Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Woman in Black at the Drake Hotel


This story was published on the blog in several parts four years ago; this is a "collected version" to replace the multi-part story:



In January, 1944, Mrs. Adele Born Williams, a 58 year old society "matron," walked up to her eighth floor apartment at the Drake Hotel with her daughter and found the door unlocked. Inside, they found a gray-haired woman in a black persian lamb coat who had been hiding in the bathroom. Without a word, the woman pulled from her purse an antique pistol and fired two shots at Williams' daughter. She missed, then left the bathroom and fired several shots at Mrs. Williams, eventually hitting her in the head, causing a wound that would prove fatal within hours. The fur-coated woman then walked out of the room and was seen by a couple of men before Williams' daughter cried for help. "I could have tripped her," one of them men later said, "but I'm not in the habit of tripping strange women."   Later reports said her daughter chased the woman down the stairwell, yelling "stop that crazy woman, she shot my mother." 

And so began a case that got stranger and stranger. Among the twists in the tale:

- Police launched a massive search of the hotel and found nothing. However, four hours later, the murder weapon was found, shattered, in a stairwell, apparently having been dropped from a high floor. Police had search that place - then gun had apparently been returned to the scene of the crime!

- Similarly, a spare key to Williams' room was reported missing from the front desk at the time of the murder. Mysteriously, it appeared back on the desk at 10 o'clock that evening.

- Mrs. Williams had $100,000 in cash in a safety deposit box for reasons unclear.

- Mrs. Williams herself seems to have been a bit odd; a commenter on the original version of this story remembered being a small child and living nearby her, and seeing her running out of the house the family rented in peach-colored pajamas; the word at the time was that she had mental problems, but this may just be a rumor.

- No jewelry or valuables were taken, leaving the motive somewhat unclear.

- Just before the murder, a phone call had been placed from Mrs. Williams' room to a fish and ale house two blocks away.

- One woman who worked the desk at the hotel at the time was a convicted hold-up girl with a bizarre past - much more on her below. 

THE MYSTERY OF THE YEAR

The mystery remains unsolved. There was never a suspect, and though various motives were suspected, none of them really held up. It was a huge story in 1944, and mentioned at least once a year on the anniversary in newspapers for at least a decade later (interestingly, as of the late 1950s, the Trib was still spelling "clue" c-l-e-w.). Today, it's been almost totally forgotten.

One of the theories to emerge was that there had never been a woman in a fur coat, but that Mrs. Wiliams' daughter, then known as Mrs. Goodbody, had shot her mother herself in the midst of a fight over the gun. One police lieutenant, Lt. Quinn, was sure that this was the case, and alleged that no call for help had been made until 10 or 15 minutes after the shooting (this was refuted by witnesses).

The theory Quinn had arrived on was that the killing had either been an accident in the midst of a struggle after her daughter announced her intention to kill herself, or that it had all been pre-planned by Mrs. Goodbody and her father and that the reason the gun wasn't found (right away) was that the father/ex-husband (who certainly did hear about the shooting before the police did - he was the daughter's first call) had smuggled it out. According to this theory, Mrs. Williams was annoyed at her daughter for some reason and was planning on writing her out of her will.

At one point in the investigation, when Quinn demanded, rather harshly, that she "tell the truth," Mrs. Goodbody allegedly said "Well, I'll tell you..." then stopped. Some said she was withholding evidence, others say she had been ordered to say nothing about anything by her father's attorney, who was already present.

Quinn (who comes off as a real jerk in the story) was convinced within minutes of investigating the scene that there was never a woman hiding in the bathroom, and that there couldn't have been room for her, since an ironing board attached to the door would have taken up too much space. More investigations, however, showed that there was plenty of space for the "woman in black" to hide.

One major piece of evidence in Mrs. Goodbody's favor was the testimony of the victim herself. The shot in the head didn't kill Mrs. Williams right away, and she was still able to talk to two people who came into the room to help. Though she repeated the name "Goodbody" a few times, she said that shooter was a woman in black with a rose in her hair, and that it was no one she knew. She was later quoted as saying that the shooter had said "I will get you yet!" and that she thought the woman was firing blanks. Other witnesses also described a mysterious woman in black with something red in her hair fleeing the scene. 

Naturally, Mrs. Goodbody herself was royally ticked off about being accused of being her mother's REAL killer. Eventually, Capt. Harrison, one of the main detectives, determined that there was, in fact, a third party in the room: the mysterious woman in black. Mrs. Goodbody was never charged.

THE MURDER WEAPON

The best evidence in the case was the murder weapon - an antique pistol. The serial number was traced to a fellow named Walter Brown, who said that he stole the gun in Bloomington during a hold-up in 1939 - but turned it into the police. Brown was certainly not a suspect - he was in prison at the time, serving a life sentence for the murder of a McClean County deputy sheriff. According to his story, the gun had been in police custody for five years. How the serial number connected it to him is a mystery to me, since the police never believed he ever really owned it.

The police denied his story, although the officer he had given it to admitted that he'd received other guns from Brown, who was a lifelong friend. The police felt that there was no evidence that Brown had ever legally owned the gun - in fact, Brown's insistence that he had owned it was the only real thing tracing it to him.

