"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Murder of Dolly Reynolds: A Gilded Age Whodunit



On the morning of August 16, 1898, a chambermaid entered a room at New York’s Grand Hotel, and thus unwittingly kicked off one of the longest and most muddled murder investigations in that city’s history.

To her horror, the maid found the body of a once-beautiful young woman lying on the floor. She had been bludgeoned to death. There was no sign of a struggle in the room, but diamond jewelry the woman had worn when she checked into the room the previous day had been roughly torn from her ears and fingers.

The woman registered under the name of “E. Maxwell and wife.” However, police soon identified the corpse as that of twenty-one year old Emeline “Dolly” Reynolds. She had lived in a fashionable residence on West 58th Street for the past eighteen months. She was frequently visited by a man her housekeeper assumed was the lady’s husband, “Mr. Reynolds.”

Not quite. Dolly was unmarried, as was her “husband,” who proved to be a wealthy, influential stockbroker and man-about-town named Maurice B. Mendham. Although Dolly posed as a humble book saleswoman, she was, in truth, employed in a far older and considerably more lucrative profession. Mendham was, to use the quaint language of the day, her “protector.” He was paying for her house, as well as the expensive jewelry she so loved to wear.

Mendham immediately became an object of interest to the murder investigators, particularly since Dolly’s housekeeper stated the two had bitterly quarreled the day before over Mendham's demand that she return the jewels he had given her. The pair had argued frequently over the past few months. Mendham, it seems, wished to cast her aside, and Dolly was making it clear this would not be an inexpensive task.

Maurice Mendham

The stockbroker, however, asserted that he had been in Long Branch the night of the murder. Contemporary records do not make it clear whether this oh-so-convenient alibi was ever fully investigated, or if police were content to take him at his word. In any case, he was dropped from the suspect list with rather startling abruptness.

Investigators turned their attention to the murdered woman’s movements on the last day of her life. After checking in to the hotel, she had lunch and left, soon returning with a young dark-haired man. They left about seven o'clock in the evening and returned around midnight. An hour or so later, Dolly Reynolds was dead. A night watchman later said that he had seen a man creeping furtively down the stairs around two-thirty, but at the time he thought it was unimportant and paid him little attention. (This watchman was clearly the criminal element’s best friend.)

Some odd things were found in Reynolds’ room. There was a doctor’s prescription blank, on which was written, “E. Maxwell and wife, Brooklyn.” There was a check for $13,000, made out to Emma Reynolds, signed by Dudley Gideon, and endorsed by S.J. Kennedy. Gideon proved to be a completely nonexistent figure. Kennedy, it soon transpired, was something even more curious.

Missing was $500 in cash Dolly had in her purse, as well as the little bag of jewelry she always carried on her person. Remarkably enough, ten days after the murder, Mendham went to the police and reassured them that the bag of jewels had turned up in a sugar bowl in Dolly’s flat.

“S.J. Kennedy,” endorser of generous checks, proved to be a dentist, Dr. Samuel J. Kennedy. Mendham had introduced him to Dolly. Reynolds’ mother told police that about a week before the murder, Dolly told her that Dr. Kennedy volunteered to put $500 on a horse race for her. She had drawn the money from her bank, and would meet him on the evening of August 15th to deliver what he promised would be a highly profitable investment.

Samuel J. Kennedy

Within six hours of the discovery of Dolly Reynolds’ body, Dr. Kennedy was arrested for her murder. Despite the eyebrow-raising quality of his alleged financial dealings with the dead woman, the evidence against him was decidedly weak. Hotel employees all said that the man Dolly was with had dark hair. Kennedy was fair-haired. The man wore a straw hat, something Kennedy had never owned. The motive for this previously highly respectable and notably mild-mannered dentist to suddenly bash a lady’s head in was never convincingly explained.

Nevertheless, Kennedy went on trial in March 1899. The prosecution argued that Kennedy had planned to con Reynolds out of $500 by giving her this bogus check as her “winnings.” Then, deciding that dead women tell no tales, he bludgeoned her in order to cover up his fraud. That check caused a splendid amount of utter confusion. Some handwriting experts swore up and down that Kennedy wrote out the check. Others, with equal fervor, vowed by everything they held most dear that he had not. And what really was the purpose of this check, anyway? No one in that courtroom ever knew for sure. A “police expert” testified that an iron pipe found at Kennedy’s home was the murder weapon. Under cross-examination, this same “expert” admitted that he couldn’t say for sure if it was. A hat salesman named Clark testified that on the day of the murder, Kennedy had bought a straw hat and a plaid cap from him. The police claimed they found that very same cap in Kennedy’s house a week after Reynolds died.

