Rumoured as a top contender as the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgeralds most enigmatic of characters, Jay Gatsby, Joseph Bowne Elwell was among other things, a property developer, race horse owner, author, socialite, broker, tutor and, last but certainly not least, thoroughly famous card player. Winning sums that totalled into the tens of thousands on a nightly basis, he built both wealth and a social circle that placed him firmly in the upper echelons of New York Cities elite. That was until, one morning in June, 1920, when his maid found him, shot in the forehead, dressed in his Pyjamas, sitting in an armchair of the reception room of his Manhattan residence. Perplexing for the police was not only the fact that he was a man with no known, but potentially thousands of, enemies, but also that his house had been locked shut, the windows barred and no gun ever found at the crime scene.
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The Mysterious Murder of Joseph Browne Elwell
Rumoured as a top contender as the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgeralds most enigmatic of characters, Jay Gatsby, Joseph Bowne Elwell was among other things, a property developer, race horse owner, author, socialite, broker, tutor and, last but certainly not least, thoroughly famous card player. Winning sums that totalled into the tens of thousands on a nightly basis, he built both wealth and a social circle that placed him firmly in the upper echelons of New York Cities elite. That was until, one morning in June, 1920, when his maid found him, shot in the forehead, dressed in his Pyjamas, sitting in an armchair of the reception room of his Manhattan residence. Perplexing for the police was not only the fact that he was a man with no known, but potentially thousands of, enemies, but also that his house had been locked shut, the windows barred and no gun ever found at the crime scene. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
New York & Whist
New York in the early 20th Century was a bustling city of over four and a half million people. A centre for trade, its busy streets hummed with traffic throughout all hours of the day. In the morning, the throng of the fish markets spilled from the dock area, out into an urban landscape that reeked of the stench of decaying human waste, filling the gutters and creeping out from overfilled tenements, lit up at night by the bright electrical signs of broadway. Whilst riots erupted and the working classes held strike actions in the streets, the upper classes dined on lobster in rooftop restaurants and drank whiskey in smoke filled rooms. Populated by some of the richest, most well known people in America, these were venues that catered to the darlings of the smart-sets, the powerful, the successful and the fashionable. Like butterflies in a spring meadow, they flitted from one glamorous den to the next, living a life of social frivolity that befitted their class and status.
One of the more popular fashions within the after dinner clubs and drawing rooms were card games like Bridge and the popular variant, Whist, which in the early 20th Century, had skyrocketed as the number one game that everyone who was anyone should be playing. Arriving in New York in the early 1890s, it was quick to take the spot as the most fashionable of fashionable after dinner games to be played amongst the middle and upper classes and entire tea parties were held in order to play the game. Guides on how to host such an event, referred to as Bridge Teas, including all the appropriate etiquette were written and published in enormously popular magazines like Harpers Bazaar. Social circles swarmed to play, spawning orbit groups that existed solely to play cards and it quickly became a matter of social standing to be familiar with the rules, variations and tables of New York, London and, for the most privileged, the private games that went on nightly behind closed doors, in smoke filled rooms between the most wealthy of the It crowd socialites of the day. In 1920 New York, one of the biggest names in the game was Joseph Bowne Elwell, the man who, quite literally, wrote the book on the game. Fantastically wealthy, Elwell had created a sprawling world of glitz and glam, running in the smartest of smart-sets, purely off the back of playing cards. Despite huge sums of money coming his way through gambling, a pass-time that was certainly not viewed by all with charitable eyes, he had transcended the image of shady card shark by carefully maneuvering through the right circles. His perfectly manicured, dark features, dapper fashion and gentlemanly manner projected such a refined image to the world that it was not uncommon to hear of people losing to him and then turning around and describing the fleecing as having been a pleasure, just to see him play up close. Until June of 1920, he was famous the world over for his skill in cards and the people he dined with, but then on June 11th, as the sun rose on another stifling hot, New York City summer’s day, with just one bullet, his entire legacy was altered forever.
Joseph Bowne Elwell
Joseph Bowne Elwell, Joe to his friends, was born in Crawford, Union County, New Jersey on Sunday 23rd February 1873. In the years prior, Crawford had seen a period of growth as those with modest means found themselves able to migrate from Brooklyn to the
His father, Joseph Sanford Elwell had married Jane Annetta in 1870 and worked as a travelling salesman, before giving up the road life to settle down working first in Brooklyn and then later at home as a Broker and then a Clerk, where he earned a modest living, enough to be able to support their four children, Joseph Bowne, Walter, Louise and Grace, though somewhat precariously. When Joseph entered the Phillips Academy, a private school in Andover, North of Boston, his tuition was paid for not by his father, but a well off relative, at the cost of over $120 per year. Josephs time at Phillips Academy was reasonably solitary, he joined no clubs or school teams and there is little record of his time there in terms of academic achievements. He stayed at the school until he was 16 years old, graduating as a middle in 1888, but not returning as a senior the following year.
