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Who Killed Joseph Elwell?

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The New York Times called the 1920 death of Joseph Elwell “among the most remarkable in the annals of crime in this country.” Of course, that statement would remain true only until another horrible crime popped up. However, there are many elements about the demise of one of the world’s greatest bridge players that still defy explanation.

Elwell was shot to death. One of the few clues was a large-caliber shell at the crime scene.

Elwell was shot to death. One of the few clues was a large-caliber shell at the crime scene.

Who Was Joseph Elwell?

Born in 1873, Joseph Elwell was from humble beginnings and was selling insurance by the time he was a teenager. He discovered the game of whist and soon became an excellent player. He was so good that by the age of 18 he was known as the “wizard of whist.” Wealthy families paid him serious money to tutor them in the game.

He played and won in big money games that were favoured by the rich. The New York Post says “It was not unusual for Elwell to rake in $1,000 a night from the plutocracy. He got rich from the Wall Street fools’ money and royalties from the best-selling guides to whist and bridge that he published.”

By early in the twentieth century, he had progressed into the newly developing game of contract bridge with an impressive measure of skill.

Elwell was a famously skilled bridge player.

Elwell was a famously skilled bridge player.

A Lover of Bridge, Ladies and Luxury

Elwell became socially well-connected through his marriage to one Helen Derby. Names such as Roosevelt and Vanderbilt crop up among his circle. Soon, he was playing and winning in New York’s clubs where big money was changing hands in bridge games.

As his success at the bridge table soared so did his success in the boudoir. He was what is delicately referred to as a ladies’ man, and what is less delicately known as an indiscriminate and lecherous philanderer. His secretary later said that Elwell had sex with “about fifty women, most of them married,” while one estimate of his conquests goes as high as 1,000. Some of his female companions had keys to his home.

One of his friends, L.H. Green, said of his pal, “He was a man who exercised a remarkable influence over women. He was cold-blooded to an extreme, which instead of repelling his friends of the opposite sex seemed to attract them all the more.”

With his bridge-playing talent he was able to amass a nice fortune, which, with the aid of his well-connected pals, he further increased by clever stock market investing. In addition to his Manhattan brownstone, he owned a Palm Beach property, a yacht, a string of 20 racehorses, and several luxury cars.

Elwell had a notorious reputation as a philanderer.

Elwell had a notorious reputation as a philanderer.

Elwell’s Body Found

On the night of June 10, 1920, Elwell and his latest paramour, Viola Kraus, dined at the Ritz Carlton Hotel and then took in a floor show.

Elwell is said to have arrived home by taxi at about 2:30 a.m. Just after seven a.m. he was seen picking up the morning newspaper from his doorstop. An hour or so later, the housekeeper, Marie Larsen, let herself into the house and began her cleaning duties.

She was surprised to find the door to the living room locked from the inside. Using her own key, she unlocked the door and went into the room where she found Elwell sitting in a chair. She greeted him, but the usually affable man did not respond.

When she moved closer she found a man without his usual dentures and wig with a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. Amazingly, by the time police arrived, Elwell was still alive, but he died a few hours later without uttering a word.

The shell came from an army-type pistol.

The shell came from an army-type pistol.

The Crime Scene

The Sacramento Union described the scene that detectives found: “On the table at his side were several letters, one of which, from a racing associate, had been removed from the envelope. The letters had been delivered by the postman at 7:35.

“There was no weapon, no footprint, no evidence of a struggle, no possible clue except a large-caliber shell, such as is ejected from an automatic pistol of the army type, and the stub of a cigarette different from those Elwell habitually smoked.” As mentioned, the door to the room was locked as were the windows.

There were valuables in the house, including a Rembrandt painting, but nothing was stolen and no papers were disturbed.

Suicide was ruled out because of the absence of a weapon. So, the hunt was on for a killer and it was assumed that whoever that person was he or she was well-known to Elwell. There were plenty of candidates.

Suspects in Joe Elwell’s Murder

With Elwell’s vigourous attention to his over-active libido, there were a lot of angry husbands and boyfriends that needed to be talked to. Surely, Victor von Schlegel would be a prime suspect. He was the divorced husband of Viola Kraus, Elwell’s companion on the last evening he was alive. It turns out that von Schlegel was also dining and dancing at the Ritz Carlton that evening. Jealousy can be a insistent master. But, von Schlegel was cleared.

Perhaps one of his companions in bed was angered by Elwell’s cold indifference to her emotional needs. But, no physical evidence tied any of his women to the crime scene. And besides, a .45 revolver is a clunking big gun and not usually the weapon of choice among women. All of his lovers were interviewed and cleared.

Elwell circulated in the sometimes murky world of horse racing and gambling that is inhabited by a wide variety of dark characters. Could it be that he owed money to the wrong kind of people? He was personally wealthy, so that doesn’t seem like a motive.

Police identified about 1,000 people who had a reason to bump off Joseph Elwell, but could not pick one out of the herd with enough evidence against them to lay a charge.

The crime has never been solved.

Bonus Factoids

  • One bridge bidding convention lives on beyond its inventor. The so-called “Elwell Double” is used against a bid of three no trumps. If a player doubles the bid he is asking for his partner to lead a heart.
  • At one stage during the investigation of the murder of Joseph Elwell, well-meaning citizens were using Ouija boards to solve the crime. The police were not impressed.
  • In April 1921, a man walked into a police station and confessed to the murder of Joseph Elwell. It turned out that the man was mentally disturbed and wanted to be given the death penalty so that he would no longer be a bother to his family.
  • The locked room trope has proven popular with many crime fiction writers, but it has also turned up in many real crimes.

Sources

  • “Ewell Case Deep Mystery.” Sacramento Union, July 5, 1920.
  • “Who Would Want to Kill Joe Elwell? With Debauched Lifestyle Question of Who Wouldn’t?” David J. Krajicek, New York Daily News, February 13, 2011.
  • “The Impossible Murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell.” Skunk Uzeki, Vocal Media, undated.
  • “Murder of Joseph Browne Elwell.” Doug MacGowan, Historic Mysteries, September 14, 2011.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 30, 2020:

Hey Rupert, this is an interesting read. So I read for curiosity. I have never in my life see the police use a ouija board or spirit medium solve a crime. It is not endorsed by law. Crimes are solved by forensic methods which is scientific. Thanks for sharing.