"Avaunt! avaunt! from fiends below, the indignant ghost is riven—
From Hell unto a high estate far up within the Heaven—
From grief and groan, to a golden throne, beside the King of Heaven!
Let no bell toll, then,—lest her soul, amid its hallowed mirth,
Should catch the note as it doth float up from the damnëd Earth!
And I!—to-night my heart is light!—no dirge will I upraise,
But waft the angel on her flight with a Pæan of old days!"
~Edgar Allan Poe, "Lenore"
"God damn our house."
~Starr Faithfull's entire diary entry for January 3, 1929
Certain crimes become oddly emblematic of their era. To many crime historians, the ultimate episode of 1940s noir is the unspeakably nightmarish unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, the "Black Dahlia." To others, the unsettled period of the 1960s was personified by the Manson family. Jack the Ripper was the dark side of Victorian England. And if you ask a true-crime specialist what, to them, symbolized the Jazz Age of the 1920s and very early 1930s, some might name the mysterious death of one beautiful, alluring, but very damaged young woman. She even had a name befitting the flapper heroine of a silent film or F. Scott Fitzgerald novel: Starr Faithfull.
Early in the morning of June 8, 1931, a beachcomber set out on his daily rounds along the sands of Long Beach, in Long Island, New York. Instead of finding items that could be reused or sold, he stumbled across something hideous: a dead body.
It was of a young woman wearing only a paisley dress and silk stockings. Although the body was covered in sand and marred by numerous small abrasions and bruises, it was clear she had been exceedingly attractive. Police were summoned, and the corpse brought to the local morgue. There was no identification on the body, and the coroner, assuming that it was just another routine suicide, did a cursory autopsy. He quickly concluded that the woman--whoever she was--had drowned herself. Case closed.
Meanwhile, Stanley E. Faithfull, a ferretlike individual with a perpetually shifty air, had gone to the Manhattan Police Station. He reported that his eldest stepdaughter, 25-year-old Starr Faithfull (he made a point of noting the double r and double l) was missing. On June 5, he said, Starr had left the family apartment in Manhattan to have her hair styled, and she had not been seen since. He explained that the family had delayed informing the police of her disappearance because they feared "undue publicity." Faithfull did not give any reason for this fear, and the police evidently did not ask. On the morning of June 8, Faithfull visited the New York Police Station to say Starr was still missing. Before he left, he asked a detective a curious question: "Do you know how long it will take a body to come to the surface in a drowning case?"
Later that day, Faithfull again contacted the police. He said that he had just been shown a "newspaper clipping" regarding a body that had been found in Long Beach. He needed to find out if it was his missing stepdaughter. Again, he stressed his horror of "publicity." He was directed to go to the Nassau County Police Headquarters in Long Island.
When he arrived there, he was shown the dress and the stockings worn by the recently-discovered corpse. He immediately identified them as Starr's. With equal promptitude, he asserted that the girl had been murdered.
When Faithfull returned to Manhattan, his behavior took yet another odd turn. Despite his earlier words about how nothing must reach the press, practically his first action was to summon reporters from all the New York papers, after which he held an impromptu news conference on the front steps of his building. He described his stepdaughter as quiet, literary, home-loving, with no serious boyfriends and no bad habits. She was, he stressed, "a light-hearted, happy, tranquil-minded girl" with absolutely no reason to commit suicide. He was certain that someone had killed her.
The police took Faithfull's allegations of murder seriously. A second, more careful autopsy was ordered. A quantity of sand, as well as seawater, was found in the lungs. It was clear Starr died of drowning, possibly in shallow water. Later toxicology reports stated that she had had no alcohol for at least 36 hours before her death, but she had taken a quantity of Veronol--enough to put her into a stupor. Some four hours before her death, Starr had a substantial meal of meat, potatoes, and fruit. The medical evidence suggested that she had not been in the water for very long before she was found.
The doctor also believed that many, if not all, of the bruises and abrasions on her body had been inflicted before she died. He thought it was very possible that she had been in a violent struggle.
It was beginning to look like Stanley Faithfull had been right.