By the time he left school, Joseph Senior was working as a fish merchant in New York with Josephs brother Walter. Not keen to enter the fish trade, Joseph instead drifted between a number of jobs, first working in insurance before trying his hand as a clerk and then finally following in his fathers earlier footsteps as a door to door salesman. Religious through and through, he attended church with a relative diligence at the Tompkins Avenue Congregational Church every Sunday and whenever he could, he showed up to prayer meetings on Wednesday nights. It was at this point in his life that Joseph discovered cards and also his natural ability to command them. He began playing Whist and soon approached the Reverend of the church to suggest starting a young men’s club within the church. The reverend agreed and left it to Joseph to arrange and organise the meetings, which he did, naturally including games of Whist as a key component. It wasn’t long before he began earning a reputation and Joseph became aware that he was, perhaps truly a gifted player. As word spread of the new kid on the block, he found his circle of friends growing, entering on games of cards and soon he was being invited to tables in the neighbourhood not simply to make up the numbers. Joseph took to cards like a duck to water and within months his entire social life became consumed by games of cards, so much of his free time was taken up by the games, that he quickly found himself moving away from the church and the young men’s club he had set up, in order to spend more time enjoying his new hobby. He joined the local Republican Club, ignoring the politics, simply to begin playing in their organised Bridge-Whist games, a variation on whist that allowed for gambling, an element that added a new injection of thrill and he soon found himself throwing down stakes which were, at this early point in his career, relatively high. It turned out to be opportune timing, as he played more and more at the club and refined his game just in time for the games rise in popularity to soar. For Joseph, who was quickly becoming a veteran around the local tables, it was an opportunity to sweep up the enthusiastic influx of new players, keen to throw away their money in order to spend an evening playing the fashionable game. With money now involved and the game rising in popularity to the point where anyone who was anyone would simply have to know how to play if they wished to socialise effectively, Elwell took on a new role as a tutor. His reputation had spread wide enough that he was a keen player with a natural ability and his refined appearance and time spent with the smart-set, made him easily approachable, especially to the young women, married to wealthy husbands who wished to learn how to play and found the excitement of being taught by a dapper gent of his skill level a thoroughly enjoyable prospect. For Joseph, it was a double boon, he could earn a pretty penny through both tutoring and playing, finding both enormously helpful to his reputation. This in turn only greased the social wheels for him further, affording him opportunities to meet more and more well to do types, being invited to larger games and finding fancier clientele. It was a self-feeding cycle and one that Elwell embraced. It wasn’t long before he found himself rubbing shoulders with Helen Derby, who he met at various social gatherings off the back of his card playing and eventually started dating. At the turn of the Century, the Derby family were practically American Royalty and counted a Roosevelt in their ranks after Helens cousin married Ethel Roosevelt-Derby, the youngest daughter of Teddy, the 26th President of the United States. A recent divorcee, Helen was nothing short of a catch for Elwell, that the pair even met is testament to both the fantastic popularity of card games in the early 20th Century and Josephs reputation and skill as a player. By the Spring of 1900, the two were married and living in a rented apartment in Lower Manhattan and with Helen acting as his social secretary, Joseph’s stock as a tutor in Bridge-Whist continued to rise.
Joseph and Helens early married life together was one of high-class glamour and social utopia. Joseph taught Helen how to play cards and the pair lived a life that existed around the tables of New York and Newport, rubbing shoulders with Americas richest and most powerful elite and Joseph fleecing many of them at cards where he continued to impress and open new doors for tutoring. With Helens connections, his clientele now boasted names as lofty as the Vanderbilts, whose shipping and railroad empire had elevated them to the richest family in America. When the pair stayed for a period in Newport, Joseph taught William Kissen-Vanderbilt and his two sons Harold and William at cards daily for extortionate fees, always negotiated by Helen. The young card player from New York had, by this point become a celebrity in his own right and his reputation, along with Helens skill in marketing and knack of being friends with the right people allowed the pair to command almost any price for tuition. His services were so in demand that eventually Helen herself began teaching the clients of lower social standing, with people happy to pay just for her association to Joseph.
