Think of New York's wealthiest families, and the names Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, even Trump leap to mind. Could it now be time to add Edwards to that list? Early next month, the Pennsylvania Association of Edwards Heirs (which has approximately 4,000 members) will argue in federal court that they are the rightful owners of a chunk of downtown Manhattan worth an estimated $680 billion. Robert Edwards, the story goes, was an eighteenth-century Welsh buccaneer who was given 77 acres by the British Crown. Edwards supposedly leased the land to Trinity Church in 1778 for 99 years. At the end of the lease, the land was to revert to Edwards's family. But Trinity -- now one of New York's largest real-estate owners -- still has that land, of course, and the Edwards clan has been fighting for it ever since.
Multiple legal challenges have been brought against Trinity during this century, to no avail. And in 1950, state assemblyman Wilson Van Duzer sponsored a bill arguing that if tax-exempt Trinity was claiming real estate it didn't own, New York was losing enormous tax revenues, though the bill failed to get funding from the state Ways and Means Committee.
The March 1 court date in Pittsburgh marks the start of a rico trial of six former officers and employees of the Heirs association accused of embezzling $1.5 million in association funds. It could also be the Edwards heirs' best hope of finally settling their original claim. John Smarto, the heirs association's lawyer, says there is evidence that questions the validity of Trinity's original land grants and that he hopes will prompt a "political inquiry into Trinity's holdings." (As for the statute of limitations, the Edwards heirs are sure to watch the progress of the federal lawsuit filed by Oneida Indians attempting to reclaim 250,000 acres of upstate New York ancestral lands.)
Trinity has always denied holding any Edwards property. In a written statement to New York, a Trinity spokesperson, alluding to the con artists who, over the years, have bilked numerous Edwards heirs by promising a quick path to the Trinity riches, said, "The individuals involved have been misled so many times -- to see their claims advanced yet again seems like the reopening of a painful wound."
When Smarto took on the Heirs' embezzlement case, he also agreed to look into the land claim, about which he was dubious. "Frankly," he says, "I did not believe it." But now, though much remains unclear, "there are parts of this that we have found are absolutely factual." For instance, Smarto and Philip Berrill, a British journalist who has been researching the story for more than five years, tracked down Edwards's British naval records, Manhattan tax records, and documents (on file in Albany) that demonstrate the existence of other leases between Edwards and Trinity.
Not surprisingly, at least one party remains unconvinced -- and, says Smarto, uncooperative. "If Trinity Church would like to sit down and go over this with us, we're prepared to do it," says Smarto. "If they don't want us to go in their archives, we'd like to know: Why?"