Franklin Benjamin Gowen
Patrick H. Campbell makes the case that the death of industrialist Franklin Gowen was a murder, not a suicide. His long investigation into this case was detailed in his book Who Killed Franklin Gowen? Copies of that book may be purchased by sending $20 to P.H. Campbell, 82 Bentley Avenue, Jersey City, NJ07304 ($25 in Canada, $30 for any other country).
On June 21, 1877, a group of 10 Irish union activists named the Molly Maguires (Mollies) were executed in Pennsylvania in a mass execution of trade union members and their sympathizers. One of those executed was Alec Campbell, the author’s grand uncle.
These executions were organized by Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad and Coal Company. Gowen sent 10 more union members to the gallows in the two years that followed. All of the Molly Maguires were members of the Workers Benevolent Society (WBA), the miners’ union.
After publishing a book entitled A Molly Maguire Story, which focused on Gowen’s war on the Workers Benevolent Association, I decided to investigate the death of Franklin Gowen, who was found dead in 1889 in a Washington D.C. hotel bedroom with a bullet in his head and a gun by his side. The investigation was published in a book entitled Who Killed Franklin Gowen? The following is an excerpt from this book.
Who Killed Franklin Gowen is an analysis of the death of Franklin Gowen, whose death in a Washington D.C. hotel room in December 1889 was characterized by James Wormley, owner of Wormley’s Hotel where the body was found, as a suicide. Robert Linden, the manager of the Pinkerton Detective Agency who investigated the death of Gowen, agreed with him, and so did Francis Innes Gowen, Franklin’s nephew and business partner. William Patterson, the Washington coroner, who had been out of town when the death was discovered and had not examined the body at the scene of the death, went along with the conclusion of the other three men and pronounced Gowen’s death a suicide.
But Gowen’s wife and daughter claimed that Franklin Gowen would never have committed suicide, and the deputy coroner and senior members of the Washington Police Department stated that the circumstantial evidence clearly pointed to murder, and demanded a full investigation. The coroner, however, still insisted that the death was suicide, and the suicide verdict stood in spite of the public dispute with the police and the huge media coverage which was claiming that the Molly Maguires had got even with Franklin Gowen.
All of the conflicting views on Gowen’s death were publicized in the national newspapers. All of the national coverage of Gowen’s death was based on an exclusive story published in The Star, a Washington daily, which had been invited into the Wormley Hotel by James Wormley an hour after Gowen was found dead. A reporter was allowed to sketch Gowen’s room and to note all of the circumstantial evidence.
Since I had a very personal interest in the Gowen story because Gowen was involved in the execution of my grand uncle, I wondered if my relatives in Pennsylvania had anything to do with Gowen’s death. I decided to do my own investigation of the circumstantial evidence presented in The Star, in order to find out what really happened to Gowen. Was he murdered by some of my Molly Maguire relatives from Pennsylvania, or did he really commit suicide?
The questions I needed to find answers for was: Why would James Wormley, the Washington coroner, Robert Innes Gowen, and Robert Linden, the Pinkerton manager, insist on describing Gowen’s death as a suicide, if, according to the Washington police and the deputy coroner, the circumstantial evidence clearly pointed to murder? Had a murder been covered up?
Wormley’s Testimony to The Star Reporter
According to James Wormley, a maid who had gone to clean the room of Franklin Gowen was denied access to the room by Gowen when she knocked on his door at 2:30 p.m. the previous day. The maid said she opened the door and saw Gowen working on papers at his desk, and he told her he was busy and did not want to be disturbed. She returned several times in the next few hours, and then, at 5p.m., 30 minutes before the end of her workday, she knocked on the door again but got no response. When she tried to open the door, it was locked. She said she assumed Gowen had taken a nap and did not want to be disturbed, so she reported to Preston, the porter, that she had been unable to clean the room and then left for the night.
The following morning she returned to the room and tried to gain access to it again, but again she found it locked and no response to her knocks. She went back to the front desk and told the porter what had happened. The porter contacted James Wormley, the owner of the hotel, and explained the situation to him.
Wormley responded by going outside the hotel and contacting a policeman named Cross, whose beat was the street outside the hotel, and asked him to accompany him to Room 57, the room of Franklin Gowen, who apparently was inside the room which was locked from the inside.
Wormley, accompanied by Officer Cross, Preston and the maid, then went up to the second floor where Room 57 was located. Wormley had asked Preston to bring a stepladder with him, and using the step ladder Wormley peered through the transom and saw Franklin Gowen lying on the floor with a wound in his head and a pistol by his side. He appeared dead. Wormley then asked Cross to look through the transom to confirm Wormley’s observation and Cross did this.
