"Love Forever, Louise": The Mystery of Room No. 1046

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock

Ruby Ogletree knew something was wrong when a typewritten letter arrived from her son, Artemus, in the spring of 1935. The teenager didn’t know how to use a typewriter, as far as she knew; all of his previous letters, mailed home to Birmingham, Alabama, and written with the nonchalant cadence of a young man out seeing the country, were in longhand. The tone in the new letter wasn’t quite right, either—whoever wrote it used slang that didn't sound like her son.

Soon, more letters started arriving, always typewritten. One said Artemus was in Chicago attending a business school. One said he was sailing from New York to Europe. Then, in August of that year, a man who said his name was Jordan called Ruby, said he was a friend of her son, and claimed that Artemus had saved his life and was now married to a wealthy woman in Cairo, Egypt. Artemus couldn’t type anymore because he’d lost a thumb in a brawl, the man said. Growing increasingly suspicious, Ruby finally sought help from the cops, the FBI, and the American consulate in Egypt—but no one could locate Artemus.

As it turned out, her son's life had become entangled with one of the 20th century's strangest crimes, one that remains unsolved to this day: the mystery of room 1046.

THE MAN IN THE OVERCOAT

On January 2, 1935, a well-dressed young man checked into the President Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, and signed the register as Roland T. Owen of Los Angeles. A little heavyset, he had the cauliflower ear of a boxer or wrestler and the left side of his head was marred by a large, white, horizontal scar. He carried no luggage.

Owen asked for an interior room (one without a window to the street), and a bellboy took him up to 1046. Later that day, a cleaning woman, Mary Soptic, walked in on a nervous-looking Owen. His shades were drawn—as they would be all three days of his stay—and a single lamp provided the only light source. Shortly after the maid arrived, Owen left; he asked her to leave the door unlocked, as he was expecting a friend. In later statements to police, Soptic said that Owen's actions and facial expressions made it seem like “he was either worried about something or afraid,” and that “he always wanted to kinda keep in the dark.”

A few hours later, Soptic entered the room again to deliver fresh towels. She found Owen lying on his bed, fully dressed. A note on the desk read: “Don, I will be back in fifteen minutes. Wait.”

The next time the maid saw Owen was mid-morning the following day, January 3. His door had been locked from the outside, so she was forced to use her passkey, which opened every door in the hotel. Again, he was alone, sitting in the dark.

As she proceeded to clean the room, Soptic overheard Owen on the phone. “No, Don,” he said, “I don’t want to eat. I am not hungry. I just had breakfast. No. I am not hungry.”

The locked door, darkened room, and nervous inhabitant were all strange enough, but it wasn’t over for Soptic. Later that day, bringing a new set of towels up to the room, she again knocked on the door. She heard two men talking and then was answered by a rough, decidedly non-Owen-sounding voice. When she offered the towels, he told her they didn’t need any.

The next person to interact with Owen was likely Robert Lane, a worker for the Kansas City water department. At around 11 p.m. on January 3, Lane offered a ride to a young man walking along 13th Street, about a mile and a half from the hotel. The man was clad in pants and an undershirt, with no coat, and had a deep scratch on his arm. Something about the way the young man cupped his hands made Lane think he was trying to hide the blood from another, worse wound somewhere else on his body. The young man asked to be dropped somewhere he could pick up a taxi. When Lane inquired about his arm, the young man mumbled, "I’ll kill [him] tomorrow," using an expletive that was redacted by the newspaper reports. He hopped out when they reached the taxi stand, and that was the last Lane saw of him.

Witness reports would later place Owen with two women in several bars along Twelfth Street earlier that afternoon. At the time, he was again wearing an overcoat. What he did to receive the slash on his arm, no one would ever find out.

"TURN ON THE LIGHTS"

As Thursday night broke into the wee hours of Friday morning, January 4, a guest in room 1048 heard arguing—what sounded like both male and female voices—in room 1046. Shortly after that, the telephone operator noticed that the phone in 1046 had been off the hook for a while and sent a bellboy up. When he knocked on the door, a deep voice told him to come in—but the door was locked. The bellboy told the guest this, but the man inside the room didn't address it, instead saying, “Turn on the lights.” The bellboy knocked for several more minutes, to no avail; before he left, he shouted through the door, “Put the phone back on the hook!”

At 8:30 a.m., the phone in 1046 was still off the hook, so another bellboy went to the room. When his knocks received no response, he let himself in with his passkey and noticed Owen, naked in his bed, in sheets stained with dark marks. Figuring that the guest was passed-out drunk, the bellboy put the phone on the stand and left.

