Depression-era New York was a tough time for a guy just looking to get by. The pressure of feeding a family, the lack of available work, the poor conditions suffered from much of the work that was available and at the end of the day, you couldn’t even relax with a drink or drown your sorrows in the bottom of a bottle. At least, not legally. Whilst laws attempted to stop people from drinking alcohol, the culture of the speakeasy ripped through the underground. It was a place where one could relax and unwind, listen to some live music, play some cards, or set up an insurance fraud with a few of the friendly locals. It was the latter that took place in a small dive in The Bronx over several months in 1933 that would highlight how desperate the times could really be. It would also prove to be one of the most catastrophic displays of disorganised crime that the 19th-century newspapers would ever write about in what was dubbed as New York’s “most fantastic” murder.
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The man lets out a small sigh, picked up the telephone receiver and slowly pulled back each number in the ring, letting it slowly coil back into its dead position between each laborious turn. After a few short rings the voice on the other end answered,
“Hello, Rock Flower Company, how can I help you?”
“I’m calling for my sister”, he exhaled heavily, cigarette smoke pierced his tightly drawn lips,
“I want you to send 13 American Beauty roses to the the funeral of Roland Owen, I’ll send the money over via special delivery tomorrow.”
“The voice on the other end of the phone softened slightly,
“Certainly sir, would you like me to write out a card for you… Sir?”
The phone clicked as the receiver was placed back into the holder, giving in to the small weight of the bakelite funnel.
He lent back against the glass panes and turned over a small card in his fingers, reading the words written in scrawled ink as a car passed in the street outside, illuminating the white board as he turned it over in his fingers.
“Love forever, Louise.”
He slipped it into the pocket of his overcoat, heaved himself off the glass wall behind him and swung open the door to the telephone booth and stepped out into the cold street, his breath clouding up and dissipating into the brisk breeze, spring had not yet fallen. He popped his collar up to cover the bare skin on the back of his neck and walked slowly along the sidewalk, into the shallow din of the Kansas City night.
The tale of room 1046 of the President Hotel in Kansas City is a strange one. A murder mystery with almost no clues and no evidence at the crime scene, but a victim with three names, left beaten, possibly tortured and a trail of several peculiar phone calls. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Kansas City, Wednesday 2nd January, 1935
Now owned by Hilton, the Hotel President in Kansas City, Missouri, was originally built and owned by the United Hotels Company in 1926 housing 450 rooms. Its dominating, square, red-brick facade stands on the corner of Baltimore Avenue and West 14th Street. The flat roof, perched atop its 14 floors is adorned with large white letters, broadcasting its name, high out across the cityscape.
A 1935 Newspaper advert described the hotel as such:
“The Luxury that women love, hotel President. The little things that do so much to make one feel at home are especially evident at Hotel President… Prices most moderate.”
It was the “prices most moderate” that more than likely appealed to the young man who registered at the hotel on the morning of January 2nd, 1935 after a night at the costlier Muehlebach Hotel, two blocks over on West 12th. The man strolled into the lobby, neatly dressed with a black overcoat and carrying no luggage at around 1:20 in the afternoon of the 2nd. He was an unusual and imposing figure, standing around 6 feet tall, 180 lbs and though he tried to disguise it by combing over his dark brown hair, a large scar on the left side of his head, culminating in a cauliflower ear. His age was apparently difficult to gauge, witnesses that saw his entry put him anywhere between 20 and 35 years of age. After introducing himself to the receptionist, he signed into the hotel register under the name Roland T Owen, his home address simply Los Angeles. Though he had no luggage that the clerk could see, the Bellboy, Randolph Propst was called to escort him to his room. As the pair entered the elevator, Owen complained to Propst about the high prices of the Muehlebach, stating that $5 per night was far too high. At only $2 a night, The President was far more acceptable. When they reached the tenth floor, Propst took Owen to room 1046, opened the door with a passkey and handed it over to the guest, entering behind him. He watched as Owen quickly gave the room a once over and then entered the bathroom, took out a comb, hairbrush and tube of toothpaste from his pocket, his only luggage and placed them by the sink. Satisfied, Owen followed the Bellboy back out of the room, though as they approached the elevator, Propst noted that neither men had locked the door, so asking for his passkey, he nipped back, locked the door and handed the key back to Owen as they entered the elevator, riding it back to the lobby, where Owen left the hotel.
