"...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, November 12, 2018

A Most Baffling Murder: The Death of Margaretta Todd

"Fort Wayne Journal," August 29, 1915, via Newspapers.com



Agatha Christie, meet Margaretta von Hoffman Todd, a woman who could have stepped right out of your books. Like many a Christie character, Mrs. Todd was elderly, extremely wealthy, and decidedly eccentric. Like many a Christie character, Mrs. Todd in one way or another managed to give many people a motive to see her dead. And, of course, like many a Christie character, Mrs. Todd met a mysterious, and very bad end.

Unfortunately, unlike a Christie character, the puzzle of Mrs. Todd's death wasn't neatly wrapped up in the last chapter.

For some years before her death, Mrs. Todd had lived with what was described as "almost Oriental lavishness" in her New York City apartments. The red-wigged, flamboyantly dressed dowager received daily a parade of callers--some of whom, it was alleged, were forced to kneel and kiss her hand, as if in the presence of royalty.

Early in 1902, Mrs. Todd, whose age was vaguely estimated as between 75 and 80, made out her will. Everyone in her inner circle benefited from it in one way or another. She named as executor her lawyer (and possibly lover) 60-year-old Ingersoll Lockwood, who would also be given control of her home, the Von Hoffman Arms. (He was already living in a suite in the building, rent-free.) Friends and servants, most notably her maid (and close friend) Jennie Paine, were given generous cash bequests. The bulk of her estate went to Mrs. Todd's daughter. All in all, no one who knew her had any reason to complain about how she planned to disperse her wealth.

It was later that same year that the Todd story began to get weird. In December, an old friend of Mrs. Todd's named Anna Haight unexpectedly turned up at her door, evidently with the hope of making an extended visit. Mrs. Todd was out of town at the time, but Jennie Paine decided there would be no harm in letting the visitor stay.

This proved to be a mistaken assumption. Two days later, Mrs. Haight began to behave strangely--so much so that Paine thought it best to send for a doctor. However, before he arrived, the houseguest suddenly began shrieking "Let me out! Let me out!" and leaped through an open window to the street below. Haight survived the incident with only minor injuries, but the cause for her bizarre behavior remained a mystery.

In early 1903, Mrs. Todd began acting a bit oddly herself. In a classic Agatha Christie twist, she rewrote her will, naming her daughter, Rosalie Tousey, as executrix, cutting Lockwood out of having any control over her estate. She began dropping broad--and obviously, to certain people, highly ominous--hints that she was preparing even bigger changes to her will.

Jennie Paine was clearly among those disturbed by Mrs. Todd's Adventures in Will-Making. Apparently at the instigation of Ingersoll Lockwood, she went to Mrs. Todd's personal physician, Albert G. Weed, and confided to him that their "dear old friend" was losing her mind. She bluntly recommended that he have Mrs. Todd placed in an asylum. Dr. Weed, who had seen no sign of the lunacy Paine described, curtly brushed off the suggestion.

What the good doctor did do was run straight to Mrs. Todd and inform her about these efforts by her nearest and dearest to brand her a madwoman. Margaretta, understandably infuriated, immediately had Lockwood thrown out of his apartment and informed Jennie Paine that it was time for her to seek new employment. And I doubt she gave the maid glowing references. Mrs. Todd angrily wrote a friend that she was through with both these false former friends. "I have them sized right up and know their game. They have laid plans which will fall through just like themselves." Around this time, her 1903 will disappeared from her home. Mrs. Todd believed that Lockwood had had it stolen.

On October 26, 1905, Mrs. Todd told her new lawyer, George Gordon Hastings, that she had written out a new will--one that, presumably, completely cut out Paine and Lockwood. They agreed that she would go to his office the following morning to sign it. This new will was done in secret. Mrs. Todd, Hastings later said, did not want anyone else to know what she was doing because she believed she was "surrounded by conspirators."

If you have ever read an Agatha Christie novel, you are probably already guessing that she never made it to this appointment. You would be right. Later that same day, Mrs. Todd told Jennie Paine's replacement, Marie Goddard, that she was going out for some fresh air. Mrs. Todd removed some papers from a safe, which she put "into the bosom of her dress," and left the Von Hoffman, evidently with the intention of paying a quick visit to New Jersey, ostensibly to visit a relative.