The Derby-Elwells stayed in Newport and as the weather turned, they returned to Manhattan, though now they rented a new apartment in the Park Avenue area. Joseph continued to play in and around various members clubs and private homes. Though some clubs had strict caps on how much players could gamble, the figures banded about around the tables were often just a fraction of the stakes that were later settled up once the game was over and the players were out of earshot of the proprietors. These strict rules that were so common led Joseph to join a small group that started up their own club, which they named the “Studio Club”, where members were free to gamble with much more freedom and much higher caps. The membership was small, but consisted solely of the super rich capitalists, realtors, brokers, tycoons and, of course, Joseph. In the Studio Club, Joseph was free to gamble to his hearts content, making at times, up to $30,000 a night. Of course he suffered losses too, but the ratios were always in his favour. Much to Helens chagrin, Elwell began playing other card games, often involving much more elements of chance, such as Baccarat and Faro. It was not only the danger of Joseph taking heavy losses in these games that she disliked, but also the danger that Joseph was, for all his gentlemanly appearance and charm, a gambler at the very core and Helen held concerns that he may become seen as little more than a card shark. Always keen to shape and direct his image, she had carefully paved the way for him to socialise in the correct circles and with the very best people and now, she wasn’t prepared to lose their gambling empire. To this end, Helen arranged with Scribner Publishing for Joseph to write a book, which was eventually published in 1902, titled “Elwell on Bridge”. Whilst attributed to Joseph, it had in fact been authored completely by Helen, with Joseph chipping in little more than some light editing. It’s publishing was a success, though it was somewhat slow out the gates, but led on to a whole slew of books, the first fo which followed in 1904, titled “Bridge Tournament Hands”, a book of articles that Joseph, or more likely Helen, had authored for the New York Evening Telegram. Financially speaking, the books were a success for publisher and for Joseph. Perhaps more importantly for Helen, they further cemented his reputation and offered him up as a man of substance.
Joseph and Helens son, Richard Derby-Elwell, was born on 23rd August, 1904 and with his birth, Helen took her first steps towards the back seat of the card business. Helen was naturally maternal and when they moved to a larger apartment on Park Avenue to accommodate the baby, they hired their house staff, minus nanny on her insistence. The shortfall from Helens wages as a tutor was, by now, more than made up for by Josephs more extra-curricular activities. Outside of card games, he had been playing the stock market since early 1902, as well as branching out into other areas, such as the buying and selling of speculative commodities and eventually, real estate. The new child had a further effect ont eh relationship between Helen and Joseph, however. With Helen spending so much time at home, Joseph began travelling much more by himself. Gone were the couples trips to Europe together, on cruises and gallivants to warmer, more profitable climbs, migrating with the moneyed classes. Instead Joseph played alone, often staying out for days at a time, or arriving home at the crack of dawn after a nights heavy gambling. The family took a single trip together to England in 1909, which saw Joseph tutoring cards to King Edward VII.
After their return, the steady decline fo their relationship set in. Helen began playing cards alone, which Joseph found difficult to deal with, often becoming enraged with jealousy towards her partners. One night in 1911, he called Charles Whaley, Helens partner in Bridge at the time, which resulted in Charles hanging up on Joseph, then penning him a letter, suggesting that in future, any communication between the two should be through a third party, or by letter only. He signed off the letter after the curt conclusion.
“Vituperation or abuse over the phone is simply the act of a coward.”
By 1914, Joseph began preparing for legal separation from his estranged wife and it was followed through in 1916, when Joseph moved a stones throw south of the family apartment. During the settlement, Helens lawyers estimated his worth to be in the region of $600,000 with the ability to earn between $1000 and $10,000 per night. His tuition gigs were estimated to bring in around $18,000 per year on top of royalties from book sales, which were estimated at $7,000 per year. During the settlement, she made a demand of $5,000 per year from Joseph, but settled on $2,400, paid in monthly instalments with a $600 per year education fund for their son Richard. In reality, it is likely that Elwell was worth considerably more as his recent turnover in real estate had been especially lucrative. He had, for some time been developing property in Palm Beach, which he had flipped for a considerable profit, all kept secret from Helen.
With his separation officially settled, there was little need for Joseph to uphold any more pretence about his own infidelities and he quickly gained the reputation of something of a ladies man, his good friend and colleague at the Studio Club, Laurence Green, said of him,
“Elwell was not a man who seemed to select any special girl. He was a man who exercised a remarkable influence over women. He was cold blooded to an extreme, which, instead of repelling his friends of the opposite sex, seemed to attract them more.”
By 1917, Joseph had branched out once again, this time in race horses, where he co-owned a stable in Northern Kentucky with partner, William Pendleton. As with almost all things in his life, he saw it as a further opportunity to profit from cards and when he visited the stables on business, he would often stay at fancy hotels in Lexington and take the other visitors out to dry for the pleasure of spending the evening at the tables with the famous card player. Whilst he always lost with dignity, there was one incident, in 1917, involving Russian Bonds, that saw Elwell rumoured to lose potentially to the tune of $125,000 that seemed to smite somewhat more than the his other losses. He had purchased the bonds as part of a speculative venture, though the chaos of the war had led them winding up to be worth little more than the paper they were written on. After the harsh loss, Elwell joined the “American Protective League”,a move which has since been much rumoured to have had its roots in the bond loss. The American Protective League was set up in 1917 ands ran until the end of the war in 1919. It was an American domestic volunteer group of private citizens that worked with federal law enforcement to shop foreign spies, anti-war activists and far-left social figureheads. In particular, the group sought to out German and Russian radicals, spies and dissidents. The group was, naturally criticised for encroaching on American civil liberties and for acting as vigilantes. For Elwell, this particular element of his broadening of interests is most peculiar, but did serve to add “spy catcher” to his increasingly cluttered career portfolio. How much of it had to do with his loss in Russian bonds is uncertain, but he was later spoken of as having a lingering distrust of foreign business after the event.
