Old Fashioned Crime

Joseph Bowne Elwell:

His Unsolved 1920 Murder Was a Real Life Locked Room Mystery

by Stephanie Hoover, May 28, 2020
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N ewspapers called Joseph Bowne Elwell "the Ace of hearts." Whether anyone who actually knew Elwell called him that is highly unlikely. What is known about Elwell is that his marriage and skill at the game of Bridge took him to the fringe of celebrity. That celebrity morphed into notoriety when he was found in his four-story, 70th Street townhouse in New York City on June 11, 1920 - a fresh bullet wound decorating his forehead.

Joseph Bowne Elwell Elwell was born on February 24, 1873 in the postcard perfect community of Cranford, New Jersey, about 18 miles outside of Manhattan. In his late 20s, he married socialite Helen Derby. The Derbys were best known for their connection, through marriage, to Theodore Roosevelt. Helen's cousin, Dr. Richard Derby, married Roosevelt's youngest daughter, Ethel. Both the Elwells and Derbys enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, and neither was interested in divesting from that lifestyle.

Elwell's earliest aspirations lay in the field of business. He worked as a salesman for a hardware firm, but hoped to rise through the ranks to a more distinguished title. A chance encounter with Whist at his social club rerouted the young man's plans. Elwell possessed an immediate and instinctive proficiency for this version of the card game Bridge. By age 30, he was the leading expert on the game, and eventually authored 13 books on the subject.

In 1905, Helen gave birth to the couple's only child, Richard Derby Elwell. Not long after, the marriage started to flounder. Elwell enjoyed the lifestyle of the freewheeling gamesman and best-selling author. He'd taken as his regular Bridge partner Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, great-grandson of robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt and an excellent player in his own right. Elwell admired and emulated Vanderbilt's privileged habits. Before long, he was seeing other women, a breach of vows Helen was willing to overlook as long as her husband paid the bills on the Park Avenue apartment in which she and her son now lived. But, as the saying goes, time waits for no man and by 1920 Elwell was a balding, middle-aged carouser who relied on a toupee and false teeth to manifest his pretense of youth.

Helen Derby Elwell Though Helen and Joseph Elwell amicably separated in 1916, Helen was in no hurry to finalize the divorce. Acquaintances reported that, by the summer of 1920, Joseph's requests to end the marriage became more adamant - that he'd met a woman with whom he wanted to settle down. On May 27th of that year, Helen received a letter from her estranged husband. He was ready to officially end the marriage, he said. Helen agreed, but hoped to wait until her lease expired in October. The delay was of far more value to her than Joseph. He'd been paying her a $200 monthly allowance, $200 per year for their son's summer camp, and $600 per year for Richard's private school tuition. Still, Helen complained to a New York Times reporter that the monthly $200 payment was barely sufficient to meet her needs. She said she'd even been "forced to get along" without servants. Regardless of these financial arrangements and the couple's shared son, however, Helen professed that she hadn't seen Joseph for four years leading up to his death.

There was one woman who saw Elwell nearly every day and that was his housekeep Mary Larsen. She arrived about 8:30 each morning to make breakfast and clean the house, just as she did on the morning of Friday, June 11, 1920.

Elwell had been out the night before. His Thursday evening started with a dinner party at the Ritz-Carlton. It was a celebration of the divorce of Viola Kraus (one of Elwell's love interests) from Victor von Schlegel, a successful manufacturer primarily serving the railroad industry. Likely on purpose, von Schlegel also turned up at the Ritz, a young woman in a black dress dangling from his arm. The two groups had a chance meeting at the elevators, although no arguments were reported.

At about 10:30, Elwell left the Ritz to make his way to the New Amsterdam Theatre to get seats for a rooftop show called the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic. His friends from the Ritz arrived a short while later. It was here that some sort of disagreement arose among the group, and at 1:30 a.m. (now Friday, June 11th) Elwell left, heading home on foot.

