Debonair Bridge master Joe Elwell was shot with a .45 automatic while he sat in his pajamas reading his morning mail. A fastidious dresser who was known for his sharp appearance and manners, Elwell was not wearing any of his dozens of toupees, and his false teeth were upstairs in a glass next to his bed.
The fact that he was felled by a single shot to the head while seated, and nothing in his New York townhouse was stolen — including the $400 he had in a money clip sitting beside his bed — told investigators that he had not been the victim of a robbery gone bad. His manner of dress suggested two things: Either he was surprised at the time he was gunned down, or he had a guest with whom he was intimately acquainted: Someone close enough that he felt comfortable without his dentures.
Elwell’s brownstone on the east side of Manhattan was a veritable fortress, and only a few — three, to be exact — people had keys to get in. However, Elwell’s key could not be found after his death.
The crime that occurred in the early morning hours of June 11, 1920 wasn’t suicide, either. First, no weapon was found at the scene, and Elwell’s friends swore that he was not the kind of man to take his own life. In addition, Joe Elwell was at the top of his game as a gambler and man-about-town.
Based on the powder marks on Elwell’s face, the coroner judged that the single shot was fired from 3 to 5 feet away. The bullet’s path was elevated from horizontal, indicating that the shooter was slightly below Elwell when he or she pulled the trigger.
Although Elwell was a ladies man, gambler, thoroughbred racehorse owner, and stock speculator, he didn’t have many enemies. Like many people at the top of the social ladder, Elwell had friends, and he had people who didn’t like him. After his death, however, it was far easier for the press to find people with a low opinion of Elwell than it was to find those who actually liked him. Still, no one, not the press or the police, could find anyone who wanted to kill him — or even had a half-way decent reason to shoot him dead.
The last night of Elwell’s life was pretty much like many of the other nights of his life. He enjoyed a late night repast with Walter and Selma Lewisohn, a wealthy couple who inherited a huge fortune in copper securities from his father. They were joined by Brazilian journalist Octavio Figueroa, and Mrs. Lewisohn’s sister, Viola Kraus. Viola had recently divorced German rubber magnate Victor von Schlegel, and in accordance with the custom of the time, was conducting a “coming out again” celebration. Elwell and Viola danced for several hours at the Ritz-Carlton on Madison and 46th Street (not the Ritz that’s in NYC now), where they bumped into von Schlegel, who was celebrating his own re-coming out with a woman he would later marry. At worst the two groups ignored each other.
Around midnight of June 11, the Elwell party headed over to the New Amsterdam Theater roof on 42nd Street near Times Square, where they took in the latest edition of the Zigfield Frolics. The show ended around 1:30 or 2 a.m., and the group split up from there.
Just what happened between the evening’s end and the discovery of Elwell’s dead body is as mysterious as the killer’s identity.
According to the group, the Lewisohns, Figueroa, and Viola headed home in a taxicab, while Elwell said he preferred to walk home. Although Viola denied it, there were some rumors floating around that she and Elwell had a spat that night.
If the group did go separate ways, very likely Elwell had something else on his mind than heading home. Times Square was a good 21/2 miles from East 70th as the crow flies. It would have been a long and risky walk for one man to make in the dead of night in early June. To be fair, his path does follow the BMT Broadway line which, although it ended at the southwest side of Central Park, was (at the time) the closest stop to his apartment. He still faced a lonely 13-block walk along two sides of Central Park to his apartment.
Rather than head home, Elwell decided to stop off at Cafe Montmartre at Broadway and 41st Street (one stop south of the Broadway line terminal) where witnesses placed him in the company of two men and a woman. Another witness told police he saw Elwell alight from a roadster outside his brownstone shortly after 2:30 a.m. There were three other people in the car, he said.
The Lewisohns, Viola, and Figueroa told authorities that they all took the cab to the Lewisohn home. The cabbie, however, swears that only three people — a man and two women — exited at the Lewisohn home. The other man was dropped off back at the Ritz where the evening started. This discrepancy was never publicly explained — if it was explained at all.