In 1919, Joseph Elwell moved to 244 West 70th Street, a large three story townhouse, which he rented as a stop-gap residence from his friend, lawyer, Bernard Sandler. It was a grand, terraced affair, with large front doors that led to a vestibule and inner doors. On the ground floor there was a large reception room, lavatory, storeroom and kitchen. All the windows on the ground floor were covered in black iron grilles along with the door and basement windows. The first floor opened up to a large Living room, and dining room which Elwell used as a tutoring room fro his card students, with the top floor holding two bedrooms, the larger of which Elwell slept in and the smaller, at the front of the house, which he kept made up for guests. Elwell did not intend to stay overly long at the address and as such, only made himself marginally comfortable and though it was filled with expensive, often exotic, furnishings, much of them were left lying around, perfectly uninsured, with no permanent homes. Of particular note was a selection of Ming vases, a Moreau sculpture and a Rembrandt painting that he had bought for $17,000. This arrangement had almost led to another potentially stinging loss for Elwell, when, in December of 1919, the house was broken into, only for the would be burglars to be confronted with such an embarrassment of riches, that they stalled long enough for the police to capture them in the act after an observant neighbour had called the police. After the attempted burglary, Joseph called in a locksmith to service all locks and window grilles, replace any that were in need of replacement and change the locks on the front doors. Once carried out, the two sets of keys were divided between Joseph and his maid-of-all-work, a Swedish lady named Marie Larsen.
On Wednesday 10th June, 1920, Marie Larsen arrived at 244 West 70th Street at 8:30am. When she walked into the house, Joseph was already awake, sitting in the armchair in the front reception room of the ground floor in his pyjamas and silk dressing gown, reading his mail. Not wanting to disturb her employer any more than she need, she slipped out to the kitchen, placing the milk into a bowl of cool water to prevent it from turning on what was bound to be another stiflingly hot, summers day. The neighbours were having renovation work carried out and the usual bumps and bangs clattered through the wall, as they had every day for the previous week, as the carpenters got on with their mornings work. Joseph took his breakfast and shortly after left to go to the Long Island races where he had a lunch appointment with his stables partner, William Pendleton. Afterwards he returned home for a short while before changing into his evening wear to ready himself for a dinner appointment at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. That night he was to meet with his good friend Walter Lewisohn and his wife, along with his sister, Viola Kraus. Viola had been married to Victor Von Schlegel, a business magnate, dealing in rubber manufacturing, though the pair were in the midst of working through a divorce and throughout, Viola and Joseph had been very close. The precise nature of just how close the two had been in the past was plainly insinuated, but never confirmed. As it happened, Violas divorce had been made official that very morning, though it was claimed by all members of the group that it was a sheer coincidence that they were out to dinner in celebratory fashion, rather than a party specifically geared around celebrating the end of the marriage. The party were also joined by Octavio Figueroa, a South American Newspaper Publisher. As the group stepped out onto the rooftop restaurant, a second, rather more awkward coincidence arose, as Victor Von Schlegel was also out to dinner at the Ritz-Carlton, with his new lady friend, a young, attractive lady who would soon become known only as “The Woman in Black”. A rather difficult night ensued and what should have been a happy affair for Viola turned sour, and it became apparent that she had some frustration with Joseph. A somewhat tense dinner and dance was had by all members, before Joseph suggested they alight to a different locale and arranged for tickets to the “Midnight Frolics” at the New Amsterdam Theatre”, a two story venue with a larger, main stage on the first floor and a smaller, rooftop stage named the Aerial Gardens, where midnight shows took on a more experimental edge, before opening the floor up to a late night dance. Despite the new scenery, the spat between Viola and Joseph seemed to continue, until the night was ended and the Lewisohns, Viola and Figueroa called it a night and jumped in a cab to take them home at around 2am. Joseph took his own cab home, stopping to pick up a paper on the way and arriving around 2:15am.
