Marie Doro, Fatty Arbuckle and Duncannon's Mystery Suicide
|Market Street in Duncannon, date unknown|
Buried in an unmarked grave in Duncannon, Perry County, are the remains of a mysterious woman whose name is unknown. Found in a boarding house in 1921 with a bottle of carbolic acid and a mysterious note, the middle-aged woman's body produced no clues that could lead to her identification, or to answer the perplexing question: Why had she come to the tiny borough of Duncannon, thousands of miles from her home, to take her own life?
Perhaps what makes this mystery all the more remarkable is the fact that this unidentified suicide victim was apparently not only a woman of considerable wealth and refinement, but evidence seems to suggest that she may have played a role in the Fatty Arbuckle scandal-- arguably the most spectacular scandal in Hollywood history. Yet, in spite of her apparent socialite status, her identity remains unknown to this day.
This is the story of one of the most baffling suicide cases in Pennsylvania history.
On September 15, 1921, an attractive middle-aged woman checked out of the Harrisburg hotel where she had been staying and arrived in Duncannon, a tiny borough along the Susquehanna River fifteen miles north of the capital city. After checking in to a boarding house owned by Naomi Sampson, where she gave her name as "Mrs. Joe Jones", the woman went downtown an opened an account at a local bank, which seems to suggest that she planned on making Duncannon her new home.
The arrival of any outsider in a sleepy river town was fodder for the rumor mill in those days, and the out-of-towner certainly aroused great curiosity. She appeared to be around fifty to sixty years of age, petite, with brown hair flecked with gray, and was seen around town wearing expensive jewelry and fine silk clothing. She also had a distinctive Southern accent. In contrast to the farmers and railroad workers, she stood out like a sore thumb.
Those who spoke with her said that she seemed extremely well-educated and refined, as if she were the wife of a business tycoon or a retired theatre star. Yet she frequently appeared gloomy and melancholy, and there was something peculiar in the way she talked about herself, replying to questions with rambling, vague and sometimes conflicting answers. When asked where she had come from, sometimes she would answer Florida, other times California. Thinking the woman was just a little "scatter-brained", the locals smiled politely and went about their business.
Elsie Fenstermacher, who operated an establishment where the stranger frequently took her meals, later recalled that the mysterious woman was very quiet and secretive. "She dressed so well and was so refined looking that we were curious about her," Fenstermacher said. "Once at dinner she talked a little. She said she married twenty-five years ago and that her husband died nine years ago. She said she was sixty, though she didn't look fifty. She spoke of having been in Tampa and Los Angeles. I remember she said she had never done any house work in her life."
The stranger had also dined with F.E. Cook, the Duncannon burgess. She had also told him the same story, adding that she also had relatives in Frederick, Maryland, and Fredericksburg, Virginia. Burgess Cook said that the woman appeared to be in perfect health and described her as a fine conversationalist.
According to witnesses, the only time the mystery woman appeared to snap out of her depression and take an interest in the locals was when she overheard them talking about Hollywood celebrities. Strangely, she expressed an unusual interest in the Arbuckle case-- which was the leading news story of the day-- and was seen at many of the local newsstands, purchasing copies of newspapers and magazines featuring the sordid scandal.
Curious Clues and an Unfinished Letter
On Monday morning, September 19, Naomi Sampson's mysterious lodger excused herself from the breakfast table and, complaining of a headache, retired to her room. When Mrs. Jones failed to make an appearance for lunch, Sampson went to her room and discovered that Mrs. Jones appeared extremely ill. Sampson immediately called a physician, Dr. Horace W. McKenzie.
"She got here on a Thursday-- that was three days before she died. She said her name was Mrs. Joe Jones," Sampson stated. "She wouldn't say anything about herself. Just sat around with her head in her hands. She didn't get no mail nor write no letters. She wouldn't say nothing-- didn't do nothing-- until I got the doctor."
Dr. McKenzie arrived at the boarding house and found Mrs. Jones barely clinging to life. "I found her in bed, apparently suffering from weakness of heart," he stated. "She refused to answer any questions. The only thing she said was to make a request for morphine to allay her pain. Two hours later she died, still without revealing anything about herself, even though she knew she was dying." According to the doctor, he saw no symptoms of poisoning, or anything that would point to an intentional suicide. "I believe she died of heart failure, possibly aggravated by an overdose of aspirin."
After her body was turned over to the local undertaker, police made a thorough investigation of the room and the lodger's belongings. In addition to expensive clothing, her luggage contained a bottle of carbolic acid, with a label bearing the inscription: D.C. Bowman, Druggist. 919 Main St., Fredericksburg, Va.
Other evidence found in the room revealed that, in the months leading up to her death, she had also been in Tampa, Frederick, Charleston, Los Angeles, Memphis, Tacoma, Harrisburg, and Victoria, Texas. She had traveled to these cities by railroad. She had cut out a newspaper article from a Memphis newspaper dated May 2, 1921, and had carried with her to Duncannon a scrap of wrapping paper purchased from the Coleman & Ferguson grocery store in Dade City, Florida. Also among her personal effects were a jewelry case from Brock & Feagan Jewelers in Los Angeles, an eyeglass case purchased in Texas, and the remnant of a hotel sticker from Tampa.