When the Nassau County District Attorney, Elvin Edwards, interviewed the victim's stepfather, it soon became evident that the Faithfulls (who also included Starr's mother Helen and younger sister Elizabeth--who went by her middle name, "Tucker") were a very strange lot. Stanley gave oddly contradictory descriptions of Starr. He said she "never had any close romantic attachments." She had never been away from home overnight on her own. He followed up this staid picture with a disturbing story. One night about a year before Starr's death, she had a few cocktails. (Stanley had earlier emphasized that Starr could not hold her liquor.) She then left the house, and the Faithfulls did not see her until the following day, when they learned she was at Bellevue Hospital, badly beaten. Stanley said vaguely that she had "been in a fight with some man," who had left her at the hospital. He talked of how, at Starr's request, he had burned two of her diaries. He gave no clue why she asked him to do this, or what the diaries might have contained, and it does not appear that Edwards asked him. He also mentioned that Starr took frequent cruises to London--usually alone. During these trips, she had become friendly with Dr. George Jameson Carr, the surgeon on the Franconia, as well as a Cunard cruise director named Francis Peabody Hamlin.
|Helen, Tucker, and Stanley Faithfull|
The assistant DA, Martin Littleton, asked Stanley if he knew of anyone who might have wished Starr dead. Faithfull gave a response that was to transform the case into a public scandal. He said that from the time Starr was eleven, there had been in her life a certain man, who was related by marriage to the family. This man was a prominent politician who lived in Boston. Stanley and Starr's mother thought nothing of this relationship until 1926, when Starr was twenty. He claimed that it was only then that they learned that for all these years, this man had been sexually molesting the girl. The much older man had taken Starr on long trips alone, where he got her into the habit of sniffing ether or chloroform. He would then, in Stanley's words, subject Starr to "perverted sexual acts." Stanley saw this man as a logical suspect for her murder.
This man was named Andrew J. Peters.
|Andrew J. Peters|
Although forgotten today--aside from his squalid connection to the Faithfull case--in his day Peters was a leading figure in East Coast politics. The lawyer served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, then the state senate, then the U.S. Congress. In 1914, President Wilson appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of Customs. In 1917, he became Mayor of Boston. A contemporary biography described him as "one of the big assets the Democratic party has had in Massachusetts."
In a particularly sordid way, Peters was to become quite a big asset for the Faithfull family, as well. Faithfull admitted freely that he and his wife reacted to the news of Peters' abuse of their daughter with a bit of genteel blackmail. The Faithfulls were chronically broke--Stanley's various business ventures all had a way of dying a quick death--so they sent Peters a series of polite but unmistakable shakedown letters, listing their various debts and expenses, and making it clear they expected him to fund them--or, alas, they would be compelled to make public all they knew about him. After some discreet negotiating, Stanley and his wife signed a document promising to keep their mouths shut in return for $20,000. This was in June 1927.
As far as we know, all was quiet on the Peters front until May 1931--just before Starr's enigmatic death. Peters' lawyer, Alexander Whiteside, received an anonymous phone call from a man. The caller said he had heard that Peters had paid a large sum of money to a young woman named Starr Faithfull, in settlement of certain charges she had made against him.
Whiteside barked out a denial, and hung up. The Faithfulls insisted that they had remained silent, and claimed to have no idea who Whiteside's caller could have been. However, it emerged that the Faithfulls--as is the way with blackmailers--were plotting to squeeze extra money out of Peters. The family had run through the $20,000 they had received years earlier, and were again dealing with a host of financial problems. If their little scheme had worked before, why would it not do so again? And again? And...
It is small wonder that many in the police department and the D.A.'s office were convinced that Peters had had Starr murdered. Others, suspicious of Stanley's decidedly squirrely behavior, began to wonder if he was somehow implicated in his stepdaughter's death. And, for that matter, how could the Faithfulls have been so nonchalant about letting their daughter take long unchaperoned trips with an older man? Could they really have been completely ignorant about what Peters was doing to her? Or could Starr's parents have been--to put it bluntly--pimping her out to the wealthy, powerful man all along?
By this point, investigators had become well aware that Starr was not the cheerful homebody described by Stanley. She was a bitterly unhappy girl who drank heavily (and always behaved extremely erratically when she did so,) took ether and Veronal, frequented speakeasies and sleazy nightclubs, and ran around with many men. She was, in short, an intelligent, sensitive soul who was increasingly desperate to escape herself. Police found a diary she had hidden in her bedroom. In it, she made many entries expressing rage and disgust towards her family--Stanley in particular, whom she regarded with the greatest contempt.
Police pieced together Starr's last days as much as they could. Unfortunately, their main source was Starr's family, who insisted that the period leading up to her death had been completely uneventful. Authorities knew full well by now how much faith to place in their word. (As Martin Littleton dryly put it, there were "strong doubts as to whether the Faithfulls have been sincere and honest when speaking to us of matters directly or indirectly associated with Starr.")