Shortly after 2:30 a.m., a call was placed from the Lewisohn home to Elwell’s apartment, telephone company records showed. The receiving party did not answer, according to the operator.
At 3:45 a.m., a neighbor heard a “noisy roadster” stop in front of Elwell’s home, but the man did not see anyone enter. Some investigators believe this was when Elwell arrived home, but others insist that he was back in the brownstone before 3 a.m. Just when Elwell got home, and whether he took a cab, rode the still-new subway, walked from Times Square, or was dropped off in a car with one or more people indicates the difficulty police had in retracing the latter part of Elwell’s last night of life.
At 4:30 a.m., the middle-aged Elwell telephoned a friend in Far Rockaway, but received no answer. At 6:09 a.m., Elwell put in a call to someone at Garden City, but the number he gave was not in operation.
The milkman dropped off the day’s milk at 6:45 a.m. and found the outer door to Elwell’s exclusive walk-up locked. This was not unusual, for friends later recalled that it was nearly impossible to gain entry into the building unless Elwell was expecting visitors.
The day’s first mail drop occurred at 7:35 a.m. Elwell was very likely awake at that time, because when he was found dead a short time later, he was reading one the letters left by the postman.
He kept no servants, but retained a housekeeper, secretary, and chauffeur. It was his housekeeper, Marie Larsen, who discovered Elwell’s body, shot one time through the head, around 8:30 a.m. June 11, 1920.
Before she summoned police, Larsen removed a woman’s pink kimono and other lingerie from Elwell’s bedroom, wrapped them in brown paper and stuffed them in a washtub in the basement. Of course, she did not tell police about what she did.
“I thought it would not be nice for them to be found there,” she told police after they found the lingerie. Larsen failed to remove a pink silk dressing gown that had had the monogram cut off, and denied to police that she knew the woman to whom it belonged.
“Who belongs to this?” she was asked during the initial investigation.
“I wouldn’t know,” Larsen lied. “I’m only here daytimes. Mr. Elwell was separated from his wife.”
Unknown to police was that after she hid the lingerie, Larsen called the woman and told her that Elwell was dead and that her clothing had been hidden.
Police would not learn until several days later that the lingerie belonged to Viola Kraus, who frequently stayed overnight with Elwell. When that clue was revealed, authorities turned once again to Victor von Schlegel, but his alibi was ironclad.
If jealousy was the motive, police had countless leads to run down. Elwell kept dozens of photographs of young ladies (mostly under 30 years old) to whom he taught the games of Bridge and Whist. There were plenty of husbands, fathers, boyfriends, and brothers who suspected that Elwell was as equally lucky at love as he was at cards.
“Games of chance were the breath of life to Elwell, and the greatest of all was the woman game,” wrote popular mystery writer Arthur B. Reeve. “I think the murder was committed by a man. The question then arises, for what woman did this man shoot? Wife? Mistress? Daughter?”
While many police looked for a male suspect because they felt no woman could handle a .45 automatic, others were sure the killer was a woman.
“Elwell was not killed by a man,” said criminologist Dr. Albert Weston. “It is a woman’s crime. No husband or enraged brother shot Elwell. The pistol was held in the hand of a cool, determined woman. The murder was not planned or premeditated.”
Weston discounted the theory that Viola killed Elwell.
“Entirely too much importance has been attached to the finding of the kimono and boudoir cap in Elwell’s house,” he said. “If these garments belong to the woman who killed him, it is certain that she would have realized the importance of removing them from the house and out of reach of police.”
Weston does not speculate that perhaps Viola killed Elwell, hid the lingerie and that Mrs. Larsen was simply covering for her. Or, did Viola shoot Elwell, forget the clothes and then ask Mrs. Larsen to cover up her crime?
Weston theorized that Elwell entertained a woman before going to dinner and that she was waiting for him when he returned the next morning. A fight broke out and she shot him.
“I can reach no other conclusion,” he said, blaming the woman’s crime on jealousy.
