The Elite Disappearance of Dorothy Arnold

A newspaper clipping with a photo of Dorothy Arnold and a description that she was prominent in New York society, met disappointment as an authoress, and was last seen shopping on fifth avenue.


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,

An old college building
Bryn Mawr

“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.

A portrait of a woman wearing a fancy early 1900s hat and outfit
Dorothy Arnold

“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

A large square building on a street corner
Where Dorothy was last seen

“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.”

The Search

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.

A logo that says “Pinketon’s National Detective Agency we never sleep” around an open eye
The Pinkerton logo
A sketch of a woman and a diagram of what she was wearing
A newspaper description of Dorothy as she was last seen

“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,


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.

“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.”

A picture of Dorothy and Griscom’s faces next to each other
Dorothy and Griscom in a newspaper clipping


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,


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 Park

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:


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.

“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:

Failed Abortion

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.


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,

“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.




Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Campfire Stories: Astonishing History

Gather round, campers, and let me tell you a story! We cover the best true tales of mysteries, histories, true crime, and real heroes from all over the world.