At around 2pm, Mary Soptic, a hotel maid knocked on the door of room 1046 during her afternoon rounds. A man’s voice told her to come in. As she stepped into the room, she found it to be dimly lit by the lamp on the writing desk in the far corner of the room and with the blinds tightly drawn on the windows. As she went about cleaning the room and taking the used towels, Owen once again brought up the subject of the high prices of the Muehlebach and asked her about her work in the hotel.
“He was either worried about something or afraid. He always wanted to kinda keep in the dark.”
She later told police. After servicing the room, she left and returned at 4pm with clean towels. She knocked but got no answer, however as the door was unlocked, she let herself in to stock the fresh bath towels. Once again the room was dark, she took note of Owen, now asleep on the bed, fully clothed and of a note on the writing desk, which sitting just across from the entrance, was illuminated from the light in the hallway. The note read simply,
“Don, I’ll be back in 15 minutes. Wait.”
Thursday 4th January, 1935
The next morning, on the 4th January at around 10:30 am, Mary Soptic made a further trip to the room as part of her morning rounds. When she reached room 1046, she found the door to the room was locked from the outside. Assuming no one was in the room, she used the hotel passkey to let herself in, only to be startled, as she found Roland Owen sitting inside by the phone. Trying to stifle her bemusement of the situation, she went about cleaning the room, just as the phone in the room started to ring.
“No Don, I do not want to eat. I am not hungry. I just had breakfast… No, I am not hungry.”
Owen hung up the phone. The call was brief but had felt tense to Mary, though she tried not to show it. Owen and Mary made small talk whilst she went about cleaning the room and removing the used towels. Once she was done, she excused herself and left the room. She returned again with clean towels at 4pm that afternoon. This time, as she stood outside the door, she heard a second man inside the room with Owen. She knocked the door and a man, apparently with a “gruff voice” replied “Who is it?”. Mary introduced herself as the maid with fresh towels but was cut short and told “We don’t need any.” Despite knowing that the room was lacking towels, since she had taken them herself that morning, she nevertheless bowed out and left the men to their business.
At 6pm the same evening, Jean Owen, despite the coincidence of the name, totally unrelated to Roland, checked in to the President after going shopping in downtown Kansas City. She had been overcome with a nausea and felt too ill to drive home, so instead decided to stop over for the night and head back the next day. In a further coincidence, the clerk checked her in to room 1048, right next door to Roland Owen. She settled in to the room and called her boyfriend, Joe Reinert at 6:50pm to let him know her plans on staying at the hotel for the evening. Reinert showed up to visit her at 9pm, stayed for a few hours and left, noticing nothing strange at all throughout the duration of his stay. Reinert could consider himself lucky on that front, across town, Robert Lane was leaving work after his shift at the Kansas City Water Department at 11pm and his journey would be nothing but strange.
Robert Lane and the Mystery Passenger
As Lane left work at the kansas City Water Department building on Main Street. As he pulled out onto 13th Street, he noticed a man, running alongside the street wearing only an undershirt, pants and shoes. This might seem strange at the best of times, but in january 1935, the average temperature was 33.4 degrees Fahrenheit or 0.7 degrees Centigrade. One might expect most people to be out at night wearing more than just an undershirt. As he drew closer, the man threw out his hand to flag the car down. Feeling sympathetic, Lane pulled over and picked up the man, who he now noticed was looking much the worse for wear. The man got into the backseat of the car, apologising to Lane, stating he had thought he was a taxi and asked to be taken to a place where it might be possible for him to find a cab. Lane, taking note of the clear distress of his new passenger and cut on his arm, nodded after telling him, “You look like you’ve had it bad”. The passenger merely stared out of the window as he mumbled “I’ll kill that.. Tomorrow”. Quite what the person was will likely never be known as the expletive was frustratingly redacted from the newspaper reports, it may have held clues, at least in terms of gender, to whom he was referring. The pair drove on, though after a short while, noticing a parked cab on 12th and Roost, the passenger jumped out of the car and took off towards the empty car. He pulled open the drivers door, honked the horn and then entered the rear passenger seat as a cabbie came out of a nearby diner to give him a ride and the like that, the man was gone.