A slightly built employee of the hotel was then ordered to climb through the transom and open the door, and Cross and Wormley then entered the room to examine the body and confirm that Gowen was dead. Wormley then noted that the key was on the inside of the lock and Cross confirmed this observation. Cross went over to the two windows which looked out upon an alleyway 30 feet below and examined the windowsills to see if someone might have shot Gowen and escaped through the windows. But he said there was dust on the windowsills and no scuffmarks that would have been present if someone had anchored a rope to furniture and escaped through the window. Wormley said it was obvious Gowen had taken his own life by standing in front of the huge mirror above the fireplace and putting a gun to his head. The reporter agreed with him.
Wormley then told Cross to transfer the body to the New Jersey Avenue police station several blocks away, and with the help of several hotel staff members the body was wrapped in a blanket and placed in a horse-drawn wagon, which transported it to the police station.
As this was taking place, Wormley told the reporter he had sent a telegram off to Philadelphia to Francis Innes Gowen, Franklin’s nephew, informing him that his uncle had committed suicide and asking him to accept custody of the body, which was in possession of the police. He also sent a telegram off to the coroner letting him know about the suicide, and he contacted prominent friends of Gowen, and the editor of The Star.
Then, Wormley had his staff come in to Room 57 and rip up the carpet from the floor and tear all the wallpaper from the walls and thoroughly clean every square inch of the room. But not before The Star reporter had arrived and made a detailed sketch of the room and made a record of the evidence that was there.
The reporter also interviewed Wormley and other staff members who were present to get a precise description of the body and of the location of the blood in various locations in the room. He was told that the wound in the head was clean, and that Gowen’s shirt and jacket were soaked with blood. There was also blood on the handle of the pistol, but no pools of blood on the carpet, just small spots in various locations. The body lay on its back, with arms neatly by his side; the pistol lay beside the right hand. The desk where Gowen had been working at the previous day still had papers on it, and the chair was overturned and lying some distance from the desk. The lamp, which had been on the desk, was on the floor. The bed had not been slept in.
The reporter had only one question for Wormley: He noted that the room had a large bathroom, and there was a door from the bathroom leading out to the corridor. The door had a Yale lock, the type that needs a key to open from the outside, but can be opened from the inside by just turning a knob.
Wormley told the reporter that this lock had also been locked from the inside and pointed to the nib that locked the door and prevented anyone from using a key to come in from the outside. He said the key to this lock was in the possession of the porter, who always kept custody of these keys. The reporter made a note of this. This ended the reporter’s examination of Room 57, and he went off to write a story based on the information provided by Wormley, and it was published later that day, in two different editions, accompanied by the sketch he had made in Room 57. This story would be used to support the Wormley version of what happened to Franklin Gowen and it was copied by all the national newspapers.
I Examine the Evidence
Since this was the ground zero of the case, I decided to analyze this evidence very thoroughly before I went on to read anything else. This was the evidence that convinced the Pinkerton detective that Gowen had committed suicide, and it convinced Francis Innes Gowen and Coroner Patterson as well.
The critical element of this evidence was the door locked from the inside. This, according to Wormley, was proof that nobody else could have killed Gowen. He said it was an open and shut case, and Linden, Francis Gowen, nor Coroner Patterson agreed with him.
But after examining all the circumstantial evidence included in The Star article, I could understood why some members of the police were demanding a thorough investigation of Gowen’s death. The locked-door theory was only one issue which obviously needed further investigation: there was also aspects of the blood flow from the head that did not make sense; there was the configuration of the body on the floor that was not compatible with what was supposed to have taken place; there were blood splatters in areas of the room that could not have ended up there if Gowen had stood in front of the mirror; there was the overturned chair and the fallen lamp; and above all there was the behavior of Wormely, who thrashed the crime scene and destroyed any possibility of an objective investigation being carried out. All of this circumstantial evidence was in plain sight and members of the police force picked up on it, but obviously not Linden, the Pinkerton detective or Francis Innes Gowen. Or maybe they did observe the incriminating evidence but ignored it for reasons unknown.
The Locked Door
Wormley successfully put the focus of the media on the locked door that was the exit from the bedroom to the corridor, but steered all attention away from the fact that there was another door, which linked the suite to the corridor – namely, the bathroom door that opened out to the corridor.
The bathroom to corridor exit – which was not mentioned in the first edition of The Star – was only touched on briefly in the second edition.
In the argument that he said eliminated all possible exits from the room, the reporter described the bathroom lock as a “snap lock,” a Yale lock, that is often found in the front doors of residences which require a key to open from the outside, but which can be opened from the inside by simply turning a knob. Locks of this type are still in use today in older homes across the country.
The possibility that the bathroom door provided an easy escape for a murderer was overlooked by the reporter who knew about it, and not focused on at all by the newspapers that were basing their coverage of Gowen’s death on the first edition of The Star account. The result was that this important piece of evidence that should have created questions about the suicide verdict was largely ignored.
