"...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, July 22, 2019

California Gothic: The Strange Death of Edith Irene Wolfskill

"San Francisco Examiner," August 29, 1903, via Newspapers.com


It seems inevitable that rich, powerful families attract any number of strange incidents. Dysfunction abounds, perhaps as the Universe's way of balancing out all those material advantages. It's unusual, however, for one relatively small family of wealth to become famed for internal feuds, mental illness, odd disappearances, mysterious deaths, and allegations of murder.

It's even more unusual for all these tragedies to center around one particular person. But such was the fate of Edith Irene Wolfskill.

Edith's grandfather, Mathus Wolfskill, was an early settler in Yolo County, California. His brothers, John and William, had already bought a 17,000 acre Mexican land grant. The siblings used this land to cultivate what would become an impressive agricultural empire. By the time Edith was born in 1872, the Wolfskills were one of the wealthiest and most influential families in California. The beautiful, sensitive girl had a privileged, pampered childhood, followed by a spell at a European "finishing school." Edith was on track to have a happy life of luxury.

Instead, things turned out very differently. Although she had seemed normal during her childhood, by the time Edith returned from Europe, she began behaving oddly. She developed what was described as a "religious mania," which would cause her to suddenly begin praying in public. It drew attention.

It is hard to say just how mentally unbalanced Edith was. Some contemporary newspaper reports described her merely as "eccentric," while others painted her as "the mad heiress" who proclaimed herself to be "Empress of the World." All that can be said for certain is that by 1903, her family believed it was necessary to have her committed to San Francisco's California General Hospital.

It was during her confinement that Edith demonstrated a new specialty: disappearing. On the night of August 27, Wolfskill vanished from her hospital room. Two days later, a detective hired by the young woman's family found Edith at the bottom of a ravine in Colma, then a rugged, sparsely populated area, praying fervently. She was heavily scratched by brambles and exhausted by her wanderings, but was otherwise unharmed.

Edith resented being found, and fought her would-be rescuer. The detective had a very hard time forcing her into his carriage, and upon her return to San Francisco, she lapsed into an angry silence, refusing to speak to anyone. Edith remained at California General for some years, until she was transferred to a hospital in Los Angeles to be nearer her parents.

As time went on, Edith's peculiarities only increased. Her family accepted that she would never be capable of living on her own, and had her declared legally incompetent. After her parents died, Edith's brothers, Matthew and Ney, were given "joint custody" of their sister. They were required to use a portion of the family estate to care for Edith for the rest of her days. The brothers placed her in a ranch the Wolfskills owned in Solano county. As Matthew and Ney had been locked in a bitter feud for some years, they were never at the ranch at the same time. Instead, they took turns living with Edith, carefully scheduling their visits so they would never run into each other. The brothers allowed no outside visitors, aside from staff and the occasional workman.

Edith's lonely, reclusive existence went on quietly enough until July 1929, when Matthew Wolfskill, for reasons unrecorded, fired her nurse, Bessie Ritchards. Edith was fond of Ritchards, so the nurse's dismissal left her extremely upset. When the new nurse, Mary Conklin, arrived on July 13, she received a less than friendly welcome. The only two people at the ranch were Edith and Nelda Wolfskill, the wife of Edith's nephew. Edith refused to even speak to Conklin, and the nurse saw immediately that she was in an agitated and unhappy mood. Within a few hours of Conklin's arrival, Edith was suddenly nowhere to be found. It was not uncommon for her to take long solitary walks among the hills, so at first it was believed there was no cause for alarm. However, when she failed to appear after several hours, Ney, who had by then arrived at the ranch, feared she had gotten lost or suffered some accident. When a search of the area failed to find any sign of Edith, the police were called in.