On May 29, just a few days before her death, Starr made an attempt to stow away on the Cunard Steamship Franconia. George Jameson Carr was onboard. Starr had become deeply infatuated, almost obsessed, with the older, avuncular doctor, and was desperate to see him. Unfortunately, she began to drink and created a number of hysterical scenes. Despite having no ticket or passport, she pleaded to be allowed to travel to England. The ship's captain later recalled her saying that "I did not appreciate what a serious thing it was for me to send her ashore." He finally had to have her carried--"stamping and struggling" all the way--to a tug which brought her back to land.
Aside from that incident, we have little solid documentation about Starr's activities until June 5, when she visited the Cunard liner Carmania. She had lunch and tea with the ship's surgeon Charles Young Roberts, whom she had known for about a year. He told investigators that on that day, Starr displayed her usual "sort of fed-upness." She talked of various plans to visit Europe and India, her dislike of her family, her love for Jameson Carr. Starr was, as always, deeply frustrated with her life, and uncertain about the future. She also mentioned that later that night, she would be attending a party held on another liner, the Ile de France. Roberts did not think Starr was under the influence of alcohol, but he thought she might have taken some drug. ("She was more or less dopey...She had a very stony stare. Her eyes were funny.") Some time after 10 p.m., she left the liner to--so Roberts presumed--visit the Ile de France. He put her into a taxi and gave her a dollar for the fare. And that is the last time he--or anyone else--is known for sure to have seen Starr Faithfull alive.
When detectives heard Roberts' story, they felt they had finally solved the mystery of the young woman's death. They surmised that Starr--following her previous pattern--had stowed away on the Ile de France. As the liner neared Long Beach, she emerged from her hiding place, and fell overboard, either accidentally or deliberately.
A simple suicide or accident. And that, as far as the authorities were concerned, was that. The investigation into Starr's death came to a close. Stanley Faithfull made determined efforts for some time to get the case reopened, but even the newspapers had tired of the story, and the tragic death quickly faded from public view.
However, in his 1996 book "The Passing of Starr Faithfull," crime historian Jonathan Goodman noted a fatal flaw in this "official" solution to the case. Around 10:30 on the night of June 5, a policeman standing guard around the Cunard piers saw Starr--whom he had previously seen when she was dragged off the Franconia--get into a taxi and drive off. This corroborates Roberts' account.
The trouble was, the Ile de France had left the dock precisely at 10 p.m. There was no way in the world Starr could have been on the ship that night. For various logistical reasons that Goodman enumerated in great detail, it is extremely improbable that Starr could have been on any other of the four liners at the pier on June 5.
In other words, we are back to Square One in trying to solve the riddle of her death.
Leaving aside the "accidental drowning" scenario as unlikely, we are left with only two possible solutions: suicide, or murder.
The "suicide" theory has some evidence to back it up. Just a few days before her death, Starr wrote Jameson Carr three letters. One apologized for her behavior aboard the Franconia. In another, Starr said bluntly that she was going to end "my worthless, disorderly bore of an existence...I certainly have made a sordid, futureless mess of it all. I am dead, dead sick of it...life is HORRIBLE...I have, strangely, enough, more of a feeling of peace or whatever you call it now that I know it will soon be over. The half hour before I die will, I imagine, be quite blissful."
|George Jameson Carr|
In her final letter to Carr, written the day before she disappeared, Starr went into more detail about her planned suicide.
It’s all up with me now. This is something I am GOING to put through. The only thing that bothers me about it—the only thing I dread—is being outwitted and prevented from doing this, which is the only possible thing for me to do. If one wants to get away with murder one has to jolly well keep one’s wits about one. It’s the same way with suicide. If I don’t watch out I will wake up in a psychopathic ward, but I intend to watch out and accomplish my end this time.
No ether, allonal, or window jumping. I don’t want to be maimed. I want oblivion. If there is an after life it would be a dirty trick—but I am sure fifty million priests ARE wrong. That is one of those things one knows. Nothing makes any difference now. I love to eat and can have one delicious meal with no worry over gaining. I adore music and am going to hear some good music. I believe I love music more than anything: I am going to drink slowly, keeping aware every second. Also I am going to enjoy my last cigarettes--I won’t worry because men flirt with me in the streets—I shall encourage them—I don’t care who they are. I’m afraid I’ve always been a rotten “sleeper”; it’s the preliminaries that count with me. It doesn’t matter, though.
It’s a great life when one has 24 hours to live. I can be rude to people--I can tell them they are too fat or that I don’t like their clothes, and I don’t have to dread being a lonely old woman, or poverty, obscurity, or boredom. I don’t have to dread living on without ever seeing you, or hearing rumours such as “the women all fall for him” and “he entertains charmingly.” Why in hell shouldn’t you! But it’s more than I can cope with—this feeling I have for you. I have tried to pose as clever and intellectual, thereby to attract you, but it was not successful, and I couldn’t go on writing those long, studied letters. I don’t have to worry, because there are no words in which to describe this feeling I have for you. The words love, admire, worship have become meaningless. There is nothing I can do but what I am going to do. I shall never see you again. That is extraordinary. Although I can’t comprehend it any more than I can comprehend the words “always”—or “time.” They produce a very merciful numbness.
