The murders of Dorothy King and Louise Lawson in the early 1920s are dubbed “the Butterfly Murders” because the victims were beautiful young women drawn to the lure of the bright lights of Broadway like insects to a flame.
(Butterflies do not generally fly at night, but somehow “the Moth Murders” of Broadway just doesn’t have the same cachet.)
The similarities in their deaths lead many people to believe that the murders were somehow linked. Each of the women came from humble beginnings and found moderate success in New York theater, where they were both introduced to rich and powerful men who were interested in talents other than their acting ability. What definitely ties them together is that more than 80 years after they occurred, neither crime has been solved.
There are theories in each case, and a strong indication of the identity of the man responsible for Dorothy’s slaying, but no one was ever prosecuted. A robbery motive explains why Lou Lawson was killed, but no arrests were made in her case.
The Dorothy King Murder
It was in March 1923 that the term “sugar daddy” first entered the American lexicon thanks to a murder in high society New York.
Dorothy “Dot” King (née Keenan) grew up in the poverty of a first-generation Irish immigrant family in the slums of Harlem, but managed to put her petite figure and natural beauty to work as a model in the haute couture shops of Manhattan. It was there that she began to meet the Broadway scions and the upper crust of New York society. She may have been acquainted with Arnold Rothstein — they shared some mutual friends.
She had been married once to a chauffeur, and it was from him that she first gained entree into that peculiar culture of Manhattan that was an amalgam of old money, noveau riche, and the new guys on the scene: the bootleggers and racketeers. The marriage ended in divorce after Dot’s husband — by her own admission — caught her cheating.
She appeared in only one Broadway production, “Broadway Brevities of 1920,” which played at the Winter Garden Theatre for 105 performances in Autumn and Winter 1920. Also in the cast was a young man on the cusp of superstardom, Eddie Cantor.
While her hardworking family believed she was working as a model and was an aspiring Broadway actress, Dot had actually left both modeling and Broadway behind in favor of a career as an honest-to-goodness vamp.
Dot found more success amid the candlelight of her boudoir than among the limelight of Broadway. Described in the press of the day as “a lady with more charm than virtue,” Dot became a popular feature of the New York social scene — particularly the nightclubs and speakeasies. There she met a number of wealthy and powerful men, including the son of President Warren Harding’s Attorney General, and formed a special relationship with the millionaire son-in-law of one of the wealthiest men in America, Edward T. Stotesbury.
She also made the acquaintance of a well-to-do Puerto Rican steel magnate named Albert Guimares, who would eventually loot his company and resort to stock fraud to keep up with his richer fellow contestants for Dot’s affections.
Stotesbury’s son-in-law, J. Kearsley Mitchell, was the man Dot dubbed her sugar daddy, and he set the pace for all sugar daddies who would follow. He set Dot up in a small, but luxurious apartment at 144 West 57th Street in New York City within spitting distance of Central Park and Carnegie Hall. He showered her with jewels, furs, and other clothes, and although they were never seen together in public, he was a frequent visitor to the apartment. It would never do for Mitchell, who was past 50, to be seen in the company of the 20-something Dot, because not only was he well-known as a financial leader on the East Coast, he was also quite married.
Blackmail was a popular pastime in those days, and Mitchell took pains to protect himself from anyone who sought to use his relationship with Dot for their own pecuniary gain. He was, however, not totally discrete. He frequently wrote affectionate letters to Dot, which she kept in the apartment. Whether she wrote back is a mystery.
Despite his indiscretion in writing to Dot, whenever Mitchell, who used the nom d’amour “Mr. Marshall,” visited the girl, he was always accompanied by his attorney, John H. Jackson, who was referred to as “Mr. Wilson.” Typically, after scoping out the lobby of the apartment, Jackson would signal to Mitchell that the coast was clear. Together they would ride up to the fourth floor, where Dot kept her apartment.
Jackson would join the couple for a drink or two and then take his leave. Mitchell and Dot would do whatever they did in private, and then Mitchell would leave after a few hours. The elevator attendant told the press after the murder that Mitchell always tipped well to ensure the elevator picked up no other passengers while he rode.
Mitchell and Guimares were the only men who were allowed to visit Dot’s apartment. While Mitchell gave her gifts, Guimares gave her bruises and black eyes. Despite his violence — he was apparently a jealous lover — Guimares was a welcome visitor to the love nest.
March 14, 1923, was just like most other days in the life of Dorothy Keenan King. According to her maid, she greeted Mitchell for a luncheon rendezvous. Mitchell, who was as usual joined by Jackson, presented Dorothy with a bouquet of orchids. Wrapped around the stems of the flowers was a diamond and jade bracelet.