How important was this second exit? Its importance was that it offered a second scenario for Gowen’s death, and this scenario was as follows: A murderer came into the room after the maid had gone away and shot Gowen in the head. He locked the door to delay the discovery of the body, and then cautiously opened the bathroom door leading out to the corridor, and having determined no one was in the corridor, the murderer pulled the nib down, closed the door quietly and walked across the corridor to the back stairway, which was the fire exit, and escaped.
How plausible was this scenario? It was just as plausible as the suicide theory, and the effect of this scenario was to seriously undermine the suicide theory as the only scenario possible that was in line with “the facts” as seen by The Star reporter.
Another item that should have led to questions: Given the fact that Wormley had stated that the bathroom door was locked, and that the key was in the office, the following question arises: Why did Wormley not take the bathroom key with him when he was notified that Gowen’s bedroom door was locked and use the key to open the bathroom door and enter the suite? Instead, he had a staff member climb through a transom. Wormley should not have known whether or not the nib was down on the bathroom side of the lock and the chances are that it was not, since it would make little sense to lock the bathroom door from the inside when the bedroom door was normally kept unlocked. Yet Wormley had ignored the easy way into the Gowen suite and took the more difficult way of entering through the transom, as if he already knew he could not use the key to the bathroom door. There is no record of anyone challenging him on this.
Another question: Why did Wormley call in Patrolman Cross to accompany him to Room 57 even before he discovered Gowen’s dead body? A possible explanation is that he wanted an official witness who could testify that all doors were locked when the body was discovered. Which raises another question: How did he know there was going to be a dead body there? Gowen could have been asleep. Or unconscious.
The Position of the Body
The story told byWormley, Patrolman Cross, and Preston described the position of the body – it lay neatly on its back in front of the fireplace, with the hands close to the body, and the gun near the right hand. As I read the reporter’s description of how the body was laid out on the floor, I thought the scene was a little odd. I had seen scores of murder scene photographs over the years, and all of them displayed bodies in untidy heaps on the ground, and not one of them neatly laid out like this one. And how did the gun manage to fall from Gowen’s hand after he fired the shot and land beside his right hand. Also very odd.
Wormley told the reporter the bullet had entered behind the right ear and exited through the left ear. He also said the wound was clean. I tried to imagine how – or why – Gowen would have put the gun muzzle behind his ear and at such an angle that the bullet went in a straight line through his brain and exited through his left ear. I got a toy pistol and tried to dup- licate the position the gun was in when the shot was fired and came to the conclusion that it would have been impossible or very difficult. Why would Gowen go through such contortions if he wanted a quick death? He could have put the gun in his mouth, which is what most suicides do. The Star reporter had no comment to make about this.
The blood on Franklin Gowen’s clothes and the bloodstains in other parts of the room would have been a major issue if the death had taken place today, but not a single policeman, coroner or detective had anything at all to say about this particular aspect of the crime scene.
There are several eyewitness descriptions of the fact that Gowen’s coat, vest and underwear were soaked in blood. These descriptions also noted that the carpet beneath Gowen’s head had bloodstains, but no stains were noted on the carpet beneath the blood-soaked body. What is wrong with this description provided by both the reporter and the coroner? Two problems come to mind.
First, if the bloodstained head had stained the carpet, then one would imagine that some blood would have filtered down from the bloodstained outer clothes and vest to the carpet beneath. But the carpet examined by a reporter shortly after it was removed from the floor reveals no such stain.
But there is a more important question: How could the coat, vest and underclothes have become blood-soaked in the first place? If the official description of the suicide is to be accepted, the presence of blood on his clothing defies gravity. It was Wormley’s theory that Gowen had stood in front of the mirror hanging above the fireplace, looked into the mirror and placed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Gowen then fell to the floor and landed on his back, with the back of his head resting on the floor. At this point, the blood would start pouring out of the head wound and the force of gravity would force the blood from the head wound to flow down to the carpet.
This, however, begs the question: Where did the blood, which soaked Gowen’s clothing, come from? There was a slight upward incline from the head to the chest, and it would be impossible for the blood to flow down to the carpet, making only a small stain, while defying gravity to flow upwards to soak the clothing on the body. This is a key question to the riddle of Gowen’s death, and one, which was not focused on at all by any observer. The amount of blood on the clothing also merited an examination of the body of Franklin Gowen to determine if, in fact, he had been struck on the chest by a bullet or bullets. But since this would have been incompatible with the suicide theory this was not focused on either.
The presence of blood in copious amounts on the handle of the gun did not generate any comments either from the coroner or from the police, and yet a competent medical examiner or an experienced detective would have questions about this fact.
