The Elite Disappearance of Dorothy Arnold
This article is a transcript of Campfire Stories: Astonishing History podcast Episode 9. You can listen to it on Buzzsprout, or wherever you get your podcasts.
**This article contains sensitive content (CW: violence, death, discussion of pregnancy/abortion). Reader discretion is advised.**
It seemed to be a regular winter day when heiress Dorothy Arnold left home for a shopping trip. She was just going to buy a new dress. She was well-known, walking on packed New York City streets, wearing especially eye-catching clothing. Nothing seemed to be dangerous about it, and she assured her family she would be back in time for dinner. And then Dorothy vanished. What happened to her? Did she go missing by choice, escaping to a new life across the country or even across the Atlantic? Was she snatched off the street by a stranger? Did she perish in an underground medical procedure gone wrong? Whatever the truth really was, the case of Dorothy Arnold gripped international attention from the moment it was announced that she was gone.
Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold was born on July 1st, 1885. Her father Francis Arnold was a Harvard graduate who ran F.R. Arnold and Co. which imported perfume and cologne, and her mother was named Marty Martha Parks Samuels Arnold. Dorothy was the middle child, with one brother a year older than her, John, and two younger siblings, Dan and Marjorie. Dorothy’s aunt Harriette Maria Arnold was married to a Supreme Court justice, and her father’s side of the family were descendants of the Mayflower passenger William Brewster. The family was listed in the Social Register, which was a publication listing important high society people and lived on 79th street, in Manhattan. A newspaper described that,
“The Arnold family was presided over by a chop-whiskered Francis R. Arnold, a 73-year-old businessman, and it ranked high in New York society, then noted for its propriety and unbending reticence.”
Dorothy attended a private high school, Veltin School for Girls, which specialized in preparing students for women’s colleges. She then attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, majoring in literature and language and then returned home with the intention of becoming a writer, or what they used to call an “authoress” when she graduated in 1905. Dorothy was described as an “unusually cheerful girl… very popular in New York society.” and another paper later said,
“One had simply to look at her wide, placid lace to realize that she was more studious than frivolous. She… retained the serene, slightly lofty demeanor of the ultraserious female collegian. A quiet-looking, sturdy girl with a healthy complexion, she had brown hair done up in a high pompadour, and steady, blue-gray eyes.”
One also said that she, was “at the summit of her youth, rich, especially preferred, blessed with prospects, and to the outer eye completely happy,” which, as we’ll get into, may not have been completely true.
The Lead Up
So Dorothy came home from school, ambitious, well-off, and educated, ready to start writing. She spent five years living with her family, honing her craft, and enjoying the fine New York City upper crust social circles. She submitted her first short story for publication in the spring of 1910 to a literary magazine called McClure’s, but she was rejected. Because she lived at home, her family found the rejection letter and teased her, as one paper said, “This naturally led to Good-natured gibing by her family”, which is a description that I don’t know if Dorothy would agree with.
She rented a post box for future mail related to her work. Later that year, she submitted a second story called “The Poinsettia and the Flame”” to the same magazine, but it was also rejected. According to her friends, Dorothy was deeply embarrassed and upset over this rejection, made worse by her brothers, sister, and parents teasing her about it. Two months before she disappeared, Dorothy asked her father if she could have her own apartment as a space to write in solitude but he refused, telling her, “a good writer can write anywhere”. And I hate to tell you, but Francis Arnold remains exactly this charming for the rest of the story.
During the week of Thanksgiving, Dorothy went on a trip to Washington to stay with her friend from college, Theodora Bates, maybe to clear her mind from her writing funk. She arrived on Wednesday night, and on Thursday she was staying in bed early in the day when a bulky package was delivered to the house, addressed to Dorothy. This was odd, as it was a major holiday and there was no mail supposed to be delivered, and Theodora insisted that the package was stamped from the post office and not any other delivery service. Theodora later said that she thought the package was Dorothy’s second rejected manuscript of “Lotus Leaves”. Theodora dropped it off and Dorothy didn’t open it right away.
On Friday, Dorothy surprised her host and told her that she was leaving. Theodora asked her why, as she was supposed to stay until Monday, but reportedly Dorothy said she had always planned to leave on Friday. Her mother was also shocked to see her back early, but Dorothy maintained that had been the plan the whole time.