It did not take long for the Sheriff to come to more sinister conclusions about Edith's disappearance. Conklin told him that shortly before Edith vanished, the nurse overheard her talking to some unknown figure. All Conklin could make out was Edith stating angrily, "I will not leave. This is my home." This led the Sheriff, John Thornton, to believe the heiress had not, as Ney was insisting, merely wandered off somewhere: rather, she had been kidnapped.

The investigation into Edith's whereabouts uncovered some details that made her disappearance even more ominous. Matthew and Ney Wolfskill had been at war over the use of the money their parents had set aside for Edith's care. This led the bank that managed Edith's estate to hire a private detective to investigate the brothers. After questioning Matthew and Ney, this detective told a reporter, "I would like to believe Miss Wolfskill wandered off and is lost. I can't believe that in view of what I discovered." (What he "discovered" was, unfortunately, never made public.) Police suspicion grew that at least one of the brothers knew more about Edith's vanishing act than they were admitting.

Meanwhile, the mysterious disappearance of a very rich and very troubled woman--with dark hints of familial foul play thrown in--generated newspaper headlines across the country. As always happens with high-profile missing persons cases, a swarm of reported "sightings" of Edith Wolfskill popped up in the press. None of them proved to be valid.

It turned out that, whatever the circumstances of Edith's disappearance may have been, the missing woman stayed close to her home. On July 20, searchers found a set of what were believed to be her footprints in a muddy creek bed some five miles from the ranch. The prints crossed over a set of tire marks left by a truck which had passed that way just the day before. This indicated that Edith was apparently still alive, still wandering somewhere in the hills.

The search of the area was intensified, but no further trace of Edith or her movements could be found. Her whereabouts remained utterly unknown until September 19. 18-year-old Bernard Glashoff was walking through a dry creek bed about a mile from the Wolfskill ranch when he came upon a gruesome sight: a badly decomposed corpse. Although the long hair indicated it was of a female, the body was wearing a flannel shirt and a pair of men's overalls. A pair of women's shoes, in pristine condition, were neatly placed near the body.

It was soon determined that Glashoff had found what little remained of Edith Wolfskill.

The grim discovery only intensified the mystery. For openers, why was she wearing these overalls, which had apparently belonged to a local man who had worked on the property several months earlier? Those who had known Edith were adamant that she had a phobia about even touching other people's clothing. (The dress she had allegedly been wearing the day she vanished was found hanging in her closet, which just served to strengthen law enforcement's belief that Edith's family was not being entirely honest with them.) The area where her body was found had been frequently searched by hundreds of people and several tracking dogs. How had she remained hidden?

The unscuffed shoes found by the corpse also had police raising their eyebrows. The autopsy was unable to determine how Edith had died, but it indicated that she had been alive for at least a week after she vanished. If such was the case, how had her shoes stayed so clean after she had presumably spent days rambling the hills?

"Philadelphia Inquirer," October 27, 1929


Meanwhile, Matthew and Ney seemed less interested in their sister's peculiar demise than they were in her money. Their father's will had stipulated that if Edith predeceased her brothers, her $750,000 estate would be equally split between them. Before Edith's body was even discovered, the brothers had launched legal battles over how, exactly, her money should be divided. A sad sequel what had been the very sad life of Edith Wolfskill.

The many questions lingering around the end of the "mad heiress" seem destined to remain unanswered. Sheriff Thornton remained convinced that Edith had been abducted, held captive in some remote cabin, and murdered when she refused to sign a ransom note, but he was never able to prove it. Her disappearance and death have remained, in the words of the "San Francisco Chronicle," "one of the most baffling cases in Northern California."

2 comments:

  1. I've known search dogs to repeatedly pass within twenty feet of a corpse w/o noticing it, not that I was the "lucky" one to find it.

    Wouldn't surprise me if Edith just wandered around until she died of exposure, probably though changing her clothes was a disguise.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Indeed, both sad and mysterious. Why were the shoes there at all? Why would she have worn men’s clothes but women’s shoes - unless they were placed there as a symbol. Not many clues to go on, either.

    ReplyDelete

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