Crusading feminist Ethel Murrell (1903-1986) brings treasures back to Laramie

When Ethel Ernest (1903-1986) took the stage at age six in a Laramie elementary school production, there might have been a hint of great things to come from this spunky little redhead.

But the fact is that as she matured, Ethel Ernest achieved nationwide acclaim but received little attention in Laramie.

Partly, this was because she went to high school in Denver at the fashionable Walcott School for Girls. Her parents, John William Ernest (an Albany County Commissioner in 1914) and his wife Ethel Connor Ernest (1880-1960), divorced sometime between 1915 and 1922. Her mother continued to live at 805 Grand Avenue. Her father worked various Laramie jobs until his death in 1933.

Some facts are obscure in Ethel Ernest Murrell’s past. She was a student at three colleges-- George Washington University, the Sorbonne in Paris (in 1923), and UW but it’s not clear which gave her a bachelor’s degree. Somewhere along the way she married Kent Browning--a “wheeler-dealer” in Colorado according to a relative. Browning was killed in an explosion around 1928, leaving her a widow before she was 30.

John Murrell, Sr. became her second husband in 1931. He was a prominent Miami lawyer whose wife Harriett had died in an auto accident that he and their one child, John Murrell, Jr., survived. John Sr. had helped Ethel receive her widow’s inheritance and was very supportive of Ethel’s obtaining a law degree from the Miami University— she received her law degree in 1932.

The couple practiced law together, with Ethel specializing in women’s legal issues. She honed her public speaking skills as she worked nearly 10 years on a campaign for the Florida Married Women’s Act. Passed in 1943, it gave married women equal rights with men.

“Mrs. Murrell shows beauty has brains,” Miami Life magazine said chauvinistically in 1943 in reporting on her feminist activities. “She pretends to believe that ladies should be accepted as persons, not forever flattered about their looks.”

She became the Florida representative to the National Women Lawyer’s Association, and in the 1940s joined the nonpartisan National Woman’s Party.  She formed a speakers’ bureau and rallied support for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment that had been introduced in Congress in 1923.

Ethel’s skills at public speaking and debating were put to the test because many liberal women at the time, including Eleanor Roosevelt and the League of Women Voters, opposed ERA—they feared it would undermine their support for protective legislation for working women and children.

For a short time, Ethel Murrell and Eleanor Roosevelt traveled together debating across the country with Ethel arguing for passage of ERA in each unratified state, and Eleanor arguing against.

The ratification failed just a few states short of passage before time ran out. Ethel became the chair of the National Women’s Party in 1948, now lobbying for legislation to equalize legal status of women in every state.

In 1953 Ethel became actively involved in the management of the Connor Hotel in Laramie. The hotel’s builder, her grandmother, Fannie B. Connor, had died and Fannie’s penthouse in the hotel was available. For 20 years the semi-retired Murrells spent summers in Laramie, closing up their elegant home in Miami. Ethel even opened an art gallery in the hotel and served as an agent for Minerva Teichert of Cokeville, WY, pre-eminent muralist of Wyoming at the time.

Eventually Ethel sold the hotel and transported her grandmother’s furnishings to her home in Florida. 

John Murrell, Sr. died in 1982; he and Ethel had been married 50 years. It would be nice to say that she faded away afterward (true enough) and quietly (not true). Instead, she descended into confusion, a third marriage and newspaper notoriety. She was locally known to bring in people off the street for “mustard sandwiches” and is reported to have kept many bottles of French dressing that she poured over everything, including ice cream.

A man named Arthur Williams who had helped build the Murrell’s French chateau-style mansion in Miami hatched a plan to marry the 79-year-old Ethel, despite (or more likely because of) signs of confusion. She agreed to the marriage just two months after her husband died; later a judge declared it a legal wedding. Williams and his brother, Fred, moved into Ethel’s house and embarked upon “living off Murrell’s savings,” according to court documents.

Ethel’s stepson and a second cousin on the Ernest side, were alarmed at her living conditions. Ethel was hospitalized during this time for “dehydration aggravated by misuse of medications and failure to eat a normal diet,” according to her doctor.

The cousin, Phil Thelin, knew her will stipulated her stepson would receive a modest $6,000 annually from a trust, with the rest going to charity. Florida probate law, however, would give 30 percent of her estate (worth at least $750,000) to her new spouse even though he was not named in the will.

Thelin, a successful New Orleans real estate agent, was also not named in the will. He sought not to receive any money, but to annul the marriage, and to gain possession of  some of his cousin’s furnishing he thought belonged back in Laramie.

Although Thelin was not able to have the marriage annulled, the judge did give him possession of the furnishings that he wanted. Ethel, then in a nursing home, died in mid-1986.

Thelin immediately hired a moving van at his own expense and showed up at the Ivinson Mansion in Laramie in July, 1986 with the furnishings that had originally been in the pre-1900 Connor family home in Laramie. Items included a huge mirror that once hung over the bar in the Connor Hotel, many photos, papers and the “treasures” of her collection--the two magnificent Teichert murals now displayed on the third floor of the Laramie Plains Museum.

Gene Dunn, Laramie Plains Museum director at the time, was dumbfounded by the extent of the gift that arrived in 1986. The van was chock full of treasures—most of the furniture that now sets the stage for Laramie’s Victorian heritage in the Ivinson Mansion drawing room came from the Murrell estate.

After becoming an office for doctors, the home that the Murrells built in Miami still stands at 1500 Brickell Avenue, and in 2015 was declared a preservation-worthy historic building. 

Ethel was posthumously honored by the Florida Bar as one of the 150 pioneering women lawyers in Florida who made a difference. The first Florida woman lawyer was in 1898; Ethel was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1932.

By Judy Knight