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