Evidence also revealed that the mysterious Mrs. Jones had gone to great lengths to conceal her identity before her death; she had even cut out and destroyed the nameplate of the family Bible she had brought with her to the boarding house. Annie Shade, who lived next door to the boarding house, claimed that she had seen the woman in the back yard tearing up scraps of paper and hiding them. Miss Shade, unable to contain her curiosity, collected some of these scraps and pieced them together.
One scrap of a letter contained a telling phrase:
...now that you are no longer the wife of a millionaire, you...
Pieces of the envelope in which this letter was mailed contained parts of the following address:
Dunlap-- 12**-- Cam**-- *** Har**
Could this refer to Cameron Street in Harrisburg? The only hotel on Cameron Street doing business at this time would have been the Mt. Pleasant Hotel. Was this where Mrs. Jones had stayed? And who, or what, was Dunlap?
Interestingly, there was a man named Dunlap involved in the Fatty Arbuckle investigation. While most film fanatics recall that Arbuckle was acquitted for the rape and involuntary manslaughter of silent film actress Virginia Rappe in 1922. The incident, which took place at a San Francisco hotel in September 5, 1921, occurred just ten days before Mrs. Joe Jones arrived in Duncannon. However, a parallel investigation in California sought the bootleggers who furnished the illegal alcohol to Arbuckle and other hotel guests. The private investigator handling this case was a man by the name of J. Harry Dunlap. And it seemed that Dunlap had a history of getting involved with potential witnesses who disappeared under mysterious circumstances; Dolly Mason and Irene Bianchi-- two women he had intended to produce as key witnesses-- fled California in 1921 but were later found.
Is it possible that Mrs. Joe Jones was also being pursued by the same private investigator? If so, this might explain the scrap of paper found by Annie Shade.
However, the most important clue was an unfinished letter discovered next to her bed. Apparently, she had suffered a heart attack while penning the note, which was addressed to someone named Mary. The letter read:
I guess the doctor told the truth and that my mind is a blank at times. But I believe the Lord will take care of me, as I have always done right. I want my friends to know me as I once was.
Had something happened to the wealthy woman that was so traumatic that it inspired her to travel across the country, only to die among strangers in a rickety boarding house? And did this trauma have anything to do with Fatty Arbuckle? Was she in the early stages of dementia? Had she ingested carbolic acid or accidentally overdosed on aspirin, or some other medicine, in her disordered state of mind? The last line of the dead woman's unfinished letter seem to suggest suicide, contrary to Dr. McKenzie's opinion. Unfortunately, an autopsy was never performed.
The Investigation Goes Cold
An autopsy was never performed because of one simple reason-- Perry County did not have a coroner. As a result, the body was turned over to undertaker E.H. Nickel, who took it to Evergreen Cemetery and stored it in a vault temporarily while authorities, led by District Attorney McKee, attempted to solve the mystery of the victim's identity. The woman's photograph was distributed to police departments across the country, but no positive identification was ever made.
Only a few people came forward to view the body. On the evening of September 23, a woman who refused to give her name arrived from Los Angeles and demanded to view the remains. After indicating it was not the person she was looking for, she returned home without further explanation.
On October 1, 1921, with no more leads to follow, authorities decided to bury the mystery woman in an unmarked grave at Evergreen Cemetery, which remains her final resting place to this day.
Was Mrs. Jones the Infamous Bimbo Bronson?
There are some interesting parallels between the case of the woman who died mysteriously in Duncannon and the infamous case of an American woman who lost her mind in England during the same time period.
In May of 1921, a police constable in Deal (a seaside village north of Dover) discovered an American woman sitting by the roadside, who claimed that she had fallen and struck her head on the pavement. Unable to remember anything, she had wandered the beaches of Dover for two weeks, until the constable found her and took her to the Eastry Infirmary.
From her hospital bed she penned a letter to a Manchester newspaper, appealing for help:
About a fortnight ago I had a fall, which appears to have been followed by concussion of the brain... I have undoubtedly lived in Manchester, and have very clear recollection of the town... Do you think it possible that if you put in this letter someone might call me to mind? If only they could. It is terrible to lie here all day, trying to piece the cloud which has settled over my past.
I am a woman of education, and apparently of a certain social standing. My habits and manners to point to this. I also have a clear recollection of driving from London Road Station through the town to a house with a large garden. A terrier named Jock always meets us. There is also a constant companion, a man whom I call Scout. I believe he is American, and my husband.
The woman signed the letter, "Bertha Bimbo Bronson".
On September 7, 1921, the mystery woman stated she had suddenly recalled her name, and that it was not Bronson, but Diana Hamilton Morgan, and that she had come from Virginia. She was described in papers as "about 50 years of age and fashionably dressed" and "a woman of high standing socially and of respectability". According to newspapers, "she told conflicting stories and it was apparent that her mind was gone".