These letters would seem to lead us to a simple enough conclusion, but nothing was ever simple with Starr. It has been pointed out that Starr often made melodramatic empty threats of suicide. Her discussion with Roberts about her future travels could indicate that, despite her words to Carr, she still intended to live.
If she merely drowned herself, how does one explain the pre-mortem cuts and bruises on her body? Apparently, she only had some small change with her the night she disappeared--Roberts even had to pay her taxi fare. So where did she get the large meal she ate not long before her death, not to mention the strong narcotics she had in her system? And what became of the coat and purse she had with her when she was last seen alive?
What of foul play? Did--as Stanley Faithfull insisted right to the end--Andrew Peters order Starr's murder?
Peters had, naturally, been interviewed by the D.A.'s office. He was described as "very nervous and anxious," which is no surprise no matter what you think of the case. He vigorously denied that his relations with Starr had been "anything but of the highest order." He had never had "immoral relations" with her. He evidently failed to explain why, if such had been the case, the Faithfulls had so efficiently blackmailed him. Detectives, while noting Peters' "occasional lapses from complete honesty," concluded that his relationship with Starr--however sordid it may have been--"in no way indicates that he was knowingly responsible for her premature death."
It is impossible to say whether or not Peters' political connections had anything to do with this exoneration, but it must be said that there is no evidence suggesting his culpability in Starr's demise. In any case, the massive publicity surrounding her drowning was the end of his career and reputation. The common gossip that Peters was guilty of sexual crimes at best and homicidal ones at worst led him to have a nervous breakdown. (Although these revelations do not appear to have affected his friendship with soon-to-be President Franklin Roosevelt.) The deaths of his three sons within a period of only a few years exacerbated his mental anguish. When he died of pneumonia in 1938, it must have seemed a blessed release for him.
As said earlier, there were a number of investigators who remained convinced that Stanley himself was somehow mixed up in his stepdaughter's death, but, as was the case with Peters, no solid proof of his guilt was ever found. He died in obscurity in 1949.
Jonathan Goodman had his own theory about Starr's death. He noted that three different police informants independently told investigators that in May 1931, Boston gangsters had squeezed Andrew Peters out of $30,000 "so that the story of the so-called degenerate acts that happened between Starr Faithfull and this man Peters would not be publicly divulged." Soon afterwards, the blackmailers had their ill-gotten gains stolen by a rival gang from New York, which was led by a Vannie Higgins.
Goodman imagined that after this successful heist, Higgins dreamed greedy dreams of blackmailing Peters himself. Higgins--according to Goodman's scenario--decided to go to the source. He gave orders to have Starr kidnapped in order to get out of her every damaging detail she knew about Peters. Goodman pointed out that the taxi driver who picked up Starr on the night of June 5 was never identified. Perhaps the driver was really one of Higgins' flunkies?
When Starr was brought to Higgins' hiding place, she was given the hearty meal that was later found in her stomach. When she asked for drugs, they gave her Allonal, a more potent version of the Veronal she was used to taking.
What if, Goodman wrote, Starr did indeed tell the gang everything about her relations with Peters--but Higgins was dissatisfied? What if the gangster thought she was deliberately holding back on him? What if he then ordered her to be beaten?
Goodman suggested that the beating was more brutal than intended, leaving her unconscious. Higgins then decided that the only safe thing to do was to dispose of Starr, in such a way that her death looked like an accident. So she was carried to a speedboat and quietly dumped just off the coast of Long Beach.
This bleak scenario is not entirely implausible, and it does answer at least some of the many puzzling features of Starr's death. However, it is too based upon the author's imagination to be any sort of satisfying resolution. A simpler murder scenario seems just as likely: Starr flirted with some unknown man, who--as had happened the year before her death--wound up beating her. To ensure she did not report him to the police, he drowned Starr on the beach.
In any case, I fully agree with Goodman when he wrote, "I may be wrong, of course. I rather hope that I am...[I] would prefer to think that for once in her life, in the last few hours of it, she was content."
[A footnote: The Faithfulls had Starr cremated, but never paid the bill for the procedure, leaving her ashes unclaimed. It is apparently unrecorded what the funeral home finally did with her remains.
Poor Starr. Ill-used and abandoned right to the end.]