sjhstrangetales

DOROTHY ARNOLD – THE DISAPPEARING HEIRESS

Posted on: February 10, 2015

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If there is one aspect of the whole gamut of “unexplained mysteries” which disturbs me more than any other, it is the cases where people vanish into thin air, never to be seen again, no trace of them ever found.  Originally I drew up a list of intriguing cases to put in this blog piece, but when I read up on the case of Dorothy Arnold, I thought she would make an article on her own.

Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold was a New York socialite, the daughter of a perfume importer called Francis R Arnold.  Her background was very much that of early 20th century respectable American high society.  She was born in 1886 (although I’ve also seen 1884 and 1885 cited).  She was intelligent and well-educated – she could speak several languages – and had aspirations to be a writer.  Dorothy’s dreams of being an authoress though met with only derision from her family.  In the spring of 1910 she submitted a short story to a magazine, when it was rejected her family teased her mercilessly.  When a second short story met the same fate, Dorothy was nearly crucified with embarrassment (how many aspiring authors understand that feeling!), and she took out a separate posting address, to spare herself the humiliation of seeing any more rejected manuscripts landing on the doormat of the family home.

At around the same time she seemed to have been carrying on a courtship with George Griscom Jnr, a 40-year-old engineer who still lived with his parents.  It is said that Dorothy surreptitiously arranged a trip to Boston with George that summer, whilst telling her parents she was staying with friends, although the pair stayed in separate hotels.  Whether Dorothy was set on wedlock is not clear.  Her writing ambitions seemed to be more uppermost in her mind than matrimony.  She desperately wanted to set up in an apartment in Greenwich Village, to pursue her career in peace, but her father rejected her idea, claiming that “writers can write anywhere”.

At 11:00 AM on 12 December 1910 Dorothy told her mother she was popping out to do some shopping, to buy a dress for her younger sister’s debutante party.  Her mother, who was a semi-invalid, offered to go with her, but Dorothy said she wanted a bit of time to herself.  Dorothy left the family home on East 79th Street, Manhattan, in good spirits.  She was wearing an elegant blue serge suit, a long blue coat, and her brown hair was covered by a small black velvet hat tastefully decorated with roses.  Apart from the clothes she stood up in, Dorothy departed carrying about 25-30 dollars in cash (a considerable sum of money in those days, the equivalent to about a 1000 dollars now).

Dorothy’s first port of call was to buy a box of chocolates, which she charged to the family account.  She left the store, stowing the chocolates in her muff, and went on to Brentino’s bookstore, where she brought a book of comic sketches for ladies.  Both shop assistants who served her in these two shops said she was courteous, and didn’t seem at all out of character.

On leaving the shop Dorothy bumped into an old friend, Gladys King.  They chatted for a few minutes, and then Gladys left for a luncheon appointment with her mother.  She was to later say that Dorothy seemed cheerful and generally in a good mood.  They parted cordially, and went off in separate directions.  At the end of the street Dorothy turned to give her a little wave … and was never seen again.

At first her family weren’t terribly concerned when Dorothy didn’t come home as expected, assuming she was spending the night with a friend (Dorothy was 25 after all).  It was only on the second evening that concern started to creep in, but even then they didn’t call the police, fearing public exposure.  Instead they called in John Keith, the family lawyer.  He came over and searched Dorothy’s bedroom.  None of her clothes (apart from the ones she had been wearing) were missing.  There were the remains of some burnt papers in the grate, but it is thought these may have been a rejected manuscript.  Letters bearing foreign postmarks, and two folders for transatlantic steamers were found on her desk.

The Arnolds tried to keep up the pretence of Dorothy’s non-disappearance for as long as they could, coming up with the farcical tale that Dorothy was in bed with a headache.  It was with reluctance that the police were called in, and a press conference called.  Naturally, as with any case like this, public scrutiny was intense, exactly what the Arnolds had dreaded.  Pinkerton’s Detective Agency decided Dorothy may have travelled to Europe with intentions to elope.  Investigators overseas were asked to keep a watch on steamers arriving from New York, with anyone bearing Dorothy’s description.  Although some young women resembling Dorothy had been sighted, none were proved to be her.

Griscom meanwhile was holidaying in Italy with his parents when Dorothy disappeared.  He sent a message saying that he had no idea where Dorothy was.  Not satisfied with this, in January Dorothy’s mother and brother travelled to Italy to forcibly question him.  George was to stick by his story that he had no idea where Dorothy was, but he did later say that he had received a letter from Dorothy, prior to her disappearance, in which she expressed gloom about her future writing career: “all that I can see ahead is a long road with no turning”.   Naturally this led many to speculate that Dorothy had committed suicide, even though no body was ever found, and everyone she met on her final day remarked on her good spirits.

Her own father’s attitude must seem odd to us now.  He told the police that he believed Dorothy may have been murdered in Central Park, and her body dumped in the reservoir.  He seemed to prefer this theory to any idea that his daughter may have eloped!  The police rejected the reservoir theory on the grounds that temperatures had plummeted at this time, and the reservoir had frozen over.  When the thaw came in the spring, the reservoir was searched, but no body was found.

In February 1911 Francis received a postcard, in Dorothy’s handwriting, with the words “I am safe”, but he refused to believe it was from Dorothy, claiming that it was a hoax, and someone had copied Dorothy’s handwriting from examples given in the press.

One of the most popular theories of the time was that Dorothy had become pregnant, and had been the victim of a botched illegal abortion.  According to Wikipedia, this idea gained some currency when the basement of a private house in Pennsylvania was raided by the police, and found to be an illegal abortion clinic.  Many young women had disappeared from this sinisterly-named House Of Mystery, their bodies cremated in the furnace when the operations went wrong.  Perhaps understandably, Francis Arnold flatly refused to believe this to be true.

Sightings of Dorothy continued for years afterwards, and the family sometimes received letters from hoaxers, claiming to be Dorothy.  In 1921 Captain John H Ayers of the Bureau of Missing Persons said that the Bureau knew what had happened to Dorothy, but could not reveal publicly what they knew.  The following day he was to retract this statement, claiming he had been misquoted.

Her father died in 1922.  He made no provision for her in his will, believing until the end that Dorothy had met her fate in Central Park.  Her mother though refused to give up believing that Dorothy was still alive, and kept that belief until her own death in 1928.  The family lawyer believed Dorothy killed herself because of her failed writing career.  My own gut feeling sadly tends to veer towards the botched abortion.

Whatever the truth though, Dorothy’s disappearance continues to tantalise us.  How did a woman, well-known on the streets of her neighbourhood, manage to vanish so completely, leaving no trace behind.  In the words of one newspaper of the time: “she disappeared from one of the busiest streets on Earth, at the sunniest hour of a brilliant afternoon, with thousands within sight and reach, men and women who knew her on every side, and officers of the law thickly strewn about her path”.

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