His death was as mysterious as his life.
July 21, 2014
MINNIE THE HOUSEKEEPER arrived at her employer’s, as usual, and right on time, to get busy with the chores of the June 11, 1920 day. She let herself in and went straight to the living room to say good morning to Mr. Elwell, the owner of the house she was keeping. Upon entering, she let out a squeal and clapped her hand to her mouth. Who was that strange man in the easy chair? The chair was usually occupied by her handsome and wealthy employer.
The man in the chair had a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. He was not handsome at all. He was bald-headed and practically toothless. After Millie checked around for her handsome boss and possible intruders, she summoned the authorities.
Come to find out it was her employer, Mr. Elwell in the chair. Police found his dentures soaking in his bedroom and they also found a wardrobe of forty or so luxurious toupees. The forty-four year old man was usually “put together” by the time Minnie arrived, and that was the cause for her confusion. Elwell was barely alive when discovered by the housekeeper but he did not live long.
Joseph Browne Elwell was known in social circles as a handsome and well-dressed bridge player with an attractive smile. He had won bundles in gambling houses playing cards, and he also wrote two best-selling books on bridge. He moonlighted from his regular job as a Brooklyn hardware salesman by teaching bridge to society ladies.
His gambling winnings alone had footed the bill for a yacht, a large art collection and a stable of racehorses. His three story townhouse in Manhattan had an upstairs room for his favorite pastime. It was a special boudoir for entertaining the ladies. You may be curious as to what ladies. It seems that Elwell had an index card file that contained fifty-three cards. On the cards were the names of his lady friends—some married—and his pet names for them and vital statistics, and other pertinent information about them. Naturally, this card file became the focus for police officers investigating his murder.
The morning his body was discovered by his housekeeper, the milk bottles he left on the doorstep for the milk man were gone. The mail man brought his mail at 7:20 and noticed that the bottles had been picked up. Elwell was reading this mail when he was killed. One letter, still in his hands, was stained with his blood.
Police also learned that he had been out the previous evening with a lady friend and they had had an argument. Because of this, Elwell returned to his home alone and stayed up roaming his house in his red pajamas.
“It was his usual routine, as far as I know,” Millie said. “He was quite a night owl, roaming about in pajamas.”
Police surmised that he had not entertained a female in the boudoir because if he had, he would have made himself look more presentable for that woman, with teeth and toupee.
The bullet hole between Elwell’s eyes was made by a .45 caliber pistol and it did not seem likely that a woman would have used that large of a gun. The bullet that passed through him was found on a nearby table, the casing on the floor. Was it placed there or did it ricochet and land there? No foreign fingerprints were found in the area.
Who killed Elwell? To this very day no one knows. Several marriages were ruined when police started their questioning, using the contents of Elwell’s card file as a guide. Was the murderer a jealous husband, a jealous boyfriend, an angry father of one of his conquests, the owner of a rival horse stable? Maybe someone trying to collect a gambling debt? Did his ex-wife still harbor ill feelings? Many may have had motives to kill Elwell. All suspects had solid alibis. Millie came around at the townhouse for a few days to assist policemen—a job done without pay. She wrung her hands and blushed with each new revelation concerning Joseph Elwell’s active social life.
“I just don’t know what to make of it,” the embarrassed and creeped-out Minnie confided. “And now, I must find me a new position of employment—with no good letter of recommendation.” She sighed.
The Joseph Browne Elwell murder can be classified as a “locked room” murder and as such has been the inspiration for many detective novels. One thought has crossed my own mind. Since Elwell was casually reading his mail, he did not appear to be alarmed by the presence of whoever shot him—and if his own housekeeper did not recognize him without his cosmetic aids in place, how could the killer even know he/she was actually killing intended victim, Elwell, and not one of his visiting relatives or a houseguest? It would probably have to be someone that knew him very well and had seen him many times without his props.
Please click the book cover image to read more about Sara Marie Hogg and her books. Some of them are filled with mysteries, too.