Back in the Hotel President
Back in room 1048 of the President, Jean Owen was struggling to sleep. Her boyfriend had left earlier that night at around 11pm and lying awake in the dark, she quietly fumed as raised voices kept her awake.
“I heard a lot of noise which sounded like it was on the same floor and consisted largely of men and women talking loudly and cursing. When the noise continued, I was about to call the desk, but decided not to.”
The noise could possibly have been from a party that was taking place down the hall in room 1055. The Elevator operator, Charles Blocher who worked the night shift had already taken several people up to the party that night, but now things were quietening down as the night shift rolled slowly on. Sometime between 1 and 3am however he was called into action to take a familiar face up to the tenth floor. The following series of events can get somewhat messy depending on the source read, so for clarity, the following is Charles Blochers official statement to the police concerning his shift that night.
“I took a woman that I recognised as being a woman who frequents the hotel with different men in different rooms. It is my impression from this woman’s actions that she is a commercial woman. I took her to the tenth floor and she made inquiries for room 1026 – about 5 minutes after this I received a signal to come back to the tenth floor. Upon arriving there, I met this same woman and she wondered why he wasn’t in his room because he had called her and had always been very prompt in his appointments and she wondered if he might be in 1024 because the light was on in there – She remains about 30 or 40 minutes. Then I received a signal to go back to the tenth floor – I went back and this same woman appeared there and she came down on the elevator at the lobby. About an hour later she returned in company with a man and I took them to the 9th floor – I later received a signal to go to the ninth floor about 4:15am and this same woman came down from the ninth floor and left the hotel. In a period of about 15 minutes later this man came down the elevator from the ninth floor complaining that he couldn’t sleep and was going out for a while.”
For whatever reason, whether the man was bashful for his associations with a “commercial woman” or something more nefarious, the man was clearly covering something, as he was not a guest in the hotel and Charles Blocher was well aware of the fact which had made the whole event stand out to him for being somewhat peculiar. Either way, he described the man as standing about 5’ 6” tall, slender, about 135lbs and wearing a light brown coat, brown shoes and brown hat. The woman was also about 5’ 6” tall and around 135lbs. She had dark, black hair a wore a coat made of black hudson seal, either real or imitation, with a fur collar. The woman was no stranger to many at the Hotel and the night clerk, James Hadden too noted her presence that evening, stating that she was
“In and out of the hotel at various times and at various hours of the night and early mornings.”
Friday 4th January
The next morning, on Friday the 4th of January at 7am, Delilah Ferguson, the hotel phones switchboard manager noticed a light blinking on the switchboard desk, under the label of 1046 signifying the rooms phone had been left off the hook for a prolonged period. She double checked the logs and finding that no calls had come in or out for 1046 that night, she sent Randolph Propst up to the room to replace the phone. When he reached 1046, he knocked on the door, ignoring the “do not disturb” sign that hung from the handle. A voice from inside told him to “come in”, but as he turned the handle to enter, ne noticed that the door was, once again, locked from the outside. Not having picked up the hotels key for the room, he knocked again “turn the lights on” came the same voice from inside. At a loss, Propst decided to simply shout back through the door for the man to place the phone back on the hook and left to report to the switchboard manager.
At 8:30am, noticing the phone still off the hook, Delilah Ferguson sent a second Bellboy, Harold Pike up to the room with a key to place the phone on the receiver. He knocked on the door, let himself in and saw owen, lying sprawled out, asleep on the bed naked. He replaced the phone, quietly left the room and locked the door, reporting to Ferguson that he thought Owen may have been drunk, but that he had replaced the phone.
At 10:45am, Delilah Ferguson noticed that once again, the phone was off the hook in 1046. She found Randolph Propst and sent him to do the honours. He knocked on the door for the second time that morning, unlocked the door and stepped in to the dark gloom fo the room. Things inside were not quite what he was expecting to find however.
