The Vanishing Of Dorothy Arnold. One Of New York’s All-Time Great Mysteries – Part 1

110 Years Ago Today, Wealthy Dorothy Arnold Went For A Walk In Midtown New York & Vanished Forever

Murder? Suicide? Kidnapping? Or Run Away & Start A New Life?

The Strange Disappearance of A Young Woman Who Seemingly Had Everything….Including A Secret Life

Part One

In the annals of missing person cases few are as baffling as Dorothy Arnold.

Time has erased the Dorothy Arnold case from the public’s memory. But for decades, Dorothy Arnold’s disappearance ranked among the most speculated of mysteries in New York’s history.

Dorothy Arnold disappeared on December 12, 1910 after leaving her house to go for a walk and do some shopping in midtown Manhattan. To make finding her whereabouts more complicated a report that she was missing was not filed with police until weeks after her disappearance.

With the release of the story to the press in late January 1911, theories and clues started to pour in. Ransom demands, fake sightings and crank solutions inundated detectives, the family and the papers.   Today, 110 years to the day she went missing,  Dorothy Arnold’s disappearance remains unsolved.

The most complete telling of the Dorothy Arnold story is by author and journalist Allen Churchill. The story originally appeared in They Never Came Back (Crime Club, 1960). In the book Churchill relates the fascinating details of eight missing person cases including Charlie Ross, Judge Crater and Dorothy Arnold.

Reprinted below from They Never Came Back is part I of The Girl Who Never Came Back.

From the many mystification’s of the Charlie Ross case one fact emerges abundantly clear. Little Charlie was forced to disappear—that is, he was abducted against his will and prevented by force from appealing for help.

In another type of mysterious disappearance force does not appear to be employed. The person who vanishes seems to do so voluntarily: to evaporate of his or her own accord into the thinnest of thin air.

Here perhaps is the quintessence of mystery—mystery in its purest form. For the total disappearance is not only rare, but also exceedingly hard. As anyone who has tried can attest, the act of vanishing from the midst of family and friends is among the most difficult of human feats.

Law-enforcement agencies, human curiosity, the long arm of coincidence, an individual’s own emotions and weaknesses —all these combine uncannily to thwart a total disappearance.

It is difficult enough today, but back in 1910 it was also hard. Police work was not so advanced then, and there were no government Social Security numbers to plague a runaway. Yet there were many more people on earth with a fondness for reading about the type of girl who was at the summit of her youth, rich, especially preferred, blessed with prospects, and to every outer eye, “completely happy.”

The girl so fulsomely described actually did disappear in 1910 to make a case which no less than that of Charlie Ross has become a classic question mark of American crime. Her name was (and could still be) Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold. From Fifth Avenue in New York she suddenly seemed to step off the outer rim of the universe.

How? Why? Did she do this of her own accord? Was she forced? Was she murdered? No one knows—the total mystification of the Dorothy Arnold disappearance is as great now as it was at the time, when one newspaper wrote: “She disappeared from one of the busiest streets on earth, at the sunniest hour of a brilliant afternoon, with thousands within sight and reach, men and women who knew her on every side, and officers of the law thickly strewn in her path.”

Dorothy Arnold photo Baltimore SunDorothy Arnold, society girl member of New York’s Four Hundred and niece of United States Supreme Court Justice Rufus L. Peckham, was last seen at two P.M. on the chilly afternoon of December 12, 1910. She was at that moment twenty-five years old, five-four in height, weight somewhere between 135 and 140, just about right for a fashionable young lady of the time.

Dorothy was not a kick-up-your-heels, madcap type of post-debutante. It is only necessary to look at her wide, placid face to realize that she was inclined to be studious rather than frivolous. Dorothy had been graduated cum laude from Bryn Mawr five years before and still retained the serene manner of the ultra serious collegian.

Her hair done up in a high-pompadour style, was dark brown. Her eyes were a steady blue-gray. On the day of her disappearance she was expensively and modishly dressed, a fact which would make her highly conspicuous in those days when class distinctions in female dress were sharp. The suit she wore was richly tailor-made; a blue-serge coat, cut in at the waist, with a matching tight hobble skirt to the ankles. Her shoes the high button shoes of the era, boasted high heels and stylish tops halfway up her calves.

Dorothy carried with her both a capacious silver fox muff and satin handbag; but by far the most arresting part of her attire was the hat. It was made of black velvet, with two red roses for decoration—a type of hat then called a “Baker,” which today resembles nothing so much as an overturned dishpan. The lining of this outsize chapeau was Alice Blue, the makers name “Genevieve,” and along its under-edge, rimming Dorothy’s healthy, open face, ran a fetching bit of scalloped lace.

Thus attired, Dorothy at eleven a.m. on the morning of December 12 descended the staircase of her family home at 108 East Seventy-ninth Street on the fashionable East Side of Manhattan. At the bottom of these stairs was a hall which newspapermen—who never got any farther inside the Arnold home—had no hesitation in calling magnificently furnished. At the bottom of the stairs Dorothy found her mother waiting. Dorothy now informed Mrs. Arnold that she planned to spend the rest of the day shopping for an evening dress. She would need this for her eighteen-year-old sister Marjorie’s coming-out party, a long-anticipated event to be held five days hence on the night of the seventeenth.

To modern eyes the Arnold household on Seventy-ninth Street would seem a stuffy and confining place. It was sternly presided over by seventy-three-year-old Francis W. Arnold, a chop-whiskered man of business, whose feet remained solidly planted in the Victorian era. Francis W. Arnold proudly traced his family lineage straight back to the Mayflower, and it was his sister who had married Supreme Court Justice Peckham. In addition to two daughters, the majestic Francis Arnold was the father of two sons John W. Arnold, twenty-seven, and D. Hinckley Arnold, twenty. Every member of the family stood high in an old guard New York society noted for its stiff propriety and reticence.