In order to show how this issue is important we must go back once again to the Wormley’s account of how Franklin Gowen met his end According to the official theory, Gowen placed the gun close against his head and pulled the trigger. The coroner said the gun had been so tightly placed against the head that all the debris – powder, etc. – was driven into the wound, leaving the entrance to the wound free of burns or powder marks. Once the bullet entered the brain, Gowen lost consciousness and began to fall downwards, the gun falling away from his hand and dropping to the floor beside his body. Gowen’s body landed beside the gun, landing on its back. The hand falls beside the pistol.
Now, the question is this: Where did the blood come from that soaked the handle of the pistol? If the gun was held so tightly against the head that the bullet drove all debris ahead of it into the wound, how could the blood come out of the wound at the same time and soak the handle of the gun, which must have been six inches away from the muzzle of the pistol, while the pistol was spiraling towards the floor? And why was there no blood on the barrel of the gun?
The blood on the clothing and the blood on the handle are two critical items of evidence because they clearly demonstrate that blood could not have ended up at either location if Gowen had committed suicide by standing in front of the mirror and shooting himself. Gravity would have made it impossible for the blood to get on the clothing, and it was completely impossible for the blood to get on the handle in this scenario.
So, what are the implications of those two items of evidence involving the blood? The implications are as follows: If the blood on Gowen’s clothing could not have got there while Gowen lay flat on his back on the floor, then Gowen must have been in another position entirely when the bullet entered his skull, like sitting at his desk. If Gowen’s body were in the chair after the fatal shot was fired, then the blood would have poured down his face and neck and on to his jacket, shirt and underclothes. It would also have flowed directly on to the floor, and if the pistol were on the floor beside the chair, it could have soaked the handle.
This is the only way to explain the blood on the gun and on the clothing. It is obvious, then, that the body had been moved prior to it being first “discovered.” And since Gowen could hardly have moved himself from the original position after being shot in the head, whoever moved the body was part of a conspiracy to conceal the true nature of Gowen’s death. Could Gowen have shot himself in the head and then some other person decided to rearrange the death scene? This is possible, but it is hard to imagine what the rationale would be to lay out the body on the floor instead of leaving it slumped over the desk. If the door was locked on the inside, Wormley still could still argue that the death was a suicide.
The above issues do not prove Franklin Gowen was murdered, but they do show that the rush to characterize his death as a suicide flew in the face of the circumstantial evidence presented by the reporter for The Star on the day Gowen’s body was discovered in Room 57.
Linden and Francis Innes Gowen Arrive in Washington.
In the days after Gowen’s death, the newspapers still played up the Molly Maguire angle, and recognizing the importance of this issue, Francis Innes Gowen stated on his arrival in Washington that he had retained the famed Pinkerton detective Robert Linden to investigate any Molly Maguire connection to his uncle’s death. Who better to investigate the Molly issue than the man who had helped send 20 of them to the gallows?
Meanwhile, members of the Washington police and a number of other prominent friends of Gowen came forward and disputed the suicide theory and criticized Wormley for the way he handled the body. One reaction to Wormley’s thrashing of the crime scene was that laws were enacted that prohibited a death scene from being disturbed until after the police and coroner had examined it. No such laws were on the books prior to this so Wormley had not committed a crime by disturbing the scene.
Gowen’s doctor in Philadelphia told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Gowen had been in perfect health and since he saw him regularly, he would know if he had serious mental problems. A business associate said Gowen was worth $500,000 and that he had no financial problems of any kind. Robert Linden disputed a newspaper article, which stated that Gowen was plagued with guilt over the mass executions of the Molly Maguires and this was the reason he committed suicide. Linden said Gowen was very proud of the way he had destroyed the Mollies.
A hotel guest from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, who was a friend of Gowen, said that the Irish in Pennsylvania hated Gowen and had sworn to get revenge. All of the above were published in the nation’s newspapers in the days after the death of Gowen, and it was widely expected that Linden would unleash the Pinkertons on the Irish communities in Carbon and Schuykill counties once his investigation got under way.
Linden and Francis Gowen went directly to the New Jersey Avenue police station when they arrived in Washington. Francis Gowen was horrified at the sight of his uncle’s body dumped on the floor in a back room like road kill and at the circus atmosphere that was being created as droves of people arrived at the station to take a look at the body. Francis Gowen immediately ejected everyone from the room and then called in a prominent funeral director to pick up the body and ship it out immediately to Philadelphia that evening. He told the press that there would be no autopsy performed on the body and that his uncle’s death would be investigated by Linden without any involvement by the police.
