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Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold

The girl was twenty-five years old, stood five feet lour inches in height, and weighed about 140 pounds—just about right for a fashionable young lady of the time. She was a niece of a justice of the United States Supreme Court and the daughter of a family so wealthy that she could be called an heiress. As the flowery journalese of the era pictured her, she was “at the summit of her youth, rich, especially preferred, blessed with prospects, and to the outer eye completely happy.”

Her name was Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold. At two o’clock on the afternoon of December 12, 1910, she stood talking to a girl friend outside Brentano’s bookshop, then located at Fifth Avenue and Twentyseventh Street in New York City. A moment later she vanished, never to be seen again—at least never by anyone who both recognized her and acknowledged her existence to the world.

As one newspaper remarked, “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.” How? Why? Did the young heiress disappear of her own accord? Was she kidnapped and murdered? The total mystery ol the Dorothy Arnold case is as unfathomable today as it was fifty years ago. Dorothy Arnold was hardly the madcap, kick-up-her-heels type of girl who might easily get into trouble. One had simply to look at her wide, placid lace to realize that she was more studious than frivolous. She had graduated from Bryn Mawr five years before and still 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.

By modern standards, the Arnold family would seem stully and somewhat forbidding. It was presided over by chop-whiskered Francis R. Arnold, a seventy-threeyear-old businessman, who proudly traced his lineage straight back to the Mayflower; it was his sister who had married Supreme Court Justice Rufus Peckham. Mrs. Arnold was equally well-connected, and the family ranked high in the old guard of New York society, then noted for its propriety and unbending reticence.

On the day of her disappearance, Dorothy Arnold was expensively and modishly clad, a fact that would make her highly conspicuous at a time when class distinctions in female dress were sharp. That day she wore a well-tailored suit, with a blue serge coat and a tight hobble skirt in a matching color; she carried both a huge silver-fox mutt and a satin handbag. But by far the most conspicuous feature of her attire was her hat. It was made of black velvet, with two blue roses for decoration—a type then called a “Baker,” which resembles nothing so much as an overturned dishpan. The lining of this oversized chapeau was Alice blue, the maker’s name was “Genevieve,” and along its edge, rimming Dorothy’s pleasant, open face, ran a fetching bit of scalloped lace.

So attired, Dorothy Arnold descended the stairway of her family home at 108 East Seventy-ninth Street, about eleven o’clock on the morning of December 12. In the main hall—which newspapers were later to describe as magnificently furnished—she found her mother waiting. Dorothy informed her that she planned to spend the day shopping for an evening dress to wear at her sister Marjorie’s coming-out party, five days hence on the seventeenth.

Mrs. Arnold was widely believed to be a semi-invalid who seldom left the residence on Seventy-ninth Street. Nevertheless, on this particular day she seemed more than walling to venture out of doors. “Maybe I’d better go with you,” Mrs. Arnold said to her daughter.

It is safe to say that every student of crime who has examined the Dorothy Arnold case has wondered if her reply was fondly solicitous, or simply irritated. For in any display of anger there might be a cine to the girl’s inner feelings about her family. But no one will ever know. Mrs. Arnold, recounting the episode later, reported that Dorothy had merely answered, “No, Mother, don’t bother. You don’t feel just right and it’s no use going to the trouble. I mightn’t see a thine I want, but if I do, I’ll phone you.”

As she departed from her home, Dorothy carried no luggage—though it is conceivable that a nightgown might have been hidden in the depths of her large muff. She had with her about $25 of a monthly allowance of $100. The day before, she had withdrawn $36 from the bank to lake some girl friends to lunch at Sherry’s, followed by a matinee. Presumably, she carried the remainder of that sum with her as she walked along Seventy-ninth Street toward Fifth Avenue. Those who glimpsed her familiar figure recalled that her demeanor was normal. If anything, Dorothy Arnold looked cheerful.

At Fifth Avenue she turned left, and headed downtown. To all intents and purposes, this was the beginning of her last walk on earth, and it is possible to say that she made the most of it. December 12 was not an especially good day underfoot; the winter weather was raw, and strips of ice made the Fifth Avenue sidewalks treacherous. Yet Dorothy traversed the twenty blocks to Fifty-ninth Street on foot. There she paused at Park & Tilford’s candy counter to purchase a halfpound box of chocolates. The salesgirl recognized her as a familiar customer, and without question added the purchase to the Arnold family account.

It was now noon. Dropping the candy into the capacious muff, Dorothy returned to the street for the second lap of her last known walk. This brought her to Twenty-seventh Street—thirty-two blocks more, fifty-two in all. No one, police or family, ever saw anything unusual in the extent of this heroic trek. Dorothy was a robust girl whose health was flawless. Walking was her only exercise.

But Dorothy was more artistic than athletic. In the elegant prose of the day, a newspaper would list her diversions as “private theatricals, musical soirees and literary conversaziones.” Of these, literature was by far the most prominent, for in addition to a lively interest in the writings of others, Dorothy was also trying to be a writer herself.

By the afternoon of her disappearance, Dorothy had written another short story called “Lotus Leaves.” Whether or not this had also been rejected by McClure’s or another magazine is a question that might have provided a key to the disappearance. But it has never been answered. All we know is that as she walked down Fifth Avenue on the afternoon of December 12, Dorothy appeared more concerned with the works of others than with her own literary efforts.

Her destination was Brentano’s bookstore, where she was observed leafing through books on the newfiction counter. Finally she picked out An Engaged Girl’s Sketches, by Emily Calvin Blake, a scries of frothy love stories that had appeared in the Ladie’s Home Journal. Once more she charged the purchase to the family account; and with the wrapped book under her arm, Dorothy Arnold again stepped out on the cold Fifth Avenue sidewalk.

Outside Brentano’s she met an acquaintance—a girl named Gladys King, who the day before had received an invitation to Marjorie Arnold’s debut. Gladys had her note of acceptance in her muff, and she handed it to Dorothy with a joke about postage saved. Dorothy laughed too, and the girls stood chatting for several minutes. Then Gladys King excused herself, explaining that she had to meet her mother for lunch—it was now nearly two o’clock and she was late. She hurried away, but on the far corner of Twenty-seventh Street, she turned to wave back a second good-by to Dorothy. Presumably, no one who knew or recognized Dorothy Arnold ever saw her again!

Dorothy’s body has yet to float to the surface of a reservoir. Nor has it been found buried anywhere. There have been no deathbed confessions of identity; Dorothy has not reappeared from a life of shame. The girl who seemed to have everything has never come back in any shape or form. What, then, happened to her?

And that uncertainty was never resolved. Francis R. Arnold died in 1922, his wife in 1928. Both left behind them wills which stated: “I have made no provision for my beloved daughter, Dorothy H. C. Arnold, as I am satisfied that she is not alive.”

In 1921, the case burst into unexpected life when Captain J. H. Ayers, head of the New York City Department of Missing Persons, announced in a speech before the student body of the High School of Commerce that the real truth about Dorothy Arnold had been known for many months to family and police. By the next day the Captain denied that he had ever said this. A complete misunderstanding, he said. His tongue had slipped, and he had been misquoted.

On December 11, 1935, the twenty-fifth year after the disappearance, police told reporters that tips on Dorothy Arnold still came in. About six months before, a tipster claimed to have seen her at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-third Street. Despite the fact that it would be difficult to recognize her after a quarter of a century, detectives were dispatched to the corner in question. There they stood for several hours, peering vainly into the faces of passers-by.

Since that