Backtrack: William E. English

With his globetrotting adventures and stormy love affairs, Will English lived the life of a romance-novel hero.

October 2018Add a comment

For most of his adult years, the superbly mustached, indubitably dapper, and wildly wealthy Captain William Easton English occupied a well-appointed suite at the English Hotel, on Monument Circle. Apartment 104 was one of the few constants in an otherwise thoroughly unpredictable life.

Will, as most called him, had watched his father, William Hayden English, build the hotel’s first section in 1880. When William H. died in 1896 as Indiana’s wealthiest man, Will and his sister, Rosalind, split an estate valued at more than $2 million—around $51 million in today’s dollars.

The English Hotel

Courtesy Indiana Historical Society

A graduate of North Western Christian University (now Butler), he had practiced law for a few years in Indianapolis and then become manager of the English Opera House, also built by his father. After six years of wrangling opera singers, dramatists, and various variety acts, Will hired his replacement and took off, traveling to every country in Europe, plus Asia, Africa, Mexico, South America, and the Middle East, detailing his adventures in The Indianapolis Sentinel.

Upon his return, English spent several years working in Democratic politics, including an 1882 term in Congress. He did not run for reelection despite his reported popularity, but would reemerge in 1892 as a national political figure (and, years later, become a passionate Republican). At some point, he married Annie Josephine Desmond, who died five years later.

Not long after wedding his second wife, Helen Orr—a pretty, dark-haired actress 23 years his junior—English volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War in 1898. He earned the rank of Captain, a title he used for the rest of his life, before being gravely injured when his horse fell on him during an explosion in the Battle of San Juan. English outlived the newspaper reports of his death and returned to his life—and new wife—in Indianapolis.

The Englishes did not live happily ever after. Their only child, Rosalind, was 21 when she died in a car crash a few days before Christmas of 1924. The tragedy reunited Will and Helen, who had divorced years earlier; they remarried in 1925. But he died just a year later, for real this time, of pneumonia at the age of 75 in his suite at the English Hotel.

Most of his reported $3.5 million estate went to charity, funding efforts like the English Foundation building on Alabama Street. Helen, his rich widow, established the William E. English prize for reporting, presenting it on the anniversary of her husband’s death to Indianapolis Times reporter Frank Prince—the man she would marry next.

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