Occasionally however, the curtain of propriety pulled back to animate life within the Arnold home. One such glimpse comes now as Dorothy descended the stairs to find her mother waiting below.

Mrs. Arnold born a Miss Samuels, was widely believed to be a semi-invalid who seldom left the residence on Seventy-ninth Street. Nevertheless, on this day she seemed perfectly willing to go out. To her twenty-five-year-old daughter, about to embark on the project of buying an evening dress, Mrs. Arnold said, “Maybe I’d better go with you.”

It is safe to say that every student of crime who has examined the Dorothy Arnold case has wondered whether Dorothy’s reply to this was a fond one or irritated. For in any display of anger or irritation would be a clue to the girl’s inner feelings about her family. But no one will ever know. Mrs. Arnold, recounting the episode later, only reported that Dorothy had answered, “No, mother, don’t bother. You don’t feel just right and it’s no use going to the trouble. I mightn’t see a thing I want, but if I do, I’ll phone you.”

East 79th Street looking west towards Park Ave. The Arnold home at 108 E 79th would be on the left near where the children are passing by

As she departed from her home that morning Dorothy carried no luggage, though it is conceivable that a nightgown might have been hidden in the depths of her large muff. She had with her about $25 of a monthly allowance of $100. The day before she had withdrawn $36 from the bank to take a girl friend to lunch and a matinee of the current play success, The Garden of Allah. Presumably she carried the remainder of that sum with her as, at her usual pace, she walked along Seventy-ninth Street toward Fifth Avenue. Those who glimpsed her familiar figure from windows recalled that her demeanor this morning was normal, if anything, Dorothy Arnold looked cheerful.

At Fifth Avenue she turned left to go downtown. To all intents and purposes this was the beginning of her last walk on earth, and it is possible to say she made the most of it. December 12 was not an especially good day underfoot. The winter weather was raw, and strips of ice treacherously crisscrossed Fifth Avenue sidewalks. Yet on foot Dorothy traversed the twenty blocks to Fifty-ninth Street. There she paused at the Park & Tilford candy store to purchase a half-pound box of chocolates. The salesgirl recognized her as a familiar customer and without question added the purchase to the Arnold family account.

It was now noon. Dropping the candy into the capacious muff, Dorothy returned to the street for the second lap of her last known walk. This brought her to Twenty-seventh Street thirty-two blocks more, fifty-two in all. But no one, police or family, ever saw anything unusual in the extent of this heroic trek. Dorothy was a girl whose health was flawless. Walking was her only exercise.

No—rather than athletic, Dorothy was artistic. In the elegant prose of the day, a newspaper would list her diversions as “private theatricals, musical soirées, and literary conversaziones.” Of these, literary was by far the prominent one, for in addition to a lively interest in the writings of others, Dorothy was also trying to be a writer herself.

Here again the curtain of propriety enveloping the Arnold household is lifted. Only two months before, home from a vacation at the family summer home in Maine, Dorothy had requested her father’s permission to take an apartment in Greenwich Village, a district which even then had a reputation for stimulating creative effort. The elderly Mr. Arnold had exploded in a fine display of parental wrath. Mastering himself with difficulty he adopted a father-knows-best manner and flatly refused Dorothy permission to leave home. “A good writer can write anywhere,” he pontificated.

As a well behaved society girl of the time, Dorothy did not dare push the matter further. Instead, she followed her father’s advice and over the next few weeks wrote a short story called “Poinsettia Flames.” This she dispatched to McClure’s, the combination New Yorker-Saturday Evening Post of the day.

Then Dorothy made a frightful mistake. She told her family about “Poinsettia Flames” and they all—father, mother, sister, brothers—began teasing her about such literary pretension. In a few days, the dreadful occurred. “Poinsettia Flames” was returned, and in the later words of a news account, “Dorothy now found life a torment among her amused relatives.”

As days passed with the family chaffing continuing unabated, Dorothy took a most unusual step for a cloistered post-deb who might almost be called an heiress. She journeyed alone to the General Post Office at Thirty-fourth Street and rented her own mailbox.

By the afternoon of her disappearance Dorothy had written another short story called “Lotus Leaves.” Whether or not this had also been rejected by McClure’s or another magazine is a question which—if answered—might provide a key to the disappearance. But it has never been answered. All we know that as she walked down Fifth Avenue on the afternoon of December 12, Dorothy appeared more concerned with the works of others than with her own.

Her destination was Brentano’s bookstore at Fifth avenue and Twenty-seventh Street. Here she was shortly observed leafing through books on the new fiction counter. Finally she picked out An Engaged Girl’s Sketches, by Emily Calvin Blake, a series of frothy stories which had appeared in the Ladies Home Journal. Once more she charged the purchase to the Arnold family account, and with the wrapped book under her arm Dorothy Arnold again stepped out on the cold Fifth Avenue sidewalk.

Outside Brentano’s she immediately bumped into someone she knew, a girl named Gladys King, who the day before had received an invitation to Marjorie Amold’s debut. Gladys had her note of acceptance in her muff and she handed it to Dorothy with a joke about postage saved. Dorothy laughed, too, and the girls stood chatting for several minutes. Then Gladys King recalled that she had to meet her mother for lunch—it was now nearly two o’clock and she was late. She hurried away, but on the far corner of Twenty-seventh Street turned to wave back, second good-by to Dorothy.

And no one who knew or recognized Dorothy Arnold ever saw her again!

End of part one.

Part two can be read here.

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