(It was just one of a number of baubles Mitchell had presented to her over their relationship. Over time, it is estimated that Mitchell and her other lovers had given her at least $15,000 in jewelry. In today’s money, not accounting for any fluctuations in the market that would probably make the jewels worth even more, Dot received jewels worth almost a quarter-million dollars.)
The maid and Jackson left, and after spending the early evening alone, the couple left by the elevator, returning around midnight. A couple of hours later, Mitchell left by himself. The lift operator confirmed that Mitchell departed around 2:30 a.m.
No one else was seen entering Dot’s apartment, but it wasn’t necessary to use the elevator or even the main stairway to get to the flat. Apartments on the fourth and fifth stories had access to a private staircase that allowed residents and their guests to leave by a side entrance.
Between 2:30 and 11 a.m. March 15, someone entered the apartment while Dot was there alone.
When her maid arrived for work the next morning, she let herself in. It wasn’t unusual for Dot to be in bed at that late hour, because it was from the crowd that she ran with that New York became known as the City That Never Sleeps. However, when the maid went in to wake her mistress, she found Dot dead in her bed, clad only in a silky blue negligee.
The apartment was a mess. Pictures were thrown about the room, and it appeared to the maid that the apartment had been ransacked as if someone was searching for something.
At first, the investigators thought Dot had killed herself, simply because there were no apparent signs of a struggle. The apartment was messy, but at first glance, nothing indicated that a homicide had occurred.
When the police surgeon arrived, however, he quickly ruled out that conjecture. Her body was found in an unnatural position, with her legs curled beneath her. There were bruises around her neck, which led authorities to believe she had been strangled.
The time of death was estimated at somewhere after 6 a.m based on her body temperature and rigor mortis.
A search of the bedclothes uncovered the actual murder weapon, a bottle of chloroform. There was no cotton or gauze that Dot could have used to overdose on the chemical. Further, it is almost impossible to use chloroform to commit suicide. The drug requires small, regular doses administered over time just to achieve unconsciousness. The harshness of the gas also prevents a person from smothering themselves with a deep breath.
The maid discovered two important clues, although neither would provide the identity of her killer or killers: the $15,000 in jewelry was missing, as were all of the letters Mitchell had written his paramour. It was either a case of blackmail or robbery, police guessed.
When news of Dot’s murder became public, Mitchell immediately presented himself to police for questioning and was cleared because he could provide an alibi.
A friend of Dot’s told police that she had recently considered filing charges against Guimares because he had threatened her and had attempted to get her to participate in a blackmail scheme.
Guimares was quickly brought in for questioning and held on suspicion of murder. In the course of the police investigation of his activities, they would uncover a stock fraud scheme that he was promoting. Eventually, Guimares would plead guilty to fraud and serve a three-year federal prison term.
But as for Dot King’s murder, Guimares had an air-tight alibi. He produced two witnesses, Edmund McBrien and a woman who at the time was only identified as “an attractive blonde,” who both swore Guimares was with them at the time Dot was murdered.
Although he was always suspected of at least participating in the crime, Guimares was not prosecuted.
For six years the case remained an open investigation that vexed police. It was not until the “attractive blonde” resurfaced that authorities got any new leads.
The blonde was Aurelia Fischer Dreyfus, who as Aurelia Fischer, McBrien’s girlfriend, testified before a grand jury that she was with Guimares that night.
In October 1929, Aurelia, who had been married and divorced since that night, was at a yacht club party in Washington, D.C. with McBrien. According to McBrien, she was intoxicated and he took her out on a balcony to get some fresh air. While McBrien went back inside for their coats, Aurelia either fell or jumped (or was pushed) from the balcony. Her injuries were fatal, but she was conscious when she was brought to a local hospital.
There, according to her mother and sister, she made a stunning confession before she succumbed to her injuries.
“I perjured myself in the Dot King murder,” she said, also implying that McBrien had pushed her from the balcony.
Despite her deathbed assertion, Aurelia’s statement was not enough to charge Guimares with Dot’s murder.
The Murder of Louise Lawson
Lou Lawson was 24 years old when she was murdered in her apartment at 22 West 77th Street around the corner from the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
Among the young ladies of Walnut Springs, Lou was known as one of the most talented performers. She sang in the local church choir and was a piano virtuoso by the time she was 12. With little experience and only dreams for support, she left Texas at 18 to find fame and fortune as a Broadway performer.
