age of 18.

General Hancock, a prominent Civil War General – nicknamed The Thunderbolt of the Army of the Potomac – had been gravely wounded at Gettysburg while helping to lead the Union’s defense at Cemetery Ridge in what became known as Pickett’s Charge.  After Lincoln’s assassination, President Johnson ordered Gen. Hancock to personally oversee the execution of the Lincoln conspirators.  Later, in 1880, General Hancock was chosen as the Democratic nominee for president, losing that election to James A. Garfield.

His daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Gwynn Hancock, and her sister Lee Lawrence were the children of Nicholas Gwynn, a wealthy cotton merchant originally from Kentucky.  Their father owned a cotton trading company, headed the Cotton Exchange in New York, and owned Oakhurst, the family's large cotton plantation in Mississippi just south of Memphis, Tennesse.  When Russell Hancock died in December of 1884, he left the 31-year-old Elizabeth a widow with three young children.  At the time of her first husband’s death, she and Russell lived at Oakhurst Plantation, outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi where the couple played a large role in the local social scene.

Following his defeat in the 1880 Presidential election, General Hancock was asked to take command of the US Army’s Military Division of the Atlantic and was stationed on Governors Island in New York Harbor.  In 1885, after his son Russell Hancock’s premature death, the General invited his daughter-in-law Elizabeth to move with her young children from Mississippi to his house at the officer’s quarters on Governors Island.  It was there that the widowed Elizabeth Hancock met a young officer stationed on the island named William C. Rafferty.

General Hancock– with family –  on Governors Island

Sadly, while still posted to Governors Island, the General died in 1886 of lingering wounds he received in the Civil War.  Despite the General’s death, Elizabeth continued to live in New York City, either with her parents or at the officer's quarters on the island, as her bond with Captain Rafferty seemed to deepen.  While her relationship with Rafferty became more intimate, Rafferty also began to tutor Elizabeth’s oldest son Gwynn Hancock. In the early spring of 1891, newspapers printed stories announcing Elizabeth's engagement to Captain Rafferty.

Note: this article misidentifies Rafferty's middle initial

Later the next month, a piece in the NY Times reported that a telegram had been sent from the Hotel Sorrento asking a local Episcopal minister from Bangor to come to Sorrento to officiate at a wedding on Thursday, June 25th in the new church. Last-minute arrangements were also made to dispatch an organist and other musicians from Bangor for the occasion. The bride was identified as the widow of Russell Hancock, but curiously, the groom named in the article was not Captain Rafferty but another man ten years her junior.  

The sister of the bride was Lee Gwynn Lawrence, the wife of Isaac Lawrence of New York and a summer resident of Sorrento.  Isaac’s father, William Beach Lawrence had been the Governor of Rhode Island and was most famous for defeating the prohibition acts during his term.  His son Isaac had also once campaigned for Governor of Rhode Island but lost the election in 1878.  Isaac and Lee Lawrence had purchased one of the first houses in Sorrento and named it “Grassmere.”

In 1890 the Lawrences had also purchased a second cottage next door to “Grassmere.”  Now known as “West Cove,” this house is infamous as the home where it was rumored Frank Jones later installed his mistress. It was Lee Lawrence who made the arrangements for her older sister's wedding ceremony at the Church of the Redeemer in Sorrento.

On an early summer morning on the last Thursday in June of 1891, the 38-year-old bride, prepared for her seemingly hastily planned wedding in Sorrento.  Still mourning her father's death, Nicholas Gwynn, and wearing black as was the custom, Elizabeth changed into a white gown and adorned herself with a collection of diamonds.  With no attendants, she carried a single red rose as she walked down the aisle of the Church of the Redeemer at 11:00 am accompanied by her brother-in-law Isaac Lawrence.  The 28-year-old groom, Ellerton Lodge Dorr Jr., was the son of another wealthy cotton trader from Boston and Providence.  Ellerton was accompanied by his younger brother Alfred and two friends as his ushers and best man.  In addition to the news about her breaking off any previous engagement to Rafferty, the papers also reported that Elizabeth had come into a sizable inheritance.

The wedding was sparsely attended by only a few dozen Sorrento families, including General Stephen Vincent Benet.  There were so few guests that everyone had an aisle seat to watch the ceremony. No members of the Hancock family, Elizabeth's former in-laws, were in attendance. The groom’s parents were also absent, having recently departed for a trip abroad.  A gossip column at the time said they “…had not the slightest intimation that their son had any idea of selecting a guardian for life. Possibly his wisdom was beyond his years, for the newly-made Mrs. Dorr recently inherited over a million dollars from her father.”

Following the ceremony, the wedding party and guests rode buckboard wagons up Lawrence Hill to “Grassmere” for a catered wedding breakfast hosted by the bride’s sister, Mrs. Isaac Lawrence.  It was also reported that the newlywed couple would depart Sorrento later that day on the ferry Sappho to meet a train in Hancock for a trip back to Mississippi in a private railroad car.  The couple was planning to assume the responsibilities of managing Elizabeth’s family cotton plantation. After the couple left Sorrento, her sister hosted some friends at her cottage for an evening "tea."

Surprisingly, the bride’s son, Gwynn, returned to Governors Island after his mother's marriage where he continued his studies under his mother’s former fiancĂ© Captain Rafferty.  Gwynn successfully passed the entrance exams for West Point and was later commissioned a Captain in the US Army.