Excluding the police from a possible murder investigation would not happen in 2012, but in 1889, the laws were very different and Francis Gowen was allowed to conduct a private investigation into Franklin Gowen’s death and there was nothing the police could do about it. In that era, relatives of a murder victim could also hire a prosecutor to prosecute the person accused of a murder.
Linden told the press that he had already sent 12 of his best agents out into the coal regions of Pennsylvania to interrogate members of the Molly Maguires who had recently been released from prison to determine if any of them was unable to account for their movements on the day Gowen died. He said if the Mollies were involved in Gowen’s death they would be held responsible for it. He then ended the press conference and left for the Wormley Hotel with Francis Gowen to meet with Wormley and visit Room 57.
They stayed at the Wormley for an hour but refused to talk to the press after the meeting was finished, and Wormley refused to make any statements either. Shortly after that, Linden, Francis Gowen, and Franklin Gowen’s body left for Philadelphia and Franklin Gowen’s body was delivered to the family home in Germantown for burial. There was a wake held for one night, which neither Mrs. Gowen or her daughter attended, and then Gowen was buried and the secret about the reason for his death was buried with him.
Two days later, Linden announced that his investigation was completed and that his detectives could find no Molly Maguire involvement in Gowen’s death, and that he was now convinced that Gowen had taken his own life. Linden ignored all the circumstantial evidence, or the possibility that one of the scores of businessmen, including small mine owners and railroad owners who had been ruined by Gowen was involved in his death. Francis Gowen supported Linden’s conclusion. Mrs. Gowen continued to insist her husband had been murdered.
Linden’s conclusion that Gowen had committed suicide put an end to the media circus, and there were only two articles on Gowen’s death in the week after his funeral. One article was an interview with a doctor who was a hotel guest and who had been in Room 57 immediately after Gowen’s body was discovered, and he said that Gowen’s face was covered in a dark substance that looked like soot. He said that he had read in the newspapers that the coroner claimed the wound was clean and this was not just true, and if it was clean when the coroner saw it then someone must have washed his face.
The second article featured an interview with a captain in the Washington Police Department who argued that in order for Gowen to shoot himself behind his ear and for the bullet to go in a straight line through his brain and come out his other ear, and yet leave no burn marks on the face, he would have to have held the pistol four feet from his head. This was obviously ridiculous, the captain said. And the fact that the doctor had said there was smoke residue on the face when he viewed it in Room 57 was an indication that the gun was fired from a distance of one foot or more.
After those articles appeared, the coverage of Gowen’s death ended and the suicide verdict was accepted by the general public that cared little for Franklin Gowen in life and cared less about how he died. Indeed Franklin Gowen’s name might have disappeared into the black hole of history were it not for a continuing interest in the Molly Maguire saga and Gowen’s rampage in Pennsylvania. Every time there is media coverage of the Molly Maguire, Gowen’s name gets dragged into it, and he continues in infamy as a murderous tycoon.
Having reviewed all the newspaper articles on Gowen’s death, I came to the conclusion that Gowen had been murdered. But I had no clue on the motivation for the murder, and I had no clue either why Wormley, Linden and Francis Gowen would have covered it up. So, after some analysis of the circumstantial evidence, I came up with a scenario that was compatible with the evidence and the cover up.
A Scenario That Makes Sense
If the death scene scenario that was presented by Wormley, Linden and Coroner Patterson was so full of contradictions and impossibilities, was there a scenario that would resolve the issues that arose at the time of Gowen’s death? The following scenario comes close to solving them. But this theory of mine is only a theory, and should not be accepted as the final word on the matter.
At 2:30 p.m. the maid at the Wormley Hotel knocked at the door of Room 57, as she was about to enter the room and make the bed. The door was not locked. She had the door partially opened when Gowen, who was sitting at the desk near the door, told her to come back later because he was busy writing a report.
At 3:30 p.m., she returned to the door and received the same reception from Gowen and she went off to clean other rooms.
Between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m., a person entered Gowen’s room and at some point got involved in a violent confrontation with him. Gowen may have pulled out the gun he had owned, and this person managed to take it from him, and shots were fired, one of which struck Gowen above and behind the right ear, exiting through the left ear. Fatally wounded, Gowen slumped over his writing desk, knocking over the lamp, which fell on the floor; the blood poured out of his head, down his cheeks and on to his jacket, his vest and his underwear, soaking them. The killer then placed the pistol on the floor beside the chair and blood flowed down unto the handle.
The killer locked the door from the inside to prevent being discovered and then switched off the gas light to prevent a fire from breaking out. Then he or she moved quietly to the bathroom and unlatched the door and peered out into the corridor. When it was evident that the coast was clear, the person shut the bathroom door and then walked directly across the corridor and entered the stairway that served as a fire escape that led down to the courtyard below. From there the person escaped out the back entrance.