But drunkenness wasn't the issue, as the next bellboy who went up to deal with the situation would discover. "[W]hen I entered the room this man was within two feet of the door on his knees and elbows—holding his head in his hands," the bellboy would later tell police. "I noticed blood on his head." He turned the light on, placed the phone on the hook, and took a look around: "[I] saw blood on the walls on the bed and in the bath room ..." Frightened, he fled downstairs, telling a manager what he'd seen.

Detectives were quickly summoned. They discovered that Owen was tied around his neck, ankles, and wrists, and had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest. One of the knife thrusts had punctured his lung, and his skull was fractured from repeated blows to the right side.

A detective asked Owen who had been in the room with him. Though drifting into unconsciousness, Owen had a chance to finger his assailants, to earn a measure of justice for himself. Nevertheless, he answered: “Nobody.”

How did you get hurt?, the detective asked.

“I fell against the bathtub.”

Did you try to commit suicide?, the detective asked.

“No.”

Owen then slipped into a coma. He died at the hospital in the early morning hours of January 5, 1935.

WHO'S DON?

It was as befuddling a case as the Kansas City police department had ever encountered. Whoever had assaulted Owen had stripped him and his hotel room almost bare. No towels, no shampoo, no clothing. All detectives found were a necktie label, a hairpin, an unlit cigarette, a safety pin, and a small unopened bottle of diluted sulfuric acid. A broken water glass with a jagged edge was in the sink. The only prints found were lifted from the telephone stand, which police surmised belonged to a woman.

The bigger mystery was just who "Roland T. Owen" was. While several people could identify his body, they all knew him by different names. It turned out he’d stayed in more than one hotel prior to the President: The staff at the nearby Muehlebach Hotel knew him as single-night guest Eugene K. Scott of Los Angeles, who also preferred an interior room. He’d also stayed at the St. Regis Hotel in town, this time as Duncan Ogletree, and shared a room with a man who went by Donald Kelso. Then there was the wrestling promoter who said Owen approached him about signing up for some matches weeks earlier, under the name Cecil Werner of Omaha. As it turns out, in his own anonymous way, Owen had touched the lives of many people—yet he remained a mystery.

Police and the media put out calls to the public to help identify the battered young man with the unusual scar. Hundreds came to view him, but no one could claim him as their own.

The other shadowy figures—"Don" and the woman who may have left her prints behind—could not be located, nor could police figure out exactly how they fit into the crime. Was it a love triangle gone sour? And why had Owen refused to name his attacker(s)? Was it love, fear, loyalty, or the traumatic brain injury?

The mystery only deepened in March, when police announced they’d be burying Owen in a potter’s field. But before the burial could take place, an anonymous male donor called the funeral home and said he would send the funds to cover the young man’s funeral and burial in Kansas City's Memorial Park Cemetery. By some accounts, the man also explained that Owen had jilted a woman the man knew, and that the three of them had met at the hotel about it. “Cheaters usually get what’s coming to them,” the man said, and then hung up.

The cash arrived wrapped in a newspaper, and Owen was buried in a ceremony attended only by police detectives. An anonymous order was also placed with a local florist for 13 American Beauty roses to be laid on his grave, with a card that read, “Love forever—Louise.”

Around the time of the funeral, there was another puzzling phone call, this time to a local paper. A woman—who refused to identify herself—called to chastise an editor for reporting that Owen was to be buried in a pauper’s grave. (It's not exactly clear when the call occurred, but the paper had apparently not covered the subsequent burial at Memorial Park Cemetery.) “You have a story in your paper that is wrong . . . Roland Owen will not be buried in a pauper’s grave. Arrangements have been made for his funeral," the woman announced. When the editor pushed back and asked what had happened to Owen in the hotel room, the woman answered, “He got into a jam.”

ARTEMUS REVEALED

Shot of the exterior of the President Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri
The President Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri

In the fall of 1936, nearly two years after the murder, a friend of Ruby's showed her a copy of the May 1935 issue of The American Weekly, a now-defunct Hearst Sunday supplement. Inside, under the splashy headline “The Mystery of Room No. 1046,” lay Artemus in repose. His body was shown in profile, and there was no mistaking that scar on his head. He’d been burned as a child, she would later explain, and the mark of his injury had followed him into young adulthood.

But if the article was correct, and the boy in the photo was her son, he had been dead long before she started receiving those typewritten letters—and the phone calls from “Jordan.”

Letters and photos that Ruby subsequently sent to the Kansas City Police Department confirmed Owen’s identity as Artemus Ogletree, and in early November 1936, newspapers around the country printed Owen’s real name.

That was the last break in the case of Room 1046. In the decades since, many have tried to unearth new details or float new theories. Was "Don" the benefactor? Was he the murderer as well? Was Louise a jilted lover, somehow connected to Don, or both? Theories have abounded, but to date no one has puzzled out just why it was that Owen met his death that night, or at whose hand.