Local operators confirmed that two calls were placed to the Elwell home, one at 1:45 and the other at 2:04. About 2:30, Viola Kraus successfully connected with Elwell and tried to smooth whatever had ruffled his feathers. Whether or not she followed up the phone call with a personal visit is a matter of debate.

Although it had dropped down into the 50s on Thursday, by early Friday morning a monstrous heat wave assaulted city residents. Temperatures reached an extremely uncomfortable 94 °F. New Yorkers opened their windows in a futile attempt to catch some slight breeze. Before sunrise, one of Elwell's neighbors heard a car backfire and saw it pull away from the card player's residence. At 6:30 a.m., the dairy driver left a quart of milk outside the front door of Elwell's home. He noticed that the double screen doors leading inside the vestibule were wide open. At 7:30, the mailman delivered several letters at the front door. An hour later, Mary Larsen approached the home's entrance. She recalled that the screen doors were closed and the front door was locked. She carried the milk inside, but retrieved no letters since, she said, there were none there to take.

As was her custom, Mary headed straight to the kitchen. The house was hot so she opened the kitchen windows. She returned to the entry hall from which she had a view of Elwell's living room. It was his rattling, labored breathing that caught her attention. She entered the room to find Elwell barefoot and still in his pajamas. Blood from the bullet hole in his forehead ran down his face. She ran from the house, screaming for help.

Both a nearby patrolman and the mailman heard her cries. Both men ran to the house. It was only after they tried to lift Elwell from his chair that they realized he'd been shot. They found no pistol or evidence of a struggle other than a slightly displaced chair. Elwell was taken to Bellevue Hospital where he died several hours later.

From the start, Elwell's death was viewed as a murder. A shell casing was lodged in the plaster wall behind his chair. It was the kind of bullet used by an Army issue Colt pistol. On the floor lay a report from the Kentucky horse stable where Elwell boarded his thoroughbreds. It was splattered with blood. Also on the floor was a burned out cigar which Mary Larsen identified as Elwell's custom brand. A second, commonly produced cigar, half smoked, rested on the fireplace mantle. None of the home's doors appeared tampered with, and the first floor windows were all secured with ornamental iron grills. Police found $400 in cash in Elwell's bedroom, not to mention more than $7,000 worth of jewelry and cufflinks. Whatever the reason for his shooting, it wasn't robbery.

Because of Elwell's reputation as a ladies man (and his notorious lack of concern over the marital status of his paramours) the dominant theory was that Elwell was killed by a jealous husband or boyfriend. Indeed, a pink negligee - later learned to be the property of Viola Kraus - was found in Elwell's closet indicating a recent liaison. But no one who truly knew Elwell believed there had been a woman in his home at the time of his shooting. The reason was simple: both his toupee and false teeth were upstairs at the time of the attack. Joseph Bowne Elwell, friends insisted, would never invite a lady into his home without wearing these artifices.

Surprisingly, the one possible motive police seemed to ignore was Elwell's estate. At the time of his death, it was valued at half a million dollars. One of his inheritors was his son, Richard, who would receive a third of his father's assets. Surely Helen would have had some control over her minor son's inheritance, yet this angle was all but ignored.

For months, Elwell's death was front page, national news and seemingly the only case the police worked. Progress was slow, however, and detectives eventually ran out of leads. The case went cold. In April 1921 it was briefly reopened, but investigators got no further than they had the first time. Whomever shot Elwell had managed to evade detection.

In 1926, writing under the pseudonym S. S. Van Dine, Willard Huntington Wright released the first Philo Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case. It was based loosely on the Elwell killing. Enormously successful, the book cemented the appeal of the "locked room mystery" for generations of readers to come.

One hundred years later, only a handful of historical true crime fans and aficionados still remember the unsolved murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell. The killer's identity has likely long been lost to time. If there ever was a perfect crime, Elwell's murder certainly seems to be it.


Read "The Benson Murder Case" by S. S. Van Dine:
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