“When I entered the room this man was within two feet of the door on his knees and elbows – holding his head in his hands – I noticed blood on his head – I then turned the light on – placed the telephone receiver on the hook – I looked around and saw blood on the walls, on the bed and in the bathroom – This frightened me and I immediately left the room and went downstairs.”
Propst went to to seek help and found the Hotel Assistant Manager, Mr Weaver, who called for the authorities.
No clothes, no clues
Around 11:30 am, twenty minutes after propst had made his grim discovery in 1046, detective Ira Johnson, detective William Eldridge and Detective Sergeant Frank Howland arrived on the scene, followed shortly by Doctor Harold Flanders. As the doctor inspected him, he found that Owen had his hands and ankles tied with a tight cord. The same cord had been used at some point to strangle him. He also had bruises on his hands along with three deep cuts on the left side of his chest and a fractured skull on the right side of his head. The police questioned him on who the perpetrator was that injured Owen, as he drifted out of consciousness, he only told them “nobody” and that he had gained his injuries after he had slipped and hit his head on the bathtub. He then fell to unconscious and was taken to the local hospital. With Owen in the hospital, the authorities turned to the room, but found it devoid of almost all evidence, even Owens clothes had been taken. Doctor Flanders noted that from the clotted blood on the bed covers and the dry blood on the walls, the attacks had likely taken police up to seven hours before he had been found, meaning at some point around 3 to 4AM. They could find only scant clues in the room. An unlit cigarette, a safety pin, a hairpin by the bed and a clothing label from a necktie that gave the maker as Botany Worsted Mills of Passaic, New Jersey. They also found an unopened bottle of diluted Sulfuric Acid and in the sink was a smashed glass, with a sliver missing, which lead police to assume the cuts had been made by this missing shard of glass. The glass top of the phone stand held four small fingerprints, which police believed to have belonged to a woman. They lifted the prints and sent them for further analysis.
Back in the hospital, Owen was not holding up well. He had failed to wake up since his arrival that morning and the doctors had found that his left lung had been punctured as one of the wounds on his chest was inflicted, collapsing his lung. At midnight he passed away in the hospital, leaving nothing but a very confused picture of his death.
Saturday, 5th January. The investigation
The next morning on Saturday the 5th january, both the Kansas City star and Kansas city Journal Post ran the story of the President Hotel Murder Mystery on the front page. Though there were so few concrete details, both quoted Detective Ira Johnson as stating:
“There is no doubt that someone else is mixed up in this”
This much might have been clear, but who that person was, was anything but. The fingerprints the police had lifted from the telephone stand were sent to the photo lab at the Kansas City Star, who sent them on to the Justice Departments Bureau of Investigation, but they had come up with little information on them in regards to who they belonged to. Jean Owen, the woman staying in room 1048 was questioned, but released quickly when her boyfriend confirmed her story and alibis. Taking the name Rowland T Owen from the hotel register, police reached out to LAPD who searched, but ultimately found no matching records for a man by that name in Los Angeles. Quickly the police admitted both to themselves and to the press that they might be staring down a cul-de-sac and that the name may very well have been given as a falsehood. If that was indeed the case, the investigation was stalling before it had even started. On Monday 7th January, the police decided to hold a public viewing of the body in the Melody-McGilly funeral home in an effort to identify the man. Within the week that the body was on display, upwards of 300 viewers passed through Melody McGilly but largely to no avail. One curious visitor however, thought he might have been able to help police. Robert Lane, the Water Department worker, recognised the dead man as the mystery passenger he had picked up by the roadside just a few days prior. He gave his story to the police, however, they dismissed it out of hand on the grounds that if it had indeed been owen, he would have surely been noticed entering the hotel in the state he had left Lanes back seat in, bleeding and only half dressed.
Instead, the police checked out the Muehlebach Hotel after Bellyboy Propst had given his statement and recalled his earlier conversation in the elevator with owen. They found that Owen had used a different name at the Muehlebach, there he had registered under the minker of Eugene K Scott, once again from Los Angeles. They contacted the LAPD once again, but just as before, results came back negative. It was becoming quite clear that they had no idea of the true name of the dead man and any thoughts as to who had attacked him or why seemed nowhere in sight.