After six years, fame was still elusive. She was a chorus girl in Flo Ziegfeld’s Follies in the early part of 1921, earning $75 per week. She appeared as an extra for $20 in the D.W. Griffith film Way Down East with Lillian Gish.
(The link takes you to a YouTube version of the film. Somewhere in there is Lou Lawson.)
Beyond that, Lou’s performing career was lackluster, and police were only able to establish that she had earned $245 during her career in New York City.
Like Dot King, she came to the attention of the speakeasy and nightclub crowd, and eventually gave up public performances in favor of “private shows.” It may have been a blow to her small-town morals, but it was a sound investment. At the time of her death Lou was regularly depositing $500 per week into her bank account. Stock certificates for shares of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company, one of the three private subway and train companies serving New York City, were found in her apartment after her death. The stocks were worth $12,000 (nearly $150,000 today).
Lou’s “sugar daddy” turned out to be Gerhardt H. Dahl, chairman of the executive committee of the BMT.
Dahl, whom Lou called “Jerry Doll.” came forward immediately after Lou’s body was discovered and explained his innocent relationship with Lou — he did not categorically deny any intimacy, however.
“Miss Lawson was an accomplished pianist, and I was interested in her talent,” the married Park Avenue denizen told the press, apparently with a straight face. “So as far as any other inferences are concerned they are cruel defamations of the dead.”
Dahl denied being the source of Lou’s $500 per week “allowance,” and could not shed any light on anyone else who might have known her.
Regardless, Lou was living large in New York. Her apartment was filled with only the finest furniture and oriental rugs, a baby grand piano, original paintings and expensive vases. Police could never find any cancelled checks indicating that she had paid for these items herself.
For non-human company, she shared the flat with a pure-bred Cairn terrier (a dog that can cost as much as $700 today) named “Texie.”
The end for Lou came on February 8, 1924, nearly a year after Dot King was murdered.
In the early morning, two “serious-looking men” arrived at Lou’s apartment house, dubbed “The Monastery,” with a large case. In the elevator going up to her apartment in stage whispers they discussed a bootleg liquor delivery for her, which was overheard by Thomas Kane, the elevator operator.
It wasn’t the first time the men had appeared at Lou’s apartment, because Kane and others recalled a similar incident about a month earlier, when two men brought another case of booze. Lou, who had company at the time, refused to let the men in, a friend said.
“We brought gin and she wanted rye,” one of the men told Kane. “You know how women are.”
A mutual friend of Dot and Lou, Charlotte Wakefield, told police about the earlier visit and how much it upset Lou.
“She wasn’t expecting any deliveries like that and shouted through the door that she wouldn’t accept it,” Charlotte said.
The men were evidently more successful on Friday, February 8. They apparently gained entrance to the apartment where they tied Lou up with “silken hose and torn slips of filmy underwear,” gagged her with a piece of cloth and covered her mouth with surgical tape.
She suffocated to death.
Just like Dot King, Lou was discovered later by her maid. A search of the apartment revealed that some $20,000 in jewelry was missing. Texie was tied up in another room. Through interviews with other residents, police suspected that Lou knew her killers and that they had been in the apartment before because Texie was a frequent barker. No such sounds came from the apartment around the time Lou was slain.
The case quickly went cold except for the theory that Lou had been the victim of an organized gang of thieves who preyed on women in her situation.
On the door to her apartment was a message in code that was eventually deciphered as “Louise Lawson is alone so long.”
Apparently the gang frequented the same night clubs of a clique of “cabaret habitues” to which both Dot and Lou belonged. They would observe which women had jewels and furs worth taking, or which had sugar daddies supporting them. The women were then set up by the gang. In Lou’s case they were looking for jewels, while police believed that Dot was accidentally killed by someone looking for evidence to blackmail her lover (That was before one friend a lover of Dot’s claimed to have perjured herself in the investigation into the woman’s death).
“The girl seldom squeals,” one victim told police. “She’s afraid to. If they get her jewels, she tells her friends that she lost or hocked them.”
In addition to looking for the two killers seen by Kane, police unsuccessfully searched for the gang’s female “spotter,” who was used by the gang to win the confidence and friendship of the target and gain access to her apartment.
There was another, more sinister explanation for Lou’s killing.
“Dot and Lou were always together a lot before Dot was murdered,” said another member of the clique, Hilda Ferguson. “I always thought that Lou knew much more about Dot’s death than she dared tell, and that she could have implicated certain people.”
Louise Lawson was buried in the cemetery in her birthplace of Alvarado, Texas.