The defense argument was simple: They put in the witness box a slew of people who all claimed to have seen the dentist out-and-about in the city at the exact times Dolly was at the Grand Hotel with her mystery man. Kennedy himself admitted the young woman was one of his patients, but that was all he knew of her. He had had nothing to do with that $13,000 check. He never promised to put money on a horse for her, and, in fact, had never made a bet in his life.  He also swore that on the night of the murder, he had attended the theater. He missed the ferry that would bring him to his train, so he was forced to walk most of the way home. His parents testified to seeing him at home that night and the next morning.

On paper, the case against Kennedy fairly screams “reasonable doubt,” but the jury must have taken a dislike to the defendant. Or perhaps they just wanted to get a bit of their own back against dentists. After a very brief deliberation, they returned a verdict of “guilty.” He was sentenced to die in the electric chair that May.

Then, this already weird case became even weirder. A Staten Island plumber, Daniel Melville, came forward to make an affidavit that two detectives visited his shop and carefully examined pipe identical to what they allegedly later found in Kennedy’s house. After the officers left, he realized the pipe was missing. This testimony was enough for the Court of Appeals to order another trial.

Kennedy Trial 2.0 went considerably differently than the first go-round. The same police expert who had testified about the pipe in the first trial now declared that the pipe said to have been found in Kennedy’s home could not possibly have been the murder weapon. Daniel Melville was unwillingly hauled back from his new home in Florida (it was rumored that after he gave his affidavit, the NYPD had strongly suggested that it would be good for his health to leave town.) The plumber now showed something of a change of heart. Melville still said that the pipe had disappeared from his shop, but oh, good heavens, he never meant to imply that any of those fine, upstanding New York police officers could possibly have taken it. (Melville’s story, incidentally, makes a fascinating companion piece to the plaid cap these same detectives stated they found in Kennedy’s possession.)

Several cabbies testified to having seen Kennedy between midnight and two-thirty on the night of the murder. An employee of the Grand Hotel said that Kennedy was definitely not the man he saw with Dolly Reynolds.

This trial ended with a hung jury—eleven to one for acquittal. According to the “New York Times,” the hold-out was a close personal friend of the Assistant D.A. The verdict so angered one of the other jurors that he wrote out a sizable check for Kennedy’s defense.

Everyone staggered on to trial #3. The highlight of this last tribunal was when they put Maurice Mendham, Sugar Daddy par excellence, on the stand. Even the most innocuous-seeming questions elicited nothing but the most vague and shifty answers from Mr. Mendham, but the defense did manage to drag out of him the highly interesting fact that he had been acquainted with a "Miss Cozzens."  In 1893, Alice Cozzens, a lovely young girl who was, as the newspapers discreetly put it, Mendham's “protégée,” was found dead in her room at the Coleman House. She had killed herself by overdosing on laudanum, and then shooting herself.

Suicide was the official verdict, at least.

The defense proved that Kennedy’s commutation ticket had been used on the night of the murder. (Why it took them three different trials to bring this up is unknown.) The owner of the Grand Hotel admitted for the first time that the establishment had been robbed on the same night Reynolds was killed—and on the same floor as her room.

A Mrs. Melville (no relation to the hapless Daniel) who had a millinery shop in the same building as Kennedy’s office, testified that on the evening of the murder, the dentist left at about five-thirty. Shortly before that, a man who slightly resembled Kennedy turned up making inquiries about him. She recalled that this same man visited the building some days earlier, asking the same questions about the dentist’s comings-and-goings. She described him as a dark-haired man wearing a straw hat.

The man who accompanied Dolly Reynolds to the Grand Hotel?

Mr. Clark, the hat salesman, had died since the first trial, but it was brought into evidence that he had had quite a chat with his customer. Supposedly, Kennedy volunteered his name and all sorts of details about himself, including the fact that he was a dentist on 22nd Street. For a man with murder and fraud supposedly in his heart, the dentist had a peculiar desire to be remembered by as many witnesses as possible.

Was this man Kennedy, artlessly showing that he had nothing to hide? Or was this Mrs. Melville’s dark-haired, straw-hat-wearing man doing his best to incriminate the dentist?

Judging from the newspaper accounts, by this point no one even pretended to know what they were doing or what was going on, but the tide was definitely finally turning in Kennedy’s favor. On one occasion, while the jury was returning from having lunch at the Astor House, they found themselves followed by a crowd chanting, “Turn him out! Turn him out! No Dreyfus trial will go.”

In June 1901, turn him out they did. After a long and reportedly quite acrimonious deliberation, the jury wound up deadlocked at eight to four for acquittal. By this time, everyone was so weary of the business, they simply discharged the jury and set Kennedy free on $10,000 bail. Back home at Staten Island, the dentist was greeted by brass bands and a parade. He returned to his loyal wife and young child, and presumably had a long and happy life filling cavities and pulling teeth.  Maurice Mendham retired from business in 1910 after a highly successful career. In 1911, he married his “ward,” a pretty young sculptor’s model named Frances Cartwright. He died the following year.

The question that had kicked off the whole mess, namely, “Who murdered Dolly Reynolds?” was one everyone seemed happy to forget.

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