As the weeks and months passed, the trail went stone cold. With little to go on from the outset and no new leads leading to anywhere meaningful, the police were at a loss as to where to turn next. There were plenty of leads coming in and police dutifully and most likely, very hopefully followed up each of them in turn. There was a short period when police thought the body of “Owen” had been ID’d by a Mrs olver-Looper from Des Moines who had not heard from her husband and thought he matched the description in the press. It all fell through relatively quickly however, when the woman received a card from her husband stating that he was alive and well. In another case, the police sent the picture of Owens body out to a Mr Nelson B Mawney of Shelby who had reported that his brother was travelling in the midwest under an assumed name, but the picture did not one of the man’s relative. A Mr Ernest Johnston, one of the people who had visited the body during the public viewing was adamant that the man was his cousin Harvey Johnson, but after police arranged for Harveys sister to come to Kansas City to ID the body, she confirmed that her brother had in fact died five years prior. These and countless more dead ends all had to be looked into by police, many barely getting off the ground at all.
By March, things were looking bleak for the investigation. The funeral of Roland T Owen had been arranged by the funeral home with the body due to be buried in an unmarked grave with no service in a sight reserved for paupers graves. The details fo the funeral were printed in the press and on the evening of the 3rd, the day before the funeral was to take place, the Melody-McGilly funeral homes phone rang.McGilly answered and spoke to a man, who enquired about the funeral of Owen. After McGilly confirmed the details of the funeral, the man asked for the service to be delayed and instead, he would send money to pay for a proper burial.
“I want you to bury him in Memorial Park in Kansas City, then he will be near my sister.”
After confirming that he would send the money through special delivery, he hung up giving no details as to who he might have been. McGilly could only pass the information on to police with slight bemusement, but the service was delayed as requested. In the run up to the newly arranged funeral date, the Rock Floral Company likewise received a strange call. A man phoned to order 13 American Beauty roses to be delivered during the service, only stating that he was calling on behalf of his sister and that he would send $5 through special delivery to cover costs. On March 23rd, both the money for the flowers and the money for the funeral in Memorial Park arrived at the respective businesses via special delivery. The money for the funeral was a wad of cash, wrapped in a torn page of a magazine and stuffed in an envelope. The money for the flowers arrived in an envelope with the handwriting for the address obscured by being written in block capital letters with a ruler. Inside was the money and a small slip of card that said in scrawled handwriting, “Love forever – Louise”.
On the 26th March, the funeral for Owen was held at Memorial park. The roses were delivered as promised but the only attendees were detectives working on the case. For several days after the service, police dressed as gravediggers cased the vicinity of the grave, but there were no visitors. The Kansas City Journal Post carried the story of the burial, however, it hadn’t been corrected on the updated details of the service taking place in Memorial Park and instead ran copy that Roland T Owen had been buried in a paupers grave. On the 26th March, the editor received a phone call from a woman who demanded they print an amendment to the article, explaining the error. Predictably, she hung up before they could ask her any details of who she was and of her connection to the mystery man.
With Owen in the ground and no new details arising concerning the bizarre phone calls, the case of the murder in room 1046 once again ran cold. The story fell out of people’s minds as it slipped from page to page, day to day until eventually, it was out of the press for good. In mid-May however, the American Weekly, a weekend newspaper supplemental magazine printed an overview of the story. In true pulp fashion, the article was titled “The Mystery of Room 1046” and had a suitably enthralling by-line:
“No detective thriller is any stronger than the torture slaying of an unknown man in the big Kansas City hotel, and the various bewildering circumstances which surrounded the strange crime.”
The full page piece came complete with an illustration of a skeleton, peering around the edge of a partially opened, dark doorway, staring down at a profile photo of Roland T Owens body. Interestingly, the piece gave further details concerning the phone call from the anonymous caller to McGilly at the funeral home:
“McGilly questioned the speaker and was told that the man who called himself Owen had arrived in kansas City and was met at the Union Station there by the girl he had intended to marry. The speaker admitted that he too had been at the meeting. They drove to the President hotel in a cab the speaker said. But when McGilly asked what had happened that day in the hotel room, the voice halted and then finished hurriedly, “Well, he didn’t want to play the game fair and cheaters usually get what is coming to them”, then the man hung up.”