By way of proof, Brown could only say that he had used it to fire several shots into the ground outside of a Hwy 51 roadhouse five miles north of Bloomington one time. The police dug up the whole area and found several bullets, but they were the wrong caliber for the gun in question.

But there was something else to connect Brown to the case - the police officer wasn't the only person who had ever received a gun from Brown. His sister had, some time before, borrowed one and used it in an attempted hold-up, for which she was on probation.

And at the time of the Woman in Black murder, she was working the front desk at the Drake Hotel.


THE MYSTERIOUS ELLEN BENNETT

Ellen Valanis Bennett Larksworthy Welch
So the claims of an Indiana convict that he had owned the murder weapon couldn't be verified (how the serial number connected it to him is something I'm a bit confused about), but it did lead the police to his sister, who was on probation after using one of his guns in an attempted hold-up, and was, at the time of the murder, working the key desk at the Drake Hotel.

Actually, he had TWO sisters at the Drake, Ellen, a desk clerk, and Anna, whom the Tribune described as a "hotel prowler."

To say that Ellen Valanis Bennett Larksworthy Welch, alias Ellen Murphy but generally still called Ellen Bennett in the press at the time, had an interesting past barely hints at the matter. A sixth grade drop-out, she married Acott Bennett, a 57 year old, when she was 15, and bore him a son, who sort of disappeared (he was once reported to be a marine). They were divorced after six months of marriage, and Ellen enrolled at Norhtwestern University using a high school diploma that actually belonged to a friend, Eva Soloway, whose name was was using - you might say she was a sort of low-rent identity thief. In 1939, Ellen, who was still formally known as Mrs. Bennett, had borrowed one of her brother's guns, plus some tape and cords to tie people up, and attempted to hold up a woman in Park Ridge. At the time, she was wearing a blond wig over her red hair, and was driving a car owned by a state senator (who was dead by 1944). When caught, she pretended to be a "night club entertainer" named Peggy Ryan. She was put on probation.


Anna, Ellen's sister, the "hotel prowler"
In 1941, she was living on the near-west side under the name Ellen Larkworthy, wife of a guy named Vere H. Larkworthy, whom she had married in Milwaukee, where she was living as a barfly while her sister worked as a call girl. She bought several jewels with his money, insured them, and then reported them stolen in a case so fishy she was put on a lie detector test. Larkworthy, apparently another old guy, was murdered shortly therafter, and Ellen was questioned, but not charged. Before his death, he described their courtship as "I came back from the races and met Ellen at a hotel.....we drank, and the next thing I remember I was in Dubuque and married." They were married only a few weeks before Ellen left him - by then, she had taken him for all he had. His murder was never solved.

Ellen then married for a third time, to a guy with whom she lived for only a few days. At the time of the Drake murder, she 41 years old and was was working as a desk clerk, living in the hotel under the name Ellen Murphy. Both friends and the police described her as cold blooded and with a real penchant for diamond and jewels - which Mrs. Williams had in abundance. She would have been the one to give the woman in black the spare key used to break into the room - and which mysteriously turned up on Ellen's desk that night.  She was, at the time, occupying a suite in the hotel with her latest lover, Patrick Murphy, whose brother, Francis, was at one time the state labor director.

Two weeks before the murder, a call was made from Ellen's room at the Drake to The Pub, a fish and ale house a couple of blocks from the hotel. A mysterious call from Mrs. Williams' room was made to the same location a couple of hours before the murder.


Under questioning, Ellen DID admit to owning a black fur coat, but said she did not own a wig and had never been in Mrs. Williams' room. She went back and forth on whether she was in the hotel at the time or the murder or in a nearby restaurant, and voluntarily submitted to (and passed) several ie detector tests. Both Ellen and her sister were arrested twice in connection to the murder, but were freed on a writ of habeus corpus. Despite extensive investigations, charges against her never quite stuck. I've never found out what became of her; she would be well over 100 today, but I like to imagine her still hanging around in hotel bars in the 1980s, flirting with much younger men; a wealthy widow with a terrible secret.

The murder of Adele Born Williams was never solved; the woman in black was never identified. I've not been able to determine why, exactly, Ellen Bennett was let off the hook; they probably never had anything but circumstantial evidence on her. To me, it seems pretty likely that she was in the room, trying to steal the jewelry, and freaked out and started shooting. But the police had other theories besides this one, even years after the case dropped from the public eye. It was the story of the year in 1944 (besides, you know, world war 2), but has barely been mentioned in the last half century.

BUT - there is a ghost!

THE GHOST?

The Drake is not one of the more notably haunted hotels in the city, but there are a couple of ghost stories floating around - one about a woman in red on the tenth floor, and one about a woman in black on the eighth. This story would be an odd way to back that one up - the woman in black was the murderER, not the murderEE.

My guess is that this is a case of a mistaken history. Most likely, when some employee was asked if there was a ghost story, he or she remembered that there was some story about a "woman in black" attached to the hotel, and thought it was a ghost story, not a murder.   We'll cover "The Woman in Red"  ghost in the same hotel later on this week!

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