When the maid returned to the room several times later on that day she found the door locked and no response to her knocks. After she tried the door for the last time that day, she told either the head clerk or Wormley about the silence in Room 57, and then went home for the night.
After the maid reported that there was no response from Gowen’s room on Friday evening, Wormley took the key for Gowen’s bathroom door from the office and went up and entered the bedroom through the bathroom and found Gowen slumped over his desk, his clothes soaked in blood and his brains seeping out of his skull.
At this point Wormley not only knew that Gowen had been murdered, he also knew the identity of the killer because no one had access to the hotel rooms that was not first screened in the lobby at the reception desk, and if Gowen had a guest on the way up he would have been contacted through the house phone.
The question then becomes what kind of visitor was it that Gowen would welcome and Wormley would have no problem admitting to the prem- ises? And yet, when the murder occurred, it would drive Wormley, Francis Gowen and Linden into a conspiracy to cover it up? Was it a prostitute that Gowen used every time he was in Washington who Wormley was familiar with? Was it a male prostitute? Was Gowen a pedophile and the pedophile shot Gowen with his own gun?
Prostitution was widespread in Washington during this period, and prominent visiting personalities availed themselves of all the exotic fare the city had to offer without being afraid of being exposed in the newspapers or being the subject of gossip. The newspapers just did not cover these stories, and the hotel staff did not talk about the prostitutes who might visit guests. To do so would be very bad for business. But a quarrel with a hooker that ended with a guest being shot with his own gun was a nightmare for any hotel owner, especially for James Wormley, who was one of the few African-Americans who had become a successful businessmen. The fact that the favorite prostitutes among wealthy middle-aged whites were mixed blood blacks who were very light in color would only add to the scandal. Wormley knew it would ruin him.
Wormley must have called Francis Innes Gowen in Philadelphia and told him exactly what had happened. He and Gowen must have decided to make Gowen’s death look like a suicide, and Gowen asked him to delay the “discovery of” Franklin’s body, until he got Robert Linden, an old friend of the family, on board to somehow or other stage manage the cover up. Wormley, perhaps with the help of others, dragged Gowen’s body over to the fireplace and arranged it in front of the mirror to make it look like Gowen had committed suicide.
Why was the carpet and wallpaper removed? This is a key issue that has continued to haunt the Gowen story. If there was no ulterior motive for tearing down the wallpaper and ripping up the carpet, then Wormley’s actions were unfortunate to say the least, because they contributed to a perception that he was destroying important evidence by disturbing the crime scene in this manner.
What sort of evidence could have been destroyed in this manner? One possibility is that there was huge bloodstains on the carpet underneath the chair and table which became soaked during the time Gowen’s body was slumped in the chair, and the carpet had to be pulled up in order to hide these stains. Another possibility is that the killer fired more than one shot at Gowen and the missed shots ploughed into the carpet or the walls. In order to prevent the discovery of bullet holes in the floors or walls, it was decided by those involved to destroy the evidence, because nothing would have destroyed a suicide theory like proof that more than one bullet had been fired.
Francis Gowen’s faith in the ability of Robert Linden to sell the suicide theory was well founded. By the sheer weight of his reputation as a great detective, he had managed to convince the media and the public that there were only two scenarios for Gowen’s death: One, he had been murdered by the Molly Maguires, or, two, he had committed suicide. When his investigators “proved” that there was no Molly Maguire involvement this left suicide as the only option. Linden had successfully marked – Case Closed – on the Gowen file, and that is the way it has remained ever since.
My Investigation Continues
I was reluctant to let my investigation of Gowen’s death end with Robert Linden’s report so I decided to do a little further investigating on my own.
When I began to investigate Franklin Gowen’s death, my goal was to determine if suicide or murder caused his death. I had no other goals beyond that. Once I had proved to my own satisfaction that he definitely did not kill himself, it was inevitable that I would be overcome with the curiosity and be tempted to continue the investigation into who killed him.
To begin this new phase of the project, I decided to make a list of the people who had never been revealed to the public but when they were alive might have had information about Gowen’s death. I also made a list of the places where files might still exist that could possibly contain some clues. Since all of those involved were long dead, my plan was to interview descendants who might be in possession of information that was handed down since 1889. Locating the places where the files might be in city, state or national archives would not be a problem.
The list of names whose descendants I would pursue was relatively short: Captain Robert Linden, Francis Innes Gowen, and James Thompson Wormley.
I had already contact information on the descendants of Gowen and Linden, who had contacted me after I had published A Molly Maguire Story. Linden’s descendant was his grandson, Robert Linden; Gowen’s descendant was William Gowen, a grand nephew of Franklin Gowen. Neither of them had been very enthusiastic about the way I had treated their relative in my book, but we had maintained a cordial relationship and agreed to disagree about the Molly Maguire saga.