The next morning, Thursday 11th June, Marie Larsen arrived at Josephs home slightly later for work. Running late, she met with the locked front door of 244 West 70th Street at 8:35am. Using her keys, she unlocked the front door, stepped into the vestibule, noticing that the milkman had already dropped in the milk and cream. Collecting it up, she unlocked the inner door and stepped inside the house, closing the door behind her. As was her usual routine, she took the milk and cream to the kitchen, before walking back down the hall towards the reception room to clean before Joseph was awake, though as she approached, she noted the smell of cigarette smoke in the air and thought it likely that Joseph was likely already awake once again. Whether it was the sound of the workers arriving at 8am each morning, or the relentless heat of the summer, she had noted that Joseph had not been sleeping as well as usual of late. He’d also been smoking significantly more than usual too. When she reached the reception room, she saw, through the open door of the reception room, the reflection of a man in the mirror above the mantelpiece and immediately apologised for her intrusion. When no reply came, however, she cracked the door open further and stepped into the room. Joseph sat in the armchair by the rear wall, to the left of the door. Just like the day before, he was dressed in his pyjamas, though the days mail was strewn across the floor, around his bare feet. Looking up to his face, she saw wit horror, Josephs closed eyes quivering. In the centre of his forehead, a dark, red black hole tore up through his skull, causing blood to have spattered onto the wall behind the chair, dotted around a large, cavernous hole in the wall. In a sudden rush of panic, Marie dashed outside into the street, and bumping into the milkman who was in the middle of the road by his float, she yelled at him to “get an officer quick!” Sensing the urgency of the situation he went off to find an officer, arriving back at the house shortly after with Superintendent Fisher, who telephoned the police for further help. Meanwhile, Marie continued her search and entered a local drugstore where she found an officer herself, whom she told to call an ambulance. The officer, Harry Singer, perhaps confused by the sudden alarm, instead decided to follow Marie back to Josephs house, where he stepped inside, took one look at the ailing man and then went back outside, once again calling upon the milkman to help him find some help for Joseph, who he explained “couldn’t live very long”. The milkman alerted a nearby chauffeur, who was sitting in the drivers seat of his car and convinced him to pull up to the house in order to drive Jospeh to hospital, whilst officer Singer called the local station from the phone in the reception room of Josephs house. Once he had explained the situation to Captain Walsh over the phone, he was told to stay put and watch over the scene until he could arrive. 244 West 70th Street was now, the scene of a flurry of activity. Detectives arrived, one after the other, as did the ambulance, finally, collecting up Joseph and taking him, unconscious, to Flower Hospital at 8:55am. As soon as they arrived, however, the surgeon realised Joseph was in much more dire need and so, they turned away and went to the much larger Bellevue hospital, arriving at 9:19am. Joseph was carried into the hospital and treated for shock, but with the wound to his head as it was, it was clear he would not survive for long. Whilst it’s not clear on the precise time, for reasons completely unknown, it was recorded as simply “around 10am” that Joseph succumbed to his injuries. Meanwhile, sensing the scrutiny the case was likely to fall under, Dr Norris, the Chief Medical Examiner for New York City arrived at 244 West 70th just minutes after Joseph had been taken away by the ambulance. Following on to the hospital, he conducted the autopsy, noting the cause of death as a “bullet wound of skull and brain.” The last word, “Homicidal” was underlined in pen.
“Stomach empty except for a small quantity of brownish black fluid. The mucosa is well preserved. A large wound of exit is situated in the scalp 1 inch to the left of the sagittal or middle of the skull and 1 to 1 and a half inches above the external occipital protuberance. The wound is shaped like a cross with two bars of nearly equal length.”
“In the sagittal or median line of forehead, commencing at a point 1.8 inches above the bridge of the nose, there is a bullet wound of entrance of the skin, measuring in an anterior-posterior direction .5 inches and crosswise .4 inches. The general shape of the wound is quadrilateral, with radiations or lacerations of the skin at the four corners of the wound and a fifth laceration in the middle of the left border of the wound.”
Dr Norris also noted that there were around 30 small, black spots dotted about the wound, though the edges showed no signs of powder burn, or marks that were visible. The exit wound lie 1 to 1 and a half inches above the entry wound, suggesting the bullet was fired at an upward trajectory.
The Murder Investigation
Back at 244 West 70th Street, the throng of activity continued. Detectives crawled over the scene and found several strange points of interest. The very first and, perhaps most obvious, was the fact that Joseph had been found dressed in his pyjamas, barefoot and more strangely, not wearing either his toupee or false teeth. That he even wore a toupee would have been news to many of even his close friends and very few would have found Joseph comfortable enough to casually read his mail in such a state of nakedness before them. HIs feet had been noted as being clean, so no one believed he had walked far or spent much time barefoot, 30” away from them, lying on the ground amongst the three, unopened letters, the detectives found the shell casing from a single .45 calibration bullet. The fact that the shell casing was on the ground made it highly likely that the gun that had fired it had been an automatic, something which could not be confirmed, given that no gun could be found not only in the reception room, but nowhere in the house at all. This wouldn’t have been so unnerving, if I weren’t for the fact that upon questioning the maid the police had learnt that the house had been thoroughly locked up upon her arrival. Two cigarette butts were found in the reception room, one in the. Ashtray next to the armchair, Elwells standard, hand rolled brand which he had custom blended in a local tobacconist and a second butt, which had been rested on the rosewood mantelpiece and left to burn out from its own volition. Upon closer inspection, the police found that the butt was still moist from the smokers mouth. Asking around in the street and with the neighbours, it appeared that absolutely no one had heard a gunshot that morning, leaving the police with something of a mystery. Joseph Elwell was most certainly dead, but the gun that killed him was vanished, the murderer nothing but a phantom apparently able to exit through locked doors. The postman was tracked down and found still out on his route and when questioned, he confirmed with the police that he had arrived at 244 that morning between 7:20 and 7:25am and found the front door unlocked. He had pulled them ajar, thrown the mail into the vestibule then closed them and rang the bell to alert Joseph to the delivery. Piecing the scene together, detectives figured this had woken Joseph, who had then got up and sat down to read his mail. At some point over the next hour, a visitor had arrived and Doctor Norris guessed, based on the period of survival, that Joseph had been shot towards the end of the hour, between 8:20 and 8:25am, just ten minutes before Mrs Larsens arrival. It was all a very confusing picture for police. They found an address book in Josephs belongings, along with over $400 in cash, instantly ruling out robbery as a motive, and called Josephs father to break the sad news of his sons murder. The book was rammed full of Josephs friends, acquaintances and clientele, many of which were women and with his reputation already being that of a womaniser, the press went to town, calling it a “love list”, maintained by Joseph to keep track of his numerous affairs.