One promising lead surfaced in 1937 when a man who went by the alias "Joseph Ogden" (he refused to provide his real name) was arrested for the murder of his roommate. One of Ogden’s other known aliases was Donald Kelso, and his appearance was similar to the description of the Donald Kelso who’d stayed at the St. Regis with Ogletree. But the connection was never pursued.

And what about the mysterious “Jordan?” Could he have been Donald Kelso (a.k.a. Joseph Ogden), determined to keep the Ogletree family and the KCPD off his tail? If so, his actions had only succeeded in making them suspicious.

As of today, the secrets of the last days of Artemus Ogletree, a.k.a. Roland T. Owen, a.k.a. Eugene K. Scott, a.k.a. Duncan Ogletree, a.k.a. Cecil Werner, remain locked away in the lives of victim and perpetrator—or perpetrators. And by the look of it, they’ll continue to bedevil us for decades more to come.

Additional Sources: John Arthur Horner, "The Mystery of Room 1046, pt. 1: Roland T. Owen" and "The Mystery of Room 1046, pt. 2: Love Forever, Louise."

Take a 40-Minute Virtual Tour of the Winchester Mystery House

BrookePierce, iStock via Getty Images
BrookePierce, iStock via Getty Images

Taking online yoga classes and watching soothing animal live-streams isn't the only way to cope with isolation. If taking a virtual tour of one of the most allegedly haunted places on Earth is more your style, now you can check out every baffling nook and cranny of the Winchester Mystery House on the landmark's website.

Along with many public businesses and institutions across the country, the Winchester Mystery House closed earlier in March in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. A visit to the site in person normally costs up to $54, but until it reopens, anyone can take a virtual tour of the estate for free.

The Winchester Mystery House is one of the most notorious pieces of property in California's Bay Area. Constructed between 1886 and 1922, legend says Sarah Winchester built the unusual abode to ward off the vengeful spirits of people killed by Winchester rifles. (The founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was her father-in-law.) The home's bizarre layout, which includes stairs that stop at the ceiling and doors that open to nothing, may reflect her fear-driven compulsion to keep building.

Today the Winchester Mystery House is an iconic California landmark. It's a bucket-list destination for ghost hunters, and it's even been immortalized as an elaborate LEGO sculpture. To see the inside of the structure, and to learn more about its history, you can take the 40-minute virtual tour here. If you're looking for more ways to support the attraction while it's closed to visitors, consider buying a discounted ticket voucher now to use when the house reopens.

Super Spreader: The Strange Story of Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon, an unwitting typhoid carrier and unwilling hospital patient, in the early 1900s.
Mary Mallon, an unwitting typhoid carrier and unwilling hospital patient, in the early 1900s.
CBS Sunday Morning, YouTube

In the winter of 1906, Mrs. George Thompson called upon Dr. George Soper, known around New York as an “epidemic fighter,” to investigate the source of a typhoid outbreak that had occurred among renters in her Oyster Bay summer home several months prior.

After finding no issue with the well, the outhouse, the food supplies, or any other part of the property that might have generated germs, Soper considered the possibility that the carrier could have been a healthy person—an idea that wasn’t widely accepted at the time. By process of elimination, he landed on a likely culprit: the cook, a 37-year-old woman named Mary Mallon.

typhoid mary newspaper article from 1909
An article published in The New York American on June 20, 1909.
Lupo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Mallon, described by the other servants as “not particularly clean,” had arrived at the Thompson home on August 3, 1906. Just weeks later, between August 27 and September 3, six out of the house’s 11 occupants had contracted typhoid fever. Though most of her dishes were hot and prepared at temperatures that would have killed any bacteria, Mallon had served ice cream with fresh peaches one Sunday, which some of the house guests ate with gusto.

Before searching for Mallon herself, Soper followed her trail of employment all the way back to September 1900, unearthing a total of seven households in New York and Maine that had suffered typhoid outbreaks during Mallon’s tenure.

“In nearly every instance, a well-to-do and socially prominent family, soon after moving from the city to the country for the summer, experienced an outbreak of typhoid fever. In no instance had its cause been satisfactorily explained,” Soper recounted in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. "The cook always left soon afterward. She had never been suspected."

Soper decided it was time to track Mallon down.

A Mean, Unclean Quarantine Queen

In early 1907, Soper paid Mallon a visit in Manhattan, in an old-fashioned house on Park Avenue and 60th Street where she was working, once again, as a cook.

“I was as diplomatic as possible, but I had to say I suspected her of making people sick and that I wanted specimens of her urine, feces, and blood,” Soper wrote.

Mallon seized a carving fork and chased Soper from the premises.