This was the last time she was known to have been seen alive. Just a few hours later, Mrs. Todd's body was found on some railroad tracks near Philadelphia. Before she was discovered, a train had run over her, crushing her head and severing both legs. She was still wearing the $20,000 worth of jewelry she had donned before leaving her home. The papers Miss Goddard said she had been carrying were never found.

Any idea that she had killed herself was dismissed when the autopsy showed that she died of poison. Then, her body had been placed on the tracks, evidently in the hope that her death would be seen as accidental. The presence of her jewelry ruled out any idea that this had been some common robbery. The timing of her death led to the obvious conclusion that someone had killed Margaretta Todd before she could sign her new will.

At this point, yet another odd person entered this odd case--Louis Todd, Margaretta's third, and most recent, husband.

Well, maybe he was her husband. Although Mrs. Todd had let it be known that the two were married, Louis--a dapper, dashing entrepreneur, gambler, and general man-about-town, came forward to vehemently deny the dead lady had ever been his wife. As he was currently indisputably married--to a Medora Sanford--he was naturally anxious to clear himself of a bigamy charge. As no proof ever emerged that he and Mrs. Todd had gone through a marriage ceremony, it seems to have been accepted that he was telling the truth. (We have no idea why Margaretta posed as his wife.)

Further complicating matters was the fact that Louis Todd was on a train from New York to Philadelphia on the night Margaretta died. His proximity to the site where her body was discovered added his name to the list of murder suspects.

Whoever was responsible for Mrs. Todd's death--and it was beginning to look like "Who wasn't?"--Ingersoll Lockwood lost no time taking advantage of the tragedy. Although he had failed in his efforts to have Mrs. Todd's body cremated before it could be autopsied, he immediately filed her 1902 will, took back his old apartment, and hired a pack of detectives to help him cement his new supremacy.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Todd's daughter--who had been in Europe at the time of her mother's death--wasted no time hurrying home to tackle the usurper. Mrs. Tousey firmly planted herself in the Von Hoffman Arms, forced Lockwood out of his recently-recovered apartment, and announced that she was hiring her own team of gumshoes. She vowed to get to the bottom of the murder mystery.

She never did. Less than a month after Mrs. Todd's death, the police, failing to find any solid leads in the mystery, shrugged their shoulders and dropped their inquiries. In one of this tale's many bizarre touches, one of Mrs. Tousey's detectives, Walter Hoyer, committed suicide. He left a note saying he was committing the act out of despair over being unable to solve the Todd case.

Rosalie Tousey also did not long survive her mother. In July 1906, she married Margaretta's attorney George Hastings. Five months later, Rosalie died suddenly in Nice, France. The cause of her death does not seem to have been publicly recorded. Her new husband received her entire estate.

Mrs. Todd's 1902 will was finally admitted to probate in March 1906. Rosalie , George Hastings, and Mrs. Todd's grandson, Milton Berolsheim, immediately appealed this decision. After four years of legal wrangling, the survivors of the Todd Mystery finally reached a settlement over her estate. We are told that everyone involved was relieved to finally close the books on a case that had come to be regarded as a "hoodoo." Mrs. Todd's final will was never found.

And, of course, her murder was never solved.

4 comments:

  1. I've never heard of this fascinating case; I'm surprised it's not better known. I'm also surprised the police dropped it so quickly - could a payoff have been involved? My guess is that the lawyer Lockwood may have been one of the instigators, if not the chief one, particularly since he had been living rent-free at Mrs Todd's expense - and after the discovery of Mrs Todd's corpse,he moved quickly to get back into his apartment. He certainly had a major motive: in New York, the cost of rent is a huge deal!

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  2. This does indeed sound like a Christie mystery. It's suspicious that Mrs Todd's daughter married the lawyer just a few months after the probation of her mother's will. And then she too died. And a detective killed himself because of professional failure? Weirder and weirder...

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  3. were you able to find margaretta todd's maiden name and her first husbands 1st name im working on a research project and i would be forever thankful for ant help i can get p.s. i love your blog thank you for doing what you do

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    1. Her maiden name was Von Hoffman. Her first husband was a man named Weatherford, but I've never seen his first name.

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