Despite Dr Norris confirming in his autopsy report that the cause of death was, in his opinion, homicidal, the press were also quick off the mark to suggest that it had been a suicide. Norris released a statement of correction immediately, apparently furious at the suggestion,
“The upward trajectory of the bullet causing it to exit an inch or so higher than its entrance might be taken as an indication that Elwell had his head prone slightly back and was looking past the muzzle of the weapon into the eyes of his slighter. The circumstances in my opinion prove that Elwell was not taken by surprise. At least that the presence of the man or woman in the house was not a surprise to him. He might have been shot without knowing he was about to be shot, on the other hand he might have been sitting there trying to induce the murderer or not to shoot but there are no indications one way or the other on that point.”
The police followed this statement up with one of their own, confirming Dr Norris’ conclusions and stating their own agreement. The police might have been confident that the case was not one of suicide, however, they were sure of very little else. The facts, as far as they could see were thus. That Elwell had been found, shot in the centre of the forehead, with all doors and windows barred and locked shut. Despite the closed scene, no gun had been found anywhere in the house. Joseph had sat in the chair, apparently quite at ease with his killer, as he was dressed in his pyjamas without his toupee or false teeth, a peculiar situation for a man who placed such high value on image. It was an image he had carefully honed, crafted and exposed to the public and now, after his death, the press weer certainly picking up on it. Amongst the many ephitets used to describe Joseph in early reports, he ranged from perfectly respectable gentleman about town, to downright scandalous womaniser and heart breaking wretch. Helen, his ex-wife called him a “piker” and a “chicken-chaser”, whilst some he would have counted amongst his best friends painted the picture of a straight up misogynist. The New York Times wrote a piece on him which was illuminating, not only to the opinion of Joseph in the press, but also of the romance of the mystery that they were narrating in their reports.
“New York is full of types and characters, but they all fall into several general classifications. The Rounder type, the Bachelor type and the Gambler type are well known. They have common characteristics. The Society Butterfly type is equally well known and as easily classifiable. Elwell was all these – plus something more. It is just that plus that puts him as a type in a class of his won. It is just that plus that forbids designating him as a Rounder, a Gambler, or a Society Butterfly. He had character. He was intelligent. He was suave. He knew the meaning of Savoir Faire. Everybody knew him. He apparently had no enemies. His characteristics on the surface were as clean-cut as a cameo. And yet this man whom everyone called “Joe” lived an odd and mysterious life. Beyond the race track, the stock market, the whist table, the cabaret, the touring car Elwell, there was another Elwell – An Elwell who deliberately left his wife and son to shift for themselves, and chose to live alone in a big house; an Elwell who bobbed up unexpectedly anywhere and disappeared like a jack-in-the-box; an Elwell within an Elwell, so to speak; a secret, a remote, even a misanthropic Elwell.In Palm Beach, in New York, at Belmont Park, who ever met the real Joseph Bowne Elwell? The veil that surrounds his murder may never be pierced until the police have got on the track of that other Joseph Bowne Elwell, fo whom his friends knew nothing; that other, mysterious Elwell who was cloaked by the everyday Elwell as completely as Dr Jekyll hid Mr Hyde.”
It was extravagant and over the top for sure, but the writer had hit on something that the police were coming to be all too aware of. Joseph was a man with no enemies at all, and a thousand enemies at once. A gentleman, a celebrity and a social darling, but at the same time, a man whom potentially hundreds of slighted husbands could have been holding a grudge against, or as his business affairs unravelled before them, potentially as many violent business dealings. After all, the race track, the gambling halls and the clubs were all avenues for potential corruption and Joseph was involved with so many. With no clues from the scene and a locked room mystery firmly building before their eyes, where on earth was the investigation even supposed to start?