Almost everyone agreed that it was a crime of passion — centered around a woman — and was an impulsive murder borne out of an argument.
“The tragedy was the culmination of a quarrel, presumably with a woman who believed she had some right to a claim on Elwell,” said Detective William Burns.
Dr. Justin Herold, another criminologist, agreed.
“It’s a woman’s crime,” he said. “Eliminate all but women. Find the female who loved Joe Elwell, not wisely, but too well, and you will have the murderer.”
Astrologer Professor William H. Macabee used the stars to find clues to the killer’s identity.
The chart plainly indicates the presence of a third party (in the room when Mrs. Larsen found the body), as there are three planets occupying the fourth division, viz. Saturn, who describes the murderer; Mars, who describes a false friend of the victim, and “Leonis” (the Moon’s north node), who represents the sex as female. This testimony is conclusive — and means that three persons were in that room of death — two males and a female.
“Elwell and his assassin were close friends,” Macabee went on. “He is somewhat eccentric and reserved in manner, and melancholy. He has been a very prominent and influential friends of Elwell’s.”
Only noted reporter Nellie Bly pointed out that a window near where Elwell was sitting was open and the curtain had a hole or tear in it. Her theory that someone shot from outside the apartment does not explain how the unburnt gunpowder residue got on Elwell’s face, however.
Leads evaporated, alibis held up, the number of suspects dwindled, and theories didn’t pan out. The Elwell case when cold for several years, although it remained a popular topic of discussion whenever the glitterati gathered.
By 1923, Elwell’s home had been resold, von Schlegel had married his alibi, and Mr. Lewisohn was deteriorating mentally. Walter Lewisohn would eventually be committed to a Connecticut sanitarium where he died under odd circumstances in 1938. He apparently wandered into a cabin on hospital grounds that was being fumigated and asphyxiated. Lewisohn’s death was ruled accidental.
The trail was cold except for the occasional crank whose confession to killing Joe Elwell was quickly shot to pieces. The Elwell brownstone was turned into a boarding house that was quite successful for a year or so, but then the place was left empty for a time.
Some 30 months after Elwell died, the caretaker of the place, which had been listed on the rental market again, received some visitors — two men and a blonde woman. The caretaker later described the men as “sporty looking” and the woman was “a little thing, dressed very flashy.”
The woman told the caretaker that she wanted to rent the house and he took the three of them on a tour.
“They seemed mighty impatient until we reached the third floor,” he told police later. “There is a closet in the hall on this floor just outside (Elwell’s) bedroom. When I opened the door to this closet and began to tell them what a roomy closet it was…I discovered none of them was listening to me.”
One of the men was carrying a cane and was tapping the floor around the closet.
“Hollow, sure enough,” he said sotto voce to his companions.
The group returned downstairs and the woman, who gave her name as “Mrs. Bowne” from New Orleans (recall that Bowne was Elwell’s middle name), said she would be back in touch.
The next morning the woman returned alone.
“I’m in a terrible hurry,” she said. “But I do want to take another look at that third floor. May I?”
Not waiting for the caretaker, who was elderly and much slower on the stairs, she pushed a $5 bill into his hand, and rushed to the third floor. He thought it odd because $5 was much too little for down payment on the rent, and he followed her upstairs.
By the time he made it to the third-floor landing, she was headed back down, with her black satin cape wrapped tightly around her body. She rushed past him and flew out the door.
The caretaker continued upstairs, only to find the door of the third-floor closet open and noticed that the carpeting was somewhat loosened in one corner. As he stomped it down, the man noticed that the sound was hollow.
Police were summoned and the floor was torn up.
Sadly, whatever — if anything — they found, was kept secret from the public because of the new developments. The woman in the black silk cape and her two companions were never located.
Shortly before he died in 1935, New York County Coroner Dr. Charles Norris told a reporter, “Certain people have said I know Elwell’s slayer. I do. But I also know that this person established an incontrovertible alibi.”
Norris never expounded on his statement and his knowledge probably died with him.