After another unsuccessful attempt to reason with Mallon, Soper asked New York City’s Department of Health to intervene. So Dr. Sara Josephine Baker came calling at the Park Avenue estate, and Mallon made a run for it, evading capture for three hours before police found her in a neighbor’s shed and deposited her into an ambulance.

“The ride down to the hospital was quite a wild one,” Dr. Baker recalled.

Mallon was taken to an isolation ward at Willard Parker Hospital, and doctors tested her feces three times a week between March 20 and November 16, 1907. Salmonella enterica enterica serovar Typhi, the bacterium that causes typhoid, was found in nearly every sample. Soper visited Mallon at the hospital to explain why she had been confined for so long (and also to determine the possibility of securing her release).

“When you go to the toilet, the germs which grow within your body get upon your fingers, and when you handle food in cooking they get on the food. People who eat this food swallow the germs and get sick,” he told her. “If you would wash your hands after leaving the toilet and before cooking, there might be no trouble. You don’t keep your hands clean enough.”

Mallon, frustrated and lonely, wasn’t very receptive to his advice, and refused to give doctors permission to remove her gallbladder, which they suspected was the source of the germs. There’s a good chance that this was true, since recent scientific studies have shown that many asymptomatic typhoid carriers store typhoid bacteria in their gallbladders. When their gallbladders empty bile into their small intestines, some of the bacteria goes with it, and then gets excreted in their stool.

“No knife will be put upon me,” Mallon told the doctors who requested to remove it. “I’ve nothing the matter with my gallbladder.”

typhoid mary cartoon
An illustration of unknown origin showing how Typhoid Mary spread bacteria through food.
National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Soon after that meeting, Mallon was relocated to a bungalow near Riverside Hospital on New York's North Brother Island. Her quarters, originally built for the superintendent of nurses, were more spacious and more comfortable, but Mallon was still treated like a dangerous outcast, isolated from the rest of the island’s inhabitants.

Two years after her arrest on Park Avenue, Mallon sued the Department of Health, claiming that she had been imprisoned without due process of law—in fact, she hadn’t even been accused of a crime. Dr. William H. Park, the bacteriologist who had tested Mallon’s feces, took the stand to explain how Mallon—though seemingly healthy herself—was an asymptomatic typhoid carrier. Both sides presented compelling arguments, but the court simply didn’t want the responsibility of determining whether Mallon was fit to rejoin society.

They dismissed the case altogether, and a defeated Mallon returned to North Brother Island.

Life As a Culinary Renegade

In February 1910, Riverside Hospital finally decided to release Mallon on the condition that she promise not to work as a cook and “take such hygienic precautions as will protect those with whom she comes in contact, from infection.” She agreed to the terms and left the island.

What she didn’t do was keep her word. For the next five years, Mallon flitted from kitchen to kitchen in the area, introducing herself as “Marie Breshof” or “Mrs. Brown.” She cooked in a restaurant on Broadway, a hotel in Southampton, an inn in Huntington, and a sanatorium in New Jersey. Typhoid followed Mallon wherever she went, but she never stayed in one place long enough to rouse suspicion.

That is, until 1915, when Dr. Edward B. Cragin solicited Soper’s help in detecting the cause of a typhoid outbreak at New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women. More than 20 people had fallen ill, and the other servants had taken to calling the cook “Typhoid Mary”—a sobriquet that newspapers had used for Mallon during her solitary confinement.

After Soper positively identified the woman he knew to be Mary Mallon, the hospital alerted the Department of Health, and Mallon was whisked right back to North Brother Island. This time, she didn’t resist.

The Lonely Legacy of America’s Most Famous Asymptomatic Carrier

Mallon lived out her remaining 23 years in the lonely riverbank bungalow, processing tests in the hospital laboratory and making occasional sojourns to Queens to visit a family she was friendly with. According to Soper, “they were not particularly glad to see her.” She suffered a stroke in 1932, and passed away at age 69 on November 11, 1938. Only nine people attended her funeral at St. Luke’s Catholic Church in the Bronx.

In total, Mallon was officially responsible for infecting 53 people with typhoid—three of whom died—though there were likely many more that went unreported. While her commitment to good hygiene may have been lacking, the fact that she was so often treated like a pariah no doubt exacerbated her unwillingness to cooperate with doctors and other health officials. For many, including Mallon herself, it was simply difficult to believe that a perfectly healthy person who had never even been afflicted with a terrifying disease could somehow pass it on to dozens of others.

“It was to be Mary Mallon’s fate to clear away much of the mystery which surrounded the transmission of typhoid fever and to call attention to the fact that it was often persons rather than things who offered the proper explanation when the disease occurred in endemic, sporadic and epidemic form,” Soper wrote.

Mallon, however begrudgingly, charted a new path for scientists studying communicable diseases—and taught the rest of us just how important it is to wash our hands.

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