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The Prescott Sisters Kick Butt


Enter Charles Milby Dale. Exactly how the Prescott sisters selected Dale as their attorney is not known. Dale had come to Portsmouth during World War I, married a local woman and set up a law practice. He had served as the city's mayor. Josie and Mary Prescott, historian Brighton makes clear, were never entirely cut out of their brother's will. Even the deathbed note allowed them the interest income from millions of dollars in the middle of the Depression. But good was not good enough for the sisters and their attorney.

Charles Dale / Peter E. Randall, PublisherThe Prescott sisters sent Dale to Erie with orders to break their brother's alleged deathbed will In a bitter encounter Erie lawyers argued that Charles had been moved in his final days to support the hospital's charitable work with the poor. Dale argued that Pennsylvania law strictly prohibited dying bequests made to charitable institutions. The probate judge, clearly annoyed, was forced to honor the 1927 will.

The Erie judge appended a plea that the Prescott sisters might show charity to the city where their elder brother had earned his fortune and lived for half a century. They didn't. Attorney Dale returned home triumphant with a court decision worth $2,752,693. His personal fee, historian Brighton speculates, was probably a million dollars. He went on to become a two-term governor of New Hampshire.

Under the direction -- critics say "under the thumb" -- of Charles Dale, the Prescott sisters gobbled up waterfront real estate and razed the old buildings. Eventually only three structures, including an historic 18th century warehouse, were left standing in Prescott Park. The upper end of the park opened in 1939 just a few months before the death of Mary Prescott, aged 84. Josie Prescott survived to age 91 and her will left Dale almost totally in charge of completing her dream park. Dale invested both his own money and the Prescotts in a dizzying array of properties in the South End and beyond.

In another odd twist, Dale became even more powerful when Susie Walker Trask died in 1936. The widow of the Erie millionaire donated a considerable sum to three charities in Portsmouth, NH, her hometown. Additional gifts of stock in her husband's company, combined with shares already inherited by the Prescott sisters, gave Charles Dale -- who represented all the Portsmouth parties -- legal control of the surviving Pennsylvania company for years to come.

Although she left Portsmouth at the end of the Civil War in 1865, and despite her 50-year marriage in Erie, Susie Walker Trask decreed that her body be shipped back to Portsmouth for burial. Sixteen years earlier the body of Charles Prescott, her husband's partner, had also been delivered from Pennsylvania to a Portsmouth cemetery. Whatever bond the two shared went to the grave with them.

And although he paid – and his estate still pays -- for what is now acres of waterfront park, with lush manicured gardens and a hugely popular outdoor summer theater, Charles E. Prescott gets no special credit for his inadvertent benevolence. Visitors should look closely at the stone dedicated there in a quiet ceremony in 1939. It names, not Charles the millionaire son, but his father, a man who had no special success in life. A farmer, grocer and carpenter, Charles S. Prescott brought his three children into the rugged neighborhood on Water Street, then died mysteriously in an upstairs bedroom.

The unobtrusive dedication to Charles S. Prescott stands very near the site of the house where Josie Prescott was born in 1858. But that house is gone. It was torn down – flattened like the entire waterfront neighborhood they grew up in -- by the Prescott sisters themselves.

Copyright © 2005 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

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