Podcast Episode 167: A Manhattan Murder Mystery


In May 1920, wealthy womanizer Joseph Elwell was found shot to death alone in his locked house in upper Manhattan. The police identified hundreds of people who might have wanted Elwell dead, but they couldn’t quite pin the crime on any of them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the sensational murder that the Chicago Tribune called “one of the toughest mysteries of all times.”

We’ll also learn a new use for scuba gear and puzzle over a sympathetic vandal.


The Dodgers, Yankees, and Giants played a three-way baseball game in 1944.

Avon, Colorado, has a bridge called Bob.

joseph elwell

Sources for our feature on Joseph Elwell:

Jonathan Goodman, The Slaying of Joseph Bowne Elwell, 1987.

Joseph Bowne Elwell, Bridge, Its Principles and Rules of Play, 1903

“J.B. Elwell, Whist Expert and Race Horse Owner, Slain,” New York Times, June 12, 1920, 1.

“Seek Young Woman in Elwell Mystery,” New York Times, June 13, 1920, 14.

“Scour City Garages for Elwell Clue,” New York Times, June 14, 1920, 1.

“‘Woman in Black’ at the Ritz Enters Elwell Mystery,” New York Times, June 16, 1920, 1.

“Two Men and Women Hunted in New Trail for Slayer of Elwell,” New York Tribune, June 16, 1920, 1.

“Housekeeper Admits Shielding Woman by Hiding Garments in Elwell Home,” New York Times, June 17, 1920, 1.

“Mrs. Elwell Bares Divorce Project,” New York Times, June 17, 1920, 1.

“Swann Baffled at Every Turn in Elwell Mystery,” New York Times, June 19, 1920, 1.

“‘Mystery Girl in Elwell Case Is Found,” Washington Times, June 19, 1920, 1.

“Elwell, Discarding Palm Beach Woman, Revealed Threats,” New York Times, June 20, 1920, 1.

“Elwell, the Man of Many Masks,” New York Times, June 20, 1920, 12.

“Elwell Traced to Home at 2:30 on Day of Murder,” New York Times, June 21, 1920, 1.

“‘Unwritten Law’ Avenger Sought in Elwell Case,” New York Times, June 22, 1920, 1.

“Think Assassin Hid for Hours in Elwell Home,” New York Times, June 23, 1920, 1.

“Admits Breakfasting With Von Schlegell,” New York Times, June 23, 1920, 3.

“Officials Baffled by Contradictions Over Elwell Calls,” New York Times, June 24, 1920, 1.

“Housekeeper Gives New Elwell Facts,” New York Times, June 25, 1920, 1.

“Pendleton, Amazed Awaiting Inquiry in Elwell Case,” New York Times, June 28, 1920, 1.

“‘Bootlegger’ Clue in Elwell Case Bared by Check,” New York Times, June 29, 1920, 1.

“Elwell Rum Ring Bared by Shevlin,” New York Times, July 2, 1920, 14.

“Viola Kraus Again on Elwell Grill,” New York Times, July 3, 1920, 14.

“The People and Their Daily Troubles,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1920: II2.

“Says Witness Lied in Elwell Inquiry,” New York Times, July 7, 1920, 11.

“Whisky Is Seized in Elwell Mystery,” New York Times, July 10, 1920, 10.

“New Elwell Clue Found by Police,” New York Times, July 11, 1920, 16.

“‘Beatrice,’ New Witness Sought in Elwell Case,” New York Tribune, July 11, 1920, 6.

“Says He Murdered Elwell,” New York Times, July 14, 1920, 17.

“Quiz Figueroa Again in Elwell Mystery,” New York Times, July 17, 1920, 14.

“Chauffeur Quizzed in Elwell Mystery,” New York Times, July 20, 1920, 8.

“Elwell Evidence Put Up to Whitman,” New York Times, April 2, 1921, 11.

“Confesses Murder of Elwell and Says Woman Paid for It,” New York Times, April 7, 1921, 1.

“Admits Elwell Murder,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1921, I1.

“Confessed Elwell Slayer Identifies Woman Employer,” New York Times, April 8, 1921, 1.

“Confessed Slayer of Elwell Is Sane, Alienist Declares,” New York Times, April 9, 1921, 1.

“Harris Admits His Elwell Murder Tale Was All a Lie,” New York Times, April 11, 1921, 1.

“Elwell and Keenan Slayers Are Known,” Fort Wayne [Ind.] Sentinel, Oct. 17, 1923, 1.

“Elwell’s Slayer Known to Police,” New York Times, Oct. 21, 1923, E4.

“Fifth Anniversary of the Elwell Murder Finds It Listed as the Perfect Mystery,” New York Times, June 12, 1925, 21.

“Elwell Cut Off,” New York Times, April 12, 1927, 19.

“Murder of Elwell Recalled in Suicide,” New York Times, Oct. 15, 1927, 21.

“Joseph Elwell Murder in 1920 Still Mystery,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 21, 1955.

David J. Krajicek, “Who Would Want to Kill Joe Elwell?” New York Daily News, Feb. 13, 2011.

Douglas J. Lanska, “Optograms and Criminology: Science, News Reporting, and Fanciful Novels,” in Anne Stiles et al., Literature, Neurology, and Neuroscience: Historical and Literary Connections, 2013.

Kirk Curnutt, “The Gatsby Murder Case,” in Alfred Bendixen and Olivia Carr Edenfield, eds., The Centrality of Crime Fiction in American Literary Culture, 2017.

Listener mail:

Paul Rubin, “Burning Man: An Attorney Says He Escaped His Blazing Home Using Scuba Gear; Now He’s Charged with Arson,” Phoenix New Times, Aug. 27, 2009.

Michael Walsh, “Autopsy Shows Michael Marin, Arizona Man Who Was Former Wall Street Trader, Killed Self With Cyanide After Hearing Guilty Verdict,” New York Daily News, July 27, 2012.

“Michael Marin Update: Canister Labeled ‘Cyanide’ Found in Arsonist’s Vehicle, Investigators Say,” CBS News/Associated Press, July 12, 2012.

Ed Lavandera, “Ex-Banker’s Courtroom Death an Apparent Suicide,” CNN, July 11, 2012.

At the guilty verduct, Marin put his hands to his mouth, apparently swallowed something, and collapsed in court:

Alex Papadimoulis, “Suzanne the 1000th Malone,” The Daily WTF, Jan. 15, 2008.

Lexico, “What Are the Plurals of ‘Octopus’, ‘Hippopotamus’, ‘Syllabus’?”

“Octopus,” “Ask the Editor,” Merriam-Webster.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Oliver Bayley. Here are some corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

Please visit Littleton Coin Company to sell your coins and currency, or call them toll free 1-877-857-7850.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!