Whether or not thi swas embellishment on behaslf of the writer, or information given to him at a later day, is unknown, though the magazine did have a reputation for being somewhat sensationlist and had acknowledged that some of it’s articles had been straight fiction. More importantly than this text, however, was the photo of the body. The American Weekly was circulated Nationwide and had the largest readership of any printed media in the nation.
Artemus Ogletree emerges
The story that ran in the American Weekly was almost a last hurrah for Roland T owen and the strange case of Room 1046. That was, until one full year later, in the Autumn of 1936 when a woman reading the issue recognised the photo of the body of Owen as that of her friends son.
Ruby Ogletree from Birmingham, Alabama had previously waved her son off on a trip across America in April of 1934. In the early days of his departure, she had been in contact with him regularly but eventually the communication had stopped entirely. Instead, she had been receiving typewritten letters from unusual places. Her son had intended to go to California, however the first unusual letter she received was in early 1935 and from Chicago and the second from New York, stating that he would be travelling to Europe that same day. Aside from the obvious detour, the usage of a typewriter made her suspicious due to her son having never used a typewriter before and also that the writing style seemed off, whoever was writing these letters was using far too much slang. In August of 1935, she had received a long distance call from a man who claimed to be a friend of her son, named Jordan. Jordan had told her many fantastical stories of her sons adventures, of how he had lost a thumb in a bar brawl saving his life, but leaving him unable to write. When Mrs Ogletree questioned the story, he promptly hung up. She had had a deep suspicion ever since and even gone so far as to contact J Edgar Hoover, director of the newly founded FBI, asking for help on the matter.
In november of 1936, Ruby Ogletree was shown the article in the American Weekly by her friend where she had her suspicions, and worst fears confirmed. Her son Artemus Ogletree had died more than a year before and had been the man beaten in the President hotel room of 1046. She contacted the Kansas City police to confirm the identification, telling of how the scar on his head had come from an accident he had had as a young boy and was a burn scar, of how he’d left to travel to California and of how she had lost contact with him since late 1934. One of the more remarkable facts to emerge from the identification was that although most witnesses had pegged him as between 20 and 35 years old, Artemus Ogletree was a mere 17 years old.
The police finally had a name for the mystery man, however, given that Artemus Ogletree had been killed in January of 1935, this of course raised new questions as to who Jordan was and who had been typing the letters to Mrs Ogletree after the death of her son?
The name on the headstone in Memorial Park was changed from Roland T Owen to Artemus Ogletree and after a year and a half of searching, the case finally fell utterly stone cold without a single motive being confirmed or suspect being interrogated.
The mystery of Room 1046 remains completely perplexing and with so little evidence, will more than likely remain.
One of the earliest theories for a motive touted by contemporary press was that of some kind of love affair or love triangle, with the killing based around either jealousy or an aggrieved family member. The evidence for this was fairly slim, pointing to Jean Owen citing voices of both men and women on the night she struggled to sleep in the President hotel along with the presence of both a hairpin by the bed and small fingerprints found on the phone stand thought to be of a woman. On the 5th of January the Associated Press ran the story that included this suggested motive but states in the piece that it was based only on “Slender clues”. In more modern analysis of the case, everything else falls to conjecture based upon the anonymous phone calls from whoever “louise” and her “brother”may or may not have been. Most theories outside of this step purely into the realm of fantasy, with stories of dreams of becoming a famous wrestler, despite any links to said industry being dismissed by the known facts, along with links to gang violence or mobsters, though at seventeen years old, one has to wonder how he may have gotten into so deep a set of circumstances.
97 years on it remains as a case with more questions than answers in almost all aspects. Why was Artemus Ogletree in Kansas City? Who was Louise? Who was Don? Who wrote the letters to Ruby Ogletree and who was Jordan? Or was Jordan, Don and the letter writer all one and the same, if so, why? The questions go on and on. Written in the American Weekly as a sensationalist news piece in 1935, it appears the mystery of room 1046 now firmly lives up to the magazines standards for a piece to leave readers with little but bewilderment.