The Bar Harbor paper described the ceremony as the first in the "pretty little chapel" that had been decorated with "...wild flowers, ferns and hot-house roses."  It even surmised that the couple would return to Maine in future summers to Sullivan Harbor. But the Boston newspapers had a grander time reporting on the wedding gossip.  In addition to their age difference, tongues were wagging over the money the new husband was set to share by marrying the widow.

Elizabeth and her sister had reportedly inherited over $3 million when their father Nicholas Gwynn had died the year before.  In a Boston paper the next week this columnist said "...the news of the marriage will be a great surprise" to the groom's parents. His parents had been abroad and likely never suspected their son, who was ten years younger than his new bride, had selected "...a guardian for life."

Surprisingly, instead of taking the train back to Mississippi, the couple returned to Sorrento shortly after the wedding.  It was reported they would spend the month of August in Maine no doubt with her sister and husband Isaac Lawrence.

The next spring, on April 11, 1892, the newlywed’s only daughter, Elizabeth Ellerton “Elise” Dorr was born.  Her birth in Memphis just nine months later may have been the cause of the hurried wedding the previous June.

Disturbingly, only a month after his daughter's birth, reports from Memphis in early June 1892 indicated that a warrant had been issued to arrest Ellerton Dorr for assaulting his neighbor's African-American cook. The woman, Mattie Cole, swore out a complaint that on May 19th a drunken Dorr had attempted to rape her.  Mattie was only saved when her employer A. J. Doleson rescued her and kicked Dorr out of the house. 

When a grand jury refused to indict Dorr a local criminal court judge instead heard her complaint. Convinced by Mattie's testimony, Judge Dubose issued an arrest warrant for Ellerton.  Period reporting from the Associate Press indicated it was the first time in American history that "...a white man was charged with an attempt to commit a rape..." against a black woman. Rather than face the charges, Ellerton fled the state to avoid prosecution.  Although they never divorced, it appears that the couple -- who had married less than a year earlier in Sorrento -- would never live together again after the crime.

A few months later, when noted African-American journalist Ida B. Wells published her book sponsored by the NY Age entitled Southern Horrors – Lynch Law in All its Phases, she included the recent attempted rape by Dorr as one of her examples.  Her book was written to expose the horrors of the brutal assaults, especially those instigated in the South, when black men were accused of raping white women. She hoped to "... arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless..." as well as point out to her readers that the "...Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning."

In her second chapter entitled The Black and White of It, she included examples of attacks against African-American men involved in seemingly consensual relationships with white women.  Interactions that Wells writes spurred  "...Southern white men in insatiate fury [to] wreak their vengeance without intervention of law against Afro-Americans who consort with their women." At the end of the chapter, she points out the double standard when no such outrage is expressed in America when a black woman is attacked by a white man.  She cited Dorr's case as an example of what happened when a white man assaulted a black woman. However, Wells seems unaware of the historical significance of the case and that Mattie Cole later convinced the court to issue an arrest warrant after the grand jury refused to charge Dorr. Evidently, the first time in America that a black woman had successfully charged a white man with attempted rape.

Incredibly in April of 1898, just seven years after the Sorrento ceremony, there was a second marriage involving the same Hancock and Dorr families.  That ceremony took place at the family's Oakhurst Plantation outside Clarksdale Mississippi.  The bride at this ceremony was Elizabeth’s oldest daughter, Ada Elizabeth Hancock, now 24 years old.  Ada was to marry her stepfather’s brother, Alfred Dorr.  Evidently, her mother Elizabeth did not protest and allowed her daughter to marry her estranged husband’s 32-year-old brother.  Alfred had been one of her husband’s attendants at the couple's wedding in Sorrento seven years earlier.

Elizabeth Hancock Dorr lived until 1911 when she died on May 6 at the age of 58 while visiting her daughter Almira“Myra” Hancock in Memphis.  Interestingly, Elizabeth was not buried with either her first husband in the Hancock family plot in St. Louis, or her second husband whom she married in Sorrento.  Instead, she was buried by herself under a simple granite cross in her native Kentucky, far from the Mississippi plantation and Memphis.  When her daughter Myra died just four years later at the age of 38, she was buried next to her mother with a headstone with the figure of a resting dog on top.

As for Ellerton Dorr Jr., Elizabeth’s groom at the 1891 wedding in Sorrento, he wasted no time following his estranged wife's death to find new companionship.  Just one week after Elizabeth died, Ellerton married a 22-year-old woman on May 13, 1911.  Only 48 years old at the time, Ellerton evidently never faced any consequences for the alleged assault and attempted rape of Mattie Cole in 1892.  Ellerton lived to age 80 and died in 1943, while his wife Lillian V. F. Dorr outlived him for another 21 years.

A good overview of the Elizabeth Gwynn Hancock episodes and the wedding was written by a blogger named KIKI in 2013.  Kiki also writes about the sad story of Elizabeth Hancock's son Gwynn.  Although successfully tutored by Captain Rafferty and a graduate of West Point, his life had a tragic end.

A year after his mother's death, Gwynn died in December of 1912 at the age of 32 evidently from the effects of alcoholism and perhaps a broken heart.  The previous February, two months before his mother's death, his wife, Marcia MacLennan Hancock, had committed suicide at the Fort Constitution in Portsmouth, NH where Captain Gwynn served as a commander.

A final postscript: With their newfound wealth following their fathers' deaths, Isaac and Lee Gwynn Lawrence left Sorrento in 1893 and headed to Bar Harbor where they spent a few more summers.  I have written a longer history about Issac and Lee Lawrence, their Sorrento cottages, and a bit more about their life after leaving Sorrento on this blog - CLICK HERE.