Details of Helen Ellwood's early life are sketchy and what is available online occasionally is in conflict. The Ellwood family was prominent in and around Sycamore, Illinois. Notice already I am inconsistent with the spelling of her surname. I believe the correct spelling is Ellwood, but stories that appeared during her incredibly long legal battle with her husband leave out one of the L's in her maiden name. Anyway ...

At least three Ellwood brothers had moved to Sycamore or nearby DeKalb in the mid-1800s, after growing up around Herkimer, New York, just east of Utica. The most successful of the three was Isaac Leonard Ellwood, who made his fortune manufacturing barbed wire (thus earning the title, "The Barb Wire King.")

Some stories say Helen Ellwood Stokes was heir to the Isaac Ellwood fortune, but that isn't true. Her grandfather was Chauncey Ellwood, older brother of Isaac. Chauncey was a merchant, lawyer and one-time mayor of Sycamore. His son, John Dexter Ellwood, also was a merchant. So was Chauncey's other brother, Alonzo

It was John Dexter Ellwood who married Helen's mother, Emma Combs. (Spelling of Combs also varies from source to source, sometimes appearing as Coombes or Coombs.)

Helen Ellwood's life, for several years, was not unlike "The Brady Bunch." Her father died when she was two years old. Her sister, Beatrice, was two years older. Both Helen and Beatrice would, for at least awhile, attend National Park Seminary, a private school in Forest Glen, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.

In 1893, their mother married Arthur S. Miller, whose first wife, Louise, had died eight years earlier. By that marriage, Miller had two children, Irene and Roland. Emma and Arthur Miller went on two have two children of their own, Victor and Marcella.

Helen's stepfather had an interesting background, working as a reporter and court stenographer before becoming a lawyer, admitted to the bar in Indiana and Illinois. However, he never practiced law, moving instead to Denver where he became known as "The Apartment King."

While life was good for Helen Ellwood, there was no large inheritance in her future. To continue living in the manner to which she had become accustomed, she'd have to find a man of means. She would regret the choice she made, but during the 1922 trial to recover her dower rights, Helen Ellwood Stokes gave testimony that created an interesting, almost charming picture of W. E. D. Stokes before their marriage. This is how it was reported in the New York Times (March 28, 1922):

“When Mr. Stokes first asked me to marry him I told him I didn’t think I should do so without going home first to consult my family ... He called on me at least thirty-six times before I accepted him. He proposed every time I met him. When I would go to his office he would whistle a wedding march.”

It makes Stokes seem cute and lovable, albeit a tad too persistent. Maybe he simply wore her down. And maybe, eight years later, he thought he could get rid of her just as simply. However, he and his revolving-door team of lawyers would discover the stressful marriage had turned Helen Ellwood Stokes into a formidable opponent. She dug in ... and all hell broke loose.

Still ... she might not have won were it not for her chief 1923 attorney, Samuel Untermyer, a fierce courtroom fighter who managed to anger everyone, particularly opposing counsel Max D. Steuer. Untermyer also annoyed his own co-counsel, Charles Erbstein, to the point Erbstein stopped his cross-examination of a witness and stomped out of court.

That's one of the incidents that would make Stokes vs. Stokes difficult to portray accurately on film. Often it was too ridiculous to be real. But it was real. And it certainly was ridiculous.

Stokes vs. Stokes begins