One of the first places they could start was with the party that Joseph had been dining with front eh night before and they were able to do so much sooner than they might have expected. Joseph had had an appointment to go motoring with the Lewisohns that lunchtime and upon his no show, they stopped into the house, now crawling with police. Informal statements were taken from each of them, alibis confirmed and little was learnt. One fo the only facts that may have been any help was that Viola had called him after that morning, after he had arrived home at 2:30am.
One of the biggest and really only, potential clues was their possession of the bullet casing. The police sent it off to be examined by William Jones, a former NYPD captain who analysed it and confirmed that it could only possibly have been fired by three weapons, a colts revolver, a Smith & Wesson revolver or a automatic colts pistol, typical of US army personnel given that it was standard issue. The ejected cartridge almost certainly meant that the gun that had fired was the common auto pistol and the police immediately began cruising Josephs contacts for ex-military types. Sadly, it was a false lead from the start as upon further investigation, the shell itself was found to be missing the armoury manufacture code on the base, had it been military.
It had been a complicated and confusing morning ina. Case that was only about to get more so. The press, in conjunction with the splintered detective bureaus of the homicide divisions and the regular police division, along with the mix of District Attorney and his two assistants, all made for a veritable soup of misinformation, fiction, false leads and backtracking exploding into the investigation. Some of the reports in the papers got so wild that eventually, Edward Swann, the District Attorney called for a press meeting where he impressed upon them the importance of his own press meetings, which he confirmed, would be the only source of information going forward, a statement that would have been very welcome to all, if it hadn’t been ignored by everyone else involved, including both the assistant District Attorneys, who continued with their own, often conflicting statements the very next day.
Any real suspects in the investigation were few and far between. After hearing of the rooftop soirée on the night before on the roof of the Ritz-Carlton, police tracked down Victor Von Schlegel and got their hopes up when they found him not to be at home and having been missing since 10am ont eh morning of the murder. He had apparently last been seen haphazardly fleeing for Atlantic City. They pieced together the motive of a jealous ex-husband murdering Joseph, who happily danced with Viola, the ex-wife, on the day of their divorce and sprung into action. In their excitement, however, no one thought to check in with his office, which had they have done so, they would have found that he had in fact gone to Atlantic City for a convention of engineers and car builders and had had the trip planned since long before Elwells death. Upon his return to New York, police picked him up and reeled back the surveillance they had placed both his home and workplace under. Victor was then questioned heavily, whereby he explained the situation and police checked in with his office, confirming that all he had said in regards to the convention and his planned trip had been completely true. They asked him if he had ever owned a gun, to which he replied that yes, he had a .38 caliber pistol in his house. As it happened, the police had already searched the property and found that not only was the gun no match for the murder weapon in terms of caliber, but it was also covered in dust, where it had been left unused for years. With the imagined story of murder and escape dissolving before their eyes, Victor was allowed to leave, but asked not to leave manhattan for the foreseeable future in case he was needed for further questioning, a privilege they would make the most of, pulling him in for various reasons on five subsequent occasions, despite having little else to go on.
With no other leads, the police began focusing on the women in the case. This, they reasoned, was surely a lucrative area. Day-by-day Josephs image of a womanising philanderer grew exponentially, with stories of bribery from heart broken women, jealous husbands and love triangles tunred violent filling the pages of the press. Many fo the women in Josephs life were, fo course, high society and so the newspaper articles would offer up tantalising pseudonyms for many of them in order to protect identities, and within a matter of days, Joseph was known to have been involved with women in black, grey and white, along with another “mud gutter blonde”. Behind the scenes, however, police were one by one trawling through the list of Josephs contacts and, just as monotonously, ruling them all out of contention as suspects.
For a short while, hopes raised once again, when detectives finally thought to check ont eh phone records fo the house and found that Joseph had reportedly made three calls on the morning of his murder, one at 4:39am to William Pendleton, one at 6:09am to his father and one, mysterious call at 6:16am to a number in Garden City, Long Island to an unknown man named S.A. Varling. Upon further investigation, all three men denied the calls and Varling had been as perplexed by the records as the police, station that he had not even heard of Joseph Elwell until he had read of his murder in the papers. When the detectives double checked with the telephone exchange, it turned out that user error in looking up the records had led everyone completely down the garden path and none of the calls had been made after all. Despite this fact being addressed publicly, the press continued with the phone calls anyway, declaring them to be calls made from a desperate Elwell, trying to secure cash to pay an attempt at bribery. By now, even confirmed facts were being distorted at all corners, with Elwells journey home from the Ritz-Carlton a prime example. Though police had taken a statement from a cab driver that all but confirmed he had taken a cab straight home, alone, from the theatre, stories flooded the press that he had been seen in a dance club, a whist hall, at the Baltimore Hotel, in a gambling den, having a fight in a street, in two completely different cafes with various, completely different women and in a cab on Times Square with two unknown women. The stories eventually grew so out of hand that the police actually issued a press release condemning the state of the investigation in the public eye, but not until after a visit from William Pendleton lawyer, frustrated by his clients treatment in the press as a suspect.