As for the mystery woman, she said that she remembered traveling from Manchester to the port city of Dover, where she bade her husband farewell as he was about to depart for the United States. However, police were unable to find any records to substantiate this claim. Doctors who examined the woman believed that Bronson may have been her maiden name and that Morgan was her husband's name. Other than her apparent loss of memory, the woman appeared to be in good health, and so she was released on September 10.
Strangely, just five days later, a mysterious woman fitting the same exact physical description would arrive in Harrisburg, also claiming to have relatives in Virginia. And when she died, she had in her possession an article clipped from a Memphis newspaper dated May 2, 1921. Stranger still, this would have been about a week or two before the American woman was found roaming the streets of Dover, England, in a confused state.
Is it possible that the Bimbo Bronson/Diana Hamilton Morgan in question arrived in England in May, suffered a severe concussion and returned to the United States in September of 1921 to look for her husband?
Several months earlier, in January of 1921, an interesting blub appeared in California newspapers, describing the suicide attempt of "a middle-aged and apparently refined woman" who swallowed poison in a cottage on Mt. Lowe, near Los Angeles. In her suicide note, she asked that a wealthy local businessman, Jack Knight, be notified of the finding of her body. The woman recovered, but, interestingly, refused to disclose any information about herself to hospital staff. She did, however, give them a name, which the hospital staff assumed to be an alias-- Mrs. Billie Morgan. Might this be the same woman as Diana Hamilton Morgan?
It seems strange that 1921 would see a worldwide epidemic of refined, well-educated, middle-aged women named Morgan losing their memories and swallowing poison all on account of lost/dead husbands of considerable wealth. And it is entirely plausible to imagine this woman leaving California, traveling to the East Coast by train (stopping to pick up a newspaper in Memphis), traveling to England, and then returning to America. The dates line up, along with the aliases and physical descriptions.
Was She Searching for Marie Doro?
|Marie Doro, a native of Duncannon|
A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is dedicated to Marie Doro, a silent film and stage actress of the 1910s and 1920s. Though largely forgotten today, Doro was one of the brightest stars of the Silent Era, having been signed to contracts by Broadway impresario Charles Frohman and Paramount founder Adolph Zukor. She was born Marie Katherine Stewart in Duncannon, Pennsylvania, on May 25, 1882.
Marie Doro was also a colleague and acquaintance of Fatty Arbuckle. They were both both under contract to Paramount at the same time early in their careers. And, bizarre as it may seem, Marie Doro was once stalked by a wealthy California widow with a Southern accent who claimed that Marie was her missing daughter.
After the death of Douglas Saunders, a former superintendent of Marin County schools, his widow-- a Louisiana native named Helen Saunders-- inherited a vast sum of money, which she used to try to track down a daughter, Georgia, who had run away from home as a teenager and was never seen again (Georgia Saunders was declared legally dead in 1919). In 1908, Saunders picked up theatrical magazine at the San Rafael library and saw a picture of Marie Doro and became convinced that it was her missing child. So certain was she in her belief that, in 1909, Mrs. Saunders attempted to sneak into Doro's hotel room in San Francisco. She also told reporters that Doro had acknowledged her as her mother and had even sent her money. Marie Doro, of course, refuted these allegations.
Word of Helen Saunders' claims eventually reached Perry County, and her story was quickly debunked by Doro's family, who suspected that the California widow was out of her mind. Further research confirms this; one San Francisco newspaper describes the widow Saunders as a fashionable woman who "lives the life of a hermit in a big, bare house" and who, in 1912, was "tried on a charge of having thrown dead cats on the front porch of State Senator E.B. Martinelli's home".
Helen Saunders died in California in 1916, convinced til the very end that Marie Doro was her long-lost daughter. Perhaps the possibility exists that one of her relatives, also suffering under the delusion that Marie Doro was Georgia Saunders, had traveled to Duncannon in order to find out if there were any truth to the rumors. Perhaps the letter the mysterious lodger had been writing to "Mary" was really meant for "Marie".
Whether or not this is the case (and it probably isn't, although it's fun to think about) one's mind can't help but to ponder the possibilities-- and that is the the sort of thing that makes for a truly great unsolved mystery.
San Francisco Examiner, June 30, 1909.
Harrisburg Telegraph, Aug. 27, 1908.
San Francisco Call, Sept. 13, 1912.
Oakland Tribune, June 14, 1919.
Santa Ana Register, Jan. 14, 1921.
London Guardian, June 29, 1921.
Buffalo Times, Sept. 7, 1921.
New York Herald, Sept. 11, 1921.
Harrisburg Telegraph, Sept. 22, 1921.
Lebanon Daily News, Sept. 22, 1921.
Harrisburg Evening News, Sept. 23, 1921.
Harrisburg Telegraph, Sept. 23, 1921.
Mount Carmel Item, Sept. 23, 1921.
Lebanon Daily News, Sept. 24, 1921.
Harrisburg Evening News, Sept. 24, 1921.
Harrisburg Evening News, Oct. 3, 1921.
Lykens Standard, Oct. 7, 1921.