When I approached Robert Linden about his grandfather’s role in Gowen’s death he seemed very surprised to learn I thought that Gowen had been murdered and that Linden may have covered up the murder. He said he had no information about Gowen’s death, but he was sure that his grandfather would have acted in the best interest of his client. He said the Pinkertons always delivered what they had promised. But then he changed the subject and it was obvious the discussion on Gowen’s death was over.
Gowen’s grandnephew was not surprised about the murder, but he thought my theory about a sex angle was off the mark. He said if Gowen was murdered it was probably the Rockefellers who had arranged it – with the help of Linden. I thought this was well off the mark, but I did not argue with him about it.
The search for the descendants of James Thompson Wormley took up a great deal of time and effort and in the end showed as little reward as my talk with Robert J. Linden. Since Wormley was a black American and was famous in his time, I decided to go to the local library and locate a Who’s Who of Black Americans. I thought that such a publication might mention the Wormley family. I was right. Among the distinguished members of the family are, to name two, Stanton Wormley Sr., and Donet Graves. Stanton Wormley Sr., who had, prior to his death in 1993, been a professor of German and Russian Studies at Howard University and had also served as acting university president between 1965 and 1967. He was active in many civic organizations, including the National Conference of Christians and Jews and was the author of several books. Donet Graves, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, is a managing partner in the law firm of Graves & Horton. He is the chairman of the Magistrate Selection Committee of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. He is also on the board of Trustees for the United Black Fund and for the Committee for Public Art.
When I sent a written inquiry to Mrs. Stanton Wormley at her Washington home, I was contacted by a representative of the Wormley family who was compiling a family tree of the Wormleys that went right back to England in the 12th century. He was very informed about all aspects of the family history but he said he had never heard of Franklin Gowen, never mind having information about his death.
My second Wormley contact, Donet Graves, has studied the Wormley family history in depth and also had amassed a huge collection of photographs of the Wormleys all the way back to the 1850s. He knew all about the Wormley Hotel and James Thompson Wormley, but he had never come across the name Franklin Gowen and was very surprised to hear of the controversy that surrounded James Thompson Wormley in the days after Gowen’s death. Graves made a number of calls to see if any of his relatives had information about Gowen, but he said he was unable to turn up anything. Gowen’s name seemed to be completely unknown among the Wormley descendants.
I wondered how these people could have had extensive research done on their ancestor and not come across the wall-to-wall publicity that sur- rounded James Thompson Wormley in 1889.
One thing was obvious from my interviews with the descendants of Francis Gowen, Linden and Wormley: These three really knew how to keep a secret, and when they decided to cover up something it stayed covered up. I did not give up after those interviews, however. I decided that there was a possibility that in the files of the Philadelphia Police Department, the Washington Police Department, the Washington Coroners Office, and the Pinkerton Detective Agency there might be useful information on Gowen’s death, so that became my next line of inquiry
A Search of the Files
I began my search of the archives by giving a priority to those archives that seemed the most likely to contain the type of information that I was after. One of those was the archives of the Washington D.C. Police Department, which could contain some files on the Gowen case. There had been resistance by some members of the police to the idea that Gowen had committed suicide, and if these police officers believed that Gowen had been murdered, I wondered if they had written memos about who they suspected of murder. This seemed like an idea worth researching, so I embarked on a new phase of the project.
But after I contacted the police department, I was told files from 19th century had been given to the National Archives. I contacted the National Archives and was told that the police files for December 1889 were missing, and they had no idea what happened to them.
My next focus of research was the Pinkerton archives, which I knew had been donated to the Library of Congress. I had a very personal interest in the investigation of the 12 Pinkerton agents, because I had numerous relatives out in the coal regions at that time, including Alec Campbell’s wife, his two sisters, and numerous nephews, nieces and cousins, all of whom were possible targets for any Pinkerton investigation. This would reveal to me to what extent the Alec Campbell family was suspected of being involved in Gowen’s death.
I made a special trip down to Washington and spent two days going through the Pinkerton files, and I discovered there was an abundance of information on hundreds of famous case, but nothing at all about Franklin Gowen. If there ever had been files on the Gowen case, they had been pulled from the files.
I met with the same situation when I looked for Gowen files in the Philadelphia Police Department: If they ever existed, they were missing. And when I searched for information on the administration of Gowen’s estate, the probate files were also missing. I had drawn a blank everywhere, no files and no folklore had come down to the descendants of the principals involved in the case. It looked like a perfect cover up.
A Need For Expert Advice
I had now arrived at the point in my investigation of Gowen’s death that I was convinced Gowen had been murdered, and the murder had been expertly covered up. I was well aware, however, that I would lack credibility if I tried to present findings that were based on my judgment alone. So, to protect myself, I needed the advice of a medical examiner or better still medical examiners, and if they agreed with me that my inter- pretation of the evidence was not in error, then I would be in a better position to argue that Gowen had been murdered.