“There is no suspect in the Elwell murder case. The statement in the newspapers is a grave injustice referred to by them, against whom we have no legal evidence that would justify an arrest or even the detention of any person as a material witness. Such statements may make interesting newspaper copy, but they are contrary to the facts and misleading to the public.”
It was not a comfortable position for the police and detectives involved int eh investigation, who slowly but surely found themselves walking down a dead end path, with no clues, leads or facts with which to pull themselves back to a positive position. On 28th June, Edward Swann the District Atorney spoke to the press, admitting that after 18 days of investigation, they had nothing. No clues, no suspects and honestly speaking, not even any real reason, aside from the missing gun from the scene of the crime, to fully rule out suicide. When the press asked why they thought Elwell might take his own life, he replied simply, “I don’t know. He was broke was he?”, though he then conceded he had no proof that Joseph was broke either, concluding the conference by simply stating,
“We can’t find any sufficient evidence for someone else to have killed him.”
So it was, amidst all the confusion, backtracking statements and conflicting facts of the case, that the investigation gradually petered out, turning cold and languishing in a stagnant perpetuity, where it had remained for a hundred years. The murder (or suicide) of Joseph Bowne Elwell has remained, as it ever was, thoroughly in the dark, a locked room mystery with no solution. Modern theories draw, for the most part, from the theories banded about during the contemporary investigation.
One of the most common theories of the time and still today, is the angle of Joseph Elwell, the womaniser, who was murdered either by a slighted husband or boyfriend, or a victim of his relentless heartbreaking ways.
In 1987, British crime writer, Jonathon Goodman, published his book on the case, titled “The Slaying of Joseph Bowne Elwell, in which he posits his own theory along these lines. Goodman suggests that Joseph was killed by his friend Walter Lewisohn. Once again it is a theory that revolved around a woman, in this case, Leonara Hughes. Leonara was a famous cabaret and ballroom dancer who had dabbled in acting. She had, for a time been involved in some capacity with Joseph and Goodman suggests that Walter, whose mental health deteriorated rapidly in the years following his death, seeing him eventually hospitalised and making endless, one way telephone calls to the young starlet, declaring his undying love for her, either shot Elwell himself, or paid off an assassin to do the job for him in a fit of jealous envy. Goodman’s theory, however, relies on a great deal of conjecture and postulation involving many people who are long since dead and holds little in the way of hard evidence.
Towards the end of the investigation and despite all medical advice, even police failed to rule out suicide as a cause of death and one theory that floated throughout the investigation was that Mrs Larsen had perhaps cleaned more of the crime scene than she let on. This suspicion of the maid fell largely on her due to the fact that she had hidden a pink negligee in Josephs closet belonging to Viola Kraus, in order to protect her name from reaching the press. This, the detectives suggested, was enough to cast doubt upon Mrs Larsen. If she could be dishonest about the night gown, then surely she could be dishonest about her involvement with eh scene and her discovery of the Joseph? What if she had hidden or discarded the gun in order to protect Joseph from the stigma then befell a victim of suicide?
One offshoot of this theory was that Viola herself killed Joseph. She had, after all, apparently had a spat with Joseph on the last night he was alive whilst they dined and danced in the Ritz-Carlton. Had Joseph spurned her advances now that she was a free woman in the eyes of the law, with her divorce finalised? Had she expected more from Joseph and had her disappointment in his willing to commit pushed her to murder? This theory more or less concludes with the eh speculation that she had then shown up at Josephs and shot him, only for the maid to cover up after her, though her reasons for doing so are never suggested. Pivotal in this theory is that Joseph was found without his toupee or denture in place, a situation very few, but perhaps Viola, would have been privy to.
The lead investigator in the case, Arthur Carey, had his own, rather less glamorous theory. He suggested that a thief had followed the mailman on the morning of the shooting and seen the front door of Josephs house being open. Had slid inside once the mail had been delivered. He then went on to shoot Elwell and then, inexplicably for a man planning to rob, decided instead to run without taking any of the possessions left dotted around the house. His only explanation being that perhaps the coming of the maid, Mrs Larsen was enough to shake him and force him to alight whilst she pottered around putting the milk into water in the kitchen.
In the end, the facts fo the case are few and far between. That Joseph was found in a locked house, barefoot, dressed in his pyjamas, without toupee and dentures and with a large hole in his head from a gunshot is about all we have. The likelihood of it being a suicide seems slim, if one is to go along with the medical evidence, but then we are left with the difficult and confusing situation of needing to find a motive, a method and a murderer, all of which, could be everyone and no-one, everything, and nothing at all. After one hundred years, the case of Joseph Bowne Elwells mysterious death is as cold as it ever was. Perhaps just as the murderer himself had done on the morning of June 11th, 1920, the case slipped into historical obscurity, where it now rests, unlikely to ever be unwound.