The next day, Dorothy picked up several letters from the post office with foreign stamps, likely from her boyfriend who was on vacation in Italy, and who I’ll tell you more about soon. She wrote back to him in a letter that a paper later described (totally not condescendingly) as “mostly a girlish, gossipy epistle but in which appeared this significant paragraph”. The paragraph they were referring to said,
“Well, it has come back. McClure’s has turned me down. All I can see ahead is a long road with no turning. Mother will always think an accident has happened.”
What accident Dorothy was referring to, or if this letter was a sign of a dark plan, we may never know.
The Day of the Disappearance
At 11 a.m. on December 12 , 1910, Arnold left for the day to go shopping. She told her mother, Mary, that she was looking for a new dress to wear to her sister Marjorie’s debutante party, which was basically a fancy introduction for girls to formally become part of high-society and be seen as grown women, ready to be married. Mary offered to go shopping with her, despite the fact that Mary was known to not leave the house very much, but Dorothy said no and told her that she would call if she found a dress she liked.
She had about $25–30 with her at the time, and Dorothy was dressed extremely well in what was described as a “tailor-made blue serge suit, a long blue coat, lapis lazuli earrings, and a small black velvet hat lined in pale Alice blue and decorated with with two silk roses and a lapis lazuli pin.” This was definitely a get-up that would draw attention, although if that day she drew some negative attention, there’s no way to know.
It was a cold and icy day and Dorothy walked over twenty blocks, but this was apparently not unusual for her. Her first stop was Park & Tilford corner store, where she bought half a pound of chocolates, charged to her family account. Then she popped into Brenato’s bookstore, where she bought a book of essays called Engaged Girl Sketches. Later, the cashiers from both stores said she showed no sign of strange behavior.
Outside, she ran into a friend, Gladys King. They discussed the upcoming party and King actually gave her RSVP to Dorothy. King later said that Dorothy had seemed “in good spirits”. Dorothy told her that she was planning on walking home through Central Park, and King left to go meet her mother for lunch. This happened around 2 p.m. It was the last time Dorothy Arnold was ever seen for sure.
As one newspaper said,
“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 about her path.”
When she didn’t return home in time for dinner, her family started to become concerned. Dorothy was never late without calling ahead. Her family called several of her friends to see if she was with them, but none of them had heard from her. After midnight, Dorothy’s friend Elsie Henry called to ask if she was available. Mary Arnold lied to Henry and said that Dorothy was home, but she had gone to bed with a headache.
You would assume the next step would be to contact the authorities. For any crime, but especially a missing person, time is of the essence!
However, Dorothy’s father Francis didn’t want to draw any public attention. The morning after Dorothy was last seen, the family called a lawyer who was friend’s with their son John, who was also named John, John Keith.
Keith came over and searched Dorothy’s bedroom. Nothing was missing except the clothes she was wearing. But several discoveries did raise some eyebrows. There were letters with international postmarks and folders full of papers about transatlantic ships in Dorothy’s desk. Papers had been recently burned in the fireplace, which many have speculated were her rejected manuscripts.
Then, as one paper described,
“Keith, turned private detective, spent days in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia walking down lanes of hospital beds, examining nameless corpses, and peering at young females languishing in jail.”
None of them were Dorothy.
Keith suggested that the Arnolds hire the Pinkerton detective agency, which the family did. These were no amateur I-just-bought-binoculars-and-think-I’m-Nancy-Drew kind of sleuths. The Pinkertons were a famous national agency that had once stopped an assassination attempt of Abraham Lincoln.
The Pinkertons began to question Dorothy’s friends and former classmates, but no one had any ideas about what could have happened. Pinkerton believed that it was possible Dorothy had eloped to Europe based off of the travel information found in her room. But there were no marriage records found with her name and international Pinkerton agents stationed in Europe who checked passengers coming off of New York ships did not find her.
On Jan 30th in Boston, a woman was found well-dressed with a valuable ring and $95.11 stuffed in her stocking, confused with memory loss, and passed out. The police were notified that it could be Dorothy, but it turned out to be a false alarm. I hope whoever that was ended up ok.
The Pinkertons sent out flyers to police departments across the country with a description of Dorothy and an offer of a $1,000 reward, equivalent of over $28,000 today. Even though the NYPD was likely mailed a flyer, they did not investigate until the Arnolds asked them to. Six weeks after she disappeared. Francis Arnold went with John Keith and the Pinkerton detectives to speak with Deputy Police Commissioner William Flynn (who later became the chief of the Secret Service). Flynn told Francis Arnold that they should have a press conference immediately. They fought for two days about this.
It wasn’t until late January, 1911 when he finally filed a report with the NYPD after pressure from Keith and the Pinkertons. The police suggested a press conference to raise public awareness of the disappearance, which Francis initially resisted but eventually agreed to. He offered $1,000 or today’s equivalent of about $27,500 today in exchange for information.
Dorothy’s family stated,
“We are in perfect harmony and working with one object- to find Dorothy if she is alive or dead. No one is more anxious than we are to clear up the mystery.”
Dorothy’s mother said that she “could not believe the home-loving girl would have left so abruptly voluntarily, and she tried not to contemplate other possibilities.” A reporter also asked Francis if Dorothy may have ran away with a man because he reportedly forbade her from dating. He replied,
“I would have been glad to see her associate more with young men than she did, especially some young men of brains and position: one whose profession or business would keep him occupied. I don’t approve of young men who have nothing to do.”
You might be thinking, “Hey Francis. That seems like a hyper-specific statement that feels like you may have a certain person in mind.” And that’s because he did. It was a man that Dorothy had met while at school at Bryn Mawr, George Griscom Jr. He was seventeen years older than the twenty-five-year old Dorothy.
One article described him not so nicely as follows:
“He was hardly the type to sweep a girl off her feet, or rescue her from a stifling existence. Instead, he seemed desperately in need of rescuing himself. He was George C. Griscom, Jr., a plump, sideburned forty-two-year-old who lived with his elderly parents in Pittsburgh, and summered at Nantucket. Griscom urged all whom he met to call him “Junior.” When his parents traveled, he invariably accompanied them. One report said his doting mother still bought all his shirts and ties.”
So…. yeah. He didn’t make a super great impression on Dorothy’s parents or apparently the fine folks at American Heritage Magazine.
Reporters found out that in September of 1910, Dorothy had told her parents she was visiting a classmate in Cambridge, but actually spent a week in Boston with Griscom at a hotel. They only found out because she pawned $500 of jewelry for $60 to afford it and the pawnbroker leaked the information. Although to be fair, she didn’t try very hard to hide it, as they were seen in public together and she used her real name and address at both the hotel and the pawn shop. Her parents forbid her from seeing him again, enraged over the pawned jewels and the lying, but she continued writing letters to him. Dorothy and Griscom met up one more time in November and then Junior left for a family vacation to Florence, Italy.
On December 16th, before contacting the police, John Keith sent Griscom a telegram that read:
“DOROTHY ARNOLD MISSING. FAMILY PROSTRATED. CABLE GARVARMCOM IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING OF HER WHEREABOUTS.”
Hotel guests said that Griscom seemed “agitated” when he received the message. Some even claimed that he said “Arnold is making serious trouble.” He sent back a telegram that said,
“KNOW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. JUNIOR.”
Also in early January before contacting the police, Dorothy’s mother and brother John went to Italy to have a little chat with Griscom. On January 16th, they met at the Anglo-American Hotel. Griscom still said he had no idea what happened to her, but the Arnolds seemed unconvinced. The Arnolds demanded the letters he had from Dorothy, and her brother reportedly “knocked Griscom down” to get them, but he later told reporters they had no useful information and the family destroyed them. When John arrived back in New York, he was furious to find out that his father had contacted the press without telling him, and he unconvincingly tried to convince the crowd that he had just been on a business trip.
The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed a hotel clerk from where the Griscoms were staying, who said that a woman wearing a veil had an “earnest talk” with Griscom and had been “greatly agitated”. Many believed that this could be Dorothy.
Griscom came back to America in February and told reporters that he was going to marry Dorothy when she was found and when her mother finally approved. Her mother said she would never approve, but this didn’t stop Griscom from paying for thousands of dollars in newspaper ads calling for Dorothy to come home for months. Was he trying to draw attention away from himself as a suspect? Or was he genuinely worried and heartbroken? It’s hard to tell.
Through the rest of January, the NYPD said they believed Dorothy would come home on her own, but her family started to change their narrative. Francis told reporters his theory:
“Assuming that she walked up home through Central Park, she could have taken the lonely walk … along the reservoir. There, because of the laxity of police supervision over the park, I believe it quite possible that she might have been murdered by garroters, and her body thrown into the lake or the reservoir. [Such] atrocious things do happen, though there seems to be no justification for them.”
He said he had two clues to support this theory that he conveniently wouldn’t reveal. Authorities searched the park and couldn’t find any sign of Dorothy. At the time of her disappearance, the reservoir had been fully frozen. When it thawed, thousands of onlookers gathered to watch as it was dredged and hooks were dragged through water but no body was found.
The idea that she had been abducted by a stranger on her walk was unlikely because she was in a busy area in the middle of the day. And of course she was a well-known person whose disappearance raised major suspicion. Other than ransom, there didn’t seem to be any motive for that.
After the press conference, NYPD handed out flyers with Dorothy’s photo, description, and reward information across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. News, particularly The New York Times, covered the investigation for weeks. The massive publicity that this generated led to a number of tips.
Multiple calls came in from people who claimed to have seen Dorothy across the U.S. but none of them panned out after investigation. Dorothy’s family was mailed two different ransom notes demanding thousands of dollars for her safe return, but both were considered hoaxes.
In February, the Arnold’s received a postcard from New York City in Dorothy’s handwriting and signed with her name and a message that said “I am safe”. However, her family eventually came to believe that the handwriting had been copied from a sample in the newspaper and was not really from her. Also in February, a jeweler in San Francisco came forward and said that a woman came into his shop on January 7th that he believed was Dorothy. The woman asked for a wedding ring engraved with the message, “To A.J.A. from E.R.B., December 10, 1910”. Of course, these were not Dorothy and Griscom’s initials, but it still caused plenty of speculation that Dorothy had escaped to the west coast and started a new life.
There was another letter from California, this time from Los Angeles, that claimed Dorothy was living under the name “Ella Nevins” out there. It claimed that Francis Arnold was secretly sending her money to live off of. When the press asked Francis about this, he denied it and said “This story is all tommy rot.” The woman going by “Ella” said,
“If you do not believe I am Dorothy Arnold, ask my sister Marjorie. She will know why my father does not answer my letters.”
On February 22nd, Griscom received a letter at the Chalfonte hotel where he was staying. A paper said,
“The message Griscom got is said to have told the whereabouts of Miss Arnold. If she did not actually send it herself, then the understanding here is it was sent by a close friend who has known the secret of Miss Arnold’s disappearance. This young woman presumably is the Washington girl who was Miss Arnold’s chum at Bryn Mawr…. It is fully expected that within a few days he will leave Atlantic city to join the vanished heiress.”
The Washington girl mentioned is referring to Theodora Bates, the classmate Dorothy had gone to stay with at Thanksgiving. But Griscom never left to go join Dorothy somewhere and nothing else came of this story.
By the end of February, the NYPD announced that they were no longer investigating the case and that they now agreed with the family that Dorothy was likely dead. The deputy police commissioner said,
“The girl has now been missing for 75 days and in all that time not a single clue has been found that was worth the name… We have no evidence that a crime has been committed and the case is now one of a missing person and nothing more”.
Francis told reporters,
“I am firmly convinced my daughter has been killed and I will spend every dollar I have in the world to avenge her death.”
As with all famous disappearances, there are plenty of theories on what happened to Dorothy. Some people believed the very Hollywood idea that she had fallen on her walk, hit her head, and was in a hospital somewhere with amnesia. But as I mentioned, the private detectives had searched all nearby hospitals and found no sign of her.
The theory that Dorothy took her own life is often brought up. Griscom believed that Dorothy may have taken her own life because of how upset she was that her writing career wasn’t working out. The letter she had written him after one of her stories was rejected from McClure magazine stuck with him, especially the part that said:
“Failure stares me in the face. All I can see ahead is a long road with no turning. Mother will always think an accident has happened.”
Her family members also considered suicide, but instead of the writing career, they believed the motive was because her relationship with Griscom was being stopped.
One newspaper found out that Griscom’s cousin Andrew had taken his life around the same time by jumping off an ocean liner because his family had forbidden him from marrying an English governess because of her lower class. The public speculated that this may have influenced Dorothy to also board a ship and do the same, but no passengers were reported missing from steamships that could have matched her description. It was speculated that she may have jumped from an overnight steamboat in Fall River, which many people did because this kind of ship didn’t keep passenger lists.
Another theory was that Dorothy had gotten pregnant and died from a failed abortion. All abortion was illegal in the United States at the time and had been since 1880, (until 1973), but thousands of secret procedures were conducted every year, often resulting in the woman dying. Some fellow armchair detectives have considered the idea that information about illegal services and money could have been inside the package that Dorothy received in D.C. while staying with Theodora Bates.
This theory got a lot more interesting in April of 1916, when an illegal abortion clinic in the basement of a house in Bellevue, Pennsylvania was raided by police. The clinic was run by a doctor named C.C. Meredith, who was arrested at the scene with a nurse, Lucy Orr. An operating table and two furnaces were discovered in the basement. Women from the area often went missing after visiting the so-called clinic and earned it the nickname “The House of Mystery”, which is generally not the vibe you want from a place providing you medical care.
Another doctor from the clinic named H.E. Lutz was arrested later. He told the New York District Attorney that Dr. Meredith had told him that a “well-known woman from New York had once been traced to his office but had disappeared from sight”. Lutz took this to mean Dorothy Arnold. Lutz said that several women who died there were secretly cremated in the furnaces to hide the deaths from authorities, and that Dorothy suffered this fate. The district attorney believed this story, but Francis Arnold did not, at least publicly, and said it was “ridiculous and absolutely untrue”.
There was another break in the case that gained major attention, also in April of 1916. A man named Edward Glennoris was serving two years in prison in Rhode Island for extorting a clergyman, and he told authorities that he had some information for them that he needed to get off his chest. Glennoris said that in December of 1910, a man he knew as “Little Louie” hired him at a saloon to pick up an unknown woman from a house in New Rochelle and bring her to West Point, New York. In New Rochelle, two men met with them. One was referred to only as “Doc” and the other man was wealthy-looking and matched the general description of Griscom. The men brought out an unconscious woman, who Glennoris and Little Louie drove to New Jersey. Louie told Glennoris that the woman was Dorothy Arnold and Glennoris told authorities she was wearing a specific ring on her left hand which her family confirmed that she owned.
Glennoris said that the next day, Louie called him and told him to come back to New Jersey to “finish the job”, which people generally don’t say about good jobs. People don’t tell you to come over and “finish the job” making cupcakes. When Glennoris and Louie arrived back at the house, the man they called “Doc” said that the woman died during a surgery. Glennoris and Louie allegedly drove Dorothy’s body back to New Rochelle and buried her in a basement. Although this story was full of details, police didn’t find any remains in the basements of homes in the area and Glennoris took back his story in later interviews with police and pretended he had no idea what they were talking about. Francis Arnold said,
“So far it appears on the face of the man’s story, he is talking utter nonsense.”
One last strange detail of the case came in 1921, eleven years after Dorothy went missing. The former head of the New York City Department of Missing Persons Captain John H. Ayers was giving a lecture when he mentioned the Dorothy Arnold case. He said,
“All that I can say is that it has been solved by the department. Dorothy Arnold is no longer listed as a missing person. Her parents, relatives, and friends, who had been led to follow in all directions clues sent in multitudes of letters, suddenly ceased their activity.”
However, the next day, he immediately took it back and said that he had been misunderstood. A lawyer for the Arnold family said,
“Captain Ayers seems to intimate that the mystery of Dorothy Arnold’s disappearance has been solved and that the family for some reason has kept the solution a secret… the whole thing is a damned lie.”
Tips continued to come in about Dorothy Arnold for decades, including a tip in 1935 that she had been spotted on Fifth Avenue, which prompted detectives to search crowds in the area for hours.
Francis Arnold continued to believe (at least publicly) that she had been kidnapped and murdered the day she disappeared, and spent $250,000 on investigation efforts, the equivalent of about 6.5 million dollars today. Francis died in 1922, and stated in his will,
“I have made no provision for my beloved daughter Dorothy H.C. Arnold as I am satisfied that she is not alive.”
Mary Arnold did not agree and believed that Dorothy was still alive. She died in 1928.
One paper summarized the legacy of the case by saying,
“There had been a hue and cry that extended through the world. It was the really great search of the age and one that did much to develop modern newspaper ‘police’ coverage.”
Whether Dorothy died the day she went missing or escaped her overbearing family and failed writing career to start a new life somewhere else, the mystery of her disappearance may never be solved.
Thank you for listening to Campfire Stories: Astonishing History. If you enjoyed this show, please don’t forget to subscribe. If you’re listening on a podcast app, I’d love it if you leave a positive review. If you’re listening on YouTube, I encourage you to like this video and leave a comment with an idea for another episode, your theory of what happened, or anything else you’d like to say. Have a great rest of your day, campers, and I’ll see you back around the campfire soon!