I enlisted the aid of three medical examiners, two in New Jersey and one in Connecticut, and after assuring them that I only wanted their opinion not their testimony, and that I would not divulge their names, I gave them the following information on Gowen’s death:
- Franklin Gowen was found dead in a hotel room in Washington D.C. on Saturday December 14, 1889. He was one of the best known busin- essmen in the United States and his death created a national sensation.
- Gowen’s body was stretched out flat on its back in front of a mirror hung over the fireplace;
- a 38mm Smith & Wesson pistol lay on the floor near his right hand;
- a bullet had entered his head above and behind the right ear and exited through the left ear; the entrance wound was clean: there was no evidence of burn or powder marks;
- his shirt, jacket and underwear were soaked with blood;
- the handle of the gun was covered with blood, but not the barrel.
- The carpet, beneath the head, had blood stains; the only other blood spots were several small spots on the marble fireplace.
- The last person to see Gowen alive was a hotel maid who opened the bedroom door to clean the room at 3:30 p.m. and found Gowen writing at a table. Gowen told her he was busy and told her to come back later. She came back at 4:30 p.m. but found the door locked and no response to her knocks. She informed the manager of the hotel but no attempt was made to see if Gowen was all right until the following morning when Gowen was found dead.
- The coroner estimated that death had taken place seven hours before the body’s discovery.
- The door of the bedroom was locked from the inside; however, there was another locked door leading from the bathroom in the suite to the corr- idor.
- The bathroom door had a Yale-type lock that could be locked from the outside. A key to this door was in the hotel office
- A gas reading light that had stood on a table was unlit and had been overturned.
- A chair was also overturned.
- The owner of the hotel called the police after the body was discovered and within an hour he had the body wrapped in a sheet and sent to the New Jersey Avenue Police Station.
- The owner of the hotel then proceeded to pull up the carpet and pull the wallpaper from the wall. This happened before the coroner arrived.
- The coroner eventually arrived and interviewed the hotel owner and viewed the body at the police station. He then issued a verdict on the cause of death: It was his opinion that since the bedroom door was locked from the inside Gowen’s death was a suicide; that Gowen had held a gun close to his head and pulled the trigger. He stated that an inquest was unnecessary. An inquest was not held.
- The coroner’s verdict was disputed by the deputy coroner, as well as by a captain in the Washington police and a doctor who was resident in the hotel.
- The deputy coroner said that he did not see how the coroner could come up with the verdict of suicide, given the wounds on the head.
- The resident doctor said he was the first to view the body and the right side of Gowen’s face was smeared with smoke and gunpowder, so the coroner’s statement that the wound was clean because the gun was held tightly against the head was inaccurate. The resident doctor said he did not see how the wound could be self-inflicted.
- A police captain said it was impossible for Gowen to hold a gun in a position that would inflict wounds of a type found on Gowen’s head.
Other questions that were unanswered were the following:
- The handle of the gun was covered in blood. How did the blood get on the handle and not on the barrel?
- Gowen’s shirt, waistcoat and underclothes were soaked in blood. The blood on this part of his body seemed to defy gravity, since most of it had not drained from the head down to the carpet but across or upwards towards the chest and waist.
- Why had the hotel owner been in such a hurry to remove the wallpaper and the carpet?
- Why had the coroner rushed to a verdict without an autopsy?
The above were only some of the issues raised, but Coroner Patterson stuck with his guns and the suicide verdict stood.
In a cover letter, I informed them that I was not including information that did not bear directly on the principal issue, namely, if Gowen’s death was the result of murder or suicide.
It took time for the medical examiners to respond but when they did, their responses ranged from a brief one-paragraph comment to a lengthy telephone call that discussed every aspect of the case.
All three stated that the circumstantial evidence indicated a murder had taken place not a suicide. All three indicated that the body had been moved after Gowen had died and before it was officially discovered. One coroner indicated that when a person committed suicide in this manner the body fell forward on its face, not backwards. One examiner suggested that the Washington coroner might not have been a doctor at all and could have been an elected civilian with no medical experience.
The last communication came from a retired Jersey City medical exam- iner. This medical examiner knew nothing about the Molly Maguires and did not know anything about reasons for Gowen’s murder. He was amazed at the way the case was handled.
“Usually in these types of cases the first thing a detective would investigate if there is a suspicion of murder is who had the reason and the opportunity to commit the crime. It seems amazing that the investigation was so brief... that it was left in the hands of a private investigator... and that this investigator should have had the final say on what went down in that hotel bedroom. Really amazing.”
I could not have agreed with him more.