"...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, September 8, 2014

The Disappearance and Death of Jeanne De Kay

On the night of December 30, 1919, twenty-year-old Jeanne De Kay, daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur and socialite, left her residence at Jane Addams’ famous Chicago settlement home “Hull House,” and never returned.

The disappearance of a member of such a rich and prominent family set off a worldwide manhunt. The papers were full of the usual “sightings,” rumors, and theories ranging from the plausible to the lurid that are common to any high-profile mystery, but Jeanne remained nowhere to be found.

Finally, nearly four months later, her body was found in Lake Michigan, where it had been washed ashore by a gale, but the mystery of her fate remained unsettled. The frigid waters of the lake made it impossible to tell if she drowned immediately after her disappearance, or soon before she was discovered.

Although there were many unanswered questions surrounding her death, it was ruled a suicide. Jeanne De Kay had been a restless, unhappy young woman. She had absorbed her father’s socialist ideas, and felt a deep sense of guilt at her inherited wealth. As a way of grappling with these emotions, she had recently left home, hoping to live and work as a “normal girl.” At Hull House, she trained to be a social worker, while begging to do the most menial chores. It was suggested that this sudden immersion in a working-class life was too much of a “culture shock” for the formerly pampered young woman, and, unable to handle either her new life or the shame of admitting failure, she saw no way out but death.

Jeanne had other troubles. As a girl, she contracted smallpox, which left her face deeply scarred. She was said to have been neurotically obsessed with her plainness, a feeling that intensified painfully when a young man she loved chose to marry another woman. According to some friends, this left Jeanne convinced she was a disfigured outcast who would never find love and happiness.

Not everyone was persuaded by this solution to the mystery, and there are enough oddities surrounding the De Kay family to make this skepticism understandable.

Her father, John Wesley De Kay, was a peculiar man. As a youth, this Midwestern cattle rancher moved to Mexico, where he got into the meat-packing business. Thanks to a friendship he cultivated with President Diaz, he gained almost a complete monopoly of the Mexican meat industry, and became a millionaire many times over.

He had more on his mind than just sausage and steak, however. De Kay was full of eccentric political and social notions, and, as he also had literary ambitions, he set out to express them on the stage.

He was, to put it most kindly, ahead of his time. His 1910 play “Judas,” showcased the title character as a misunderstood hero. The storyline had Judas’ lover, Mary Magdalene, cheat on him with both Pontius Pilate and Jesus himself, causing Judas to betray his former friend to the Romans. The lead role of Judas was played by none other than Sarah Bernhardt.

It all went over about as well as you'd think. “Judas” played in New York for only one night, and was promptly banned everywhere else. De Kay followed this up with equally controversial books about economics, women’s rights, the labor movement, politics, and history, all from what was then a scandalously left-wing perspective. He also courted scandal by his “ill-reputed” business practices, most notably during World War I, when he entered into complex dealings with the French government in order to buy arms which he then shipped via a German steamer for the use of the Mexicans. (It was this deal that prompted the United States to invade Veracruz.) In 1915, the French sought his extradition on the charge of having defrauded the Belgian government in this munitions deal, and he thereafter made his home in Switzerland. (That is, he made his home there until a decade or so later, when the Swiss kicked him out for swindling a bank in Lucerne.) In 1914, a London bank sued him for fraud. In 1919, he was thrown out of Berlin for arranging the International Socialist Conference.  In 1921, he was arrested in Budapest on the charge of "conspiring against the security of the state."  In 1930, the Austrians arrested him for passing bad checks. By the time he died in 1938, it seemed that there was hardly a country in the world that had not labeled him as "an undesirable" for some reason or another.  De Kay seems to have been a curious mix of capitalist robber baron, flamboyant fat-cat conspicuous consumer, socialist ideologue, international political intriguer, and habitual crook. Small wonder poor Jeanne grew up confused.

It is not particularly surprising that some people believed that De Kay’s many colorful activities had something to do with his daughter’s disappearance and death, especially since the family was very reluctant to allow the police to become involved. Was the young heiress the victim of a botched kidnapping for ransom? Was she murdered outright in revenge for some of her father’s shadier activities? Or did she kill herself due to fear of the central role John De Kay had played in the murky “plot and counter-plot” of Mexican politics? (There was another detail about the De Kays that might—or might not—be relevant.  Two months after Jeanne disappeared, her uncle Henry De Kay was sentenced in the Federal Court to five years in State Prison for his participation in the wrecking of Providence R. I.’s Atlantic National Bank. When Jeanne disappeared, her father was unable to return to America to help in the search because of pending indictments stemming from his complicity with this same crime. This was quite a family.)

There were a couple of other facts about Jeanne's disappearance that led many to think there was more to her death than a simple suicide. For one, she left her room at Hull House carrying nothing but a purse containing two dollars and a toothbrush. If she was setting out to kill herself, her brother John Jr. pointed out, would she bring her toothbrush with her?

Immediately after Jeanne vanished, John Jr. remembered that during their recent voyage to America from Europe, Jeanne had become close to two Romanian women, a Mrs. Salter and her daughter. (Some newspapers stated these ladies may have been involved in crooked art deals, and at least one report suggested that Mrs. Salter’s husband was a secret agent.) When found in New York, the women denied knowing anything of Jeanne’s whereabouts. However, while the police were still looking for the Salters, they intercepted a cablegram John De Kay sent his son reading, “Very anxious. Jeanne confided in Romanian lady. Stop.”

What did John De Kay think his daughter had told these women? What was he so “anxious” about?

There were more head-scratchers involving cablegrams. One message to Hull House that was supposedly sent by John De Kay mentioned the “Romanian lady” and begged John Jr. to do everything possible to find his sister. It was dated on the same day that John Jr. sent word to his father in Switzerland of Jeanne’s disappearance. The elder De Kay would not have had time to get his son’s message before he sent this reply. So, who sent this cable, and why?

Another puzzle was a phone message Hull House received a couple of days after Jeanne vanished. It was from a woman saying there was no cause for worry; Jeanne was well and would return in a few days. No one ever discovered who left this message.

One newspaper, shortly after Jeanne’s body was discovered, wondered if “the answer to the riddle of unhappy little Jeanne De Kay’s fate will some day be found in a Mexican bandit camp or in the secret archives of some European government?”

It is a crackpot-sounding thought, to be sure. But, then, the crackpots are sometimes right.

1 comment:

  1. This is one mystery I'd say is straightforward suicide. For a young, ardent woman with a conscience, could the criminality and hypocrisy of her father and uncle be anything but an unbearable shame? Everything else seems to be accidental red herrings. As for the toothbrush in her purse: perhaps she always carried one. After all, one could ask the same about anything a suicide takes with her on her last journey. Always interesting to speculate, but too few facts would lead me to figure suicide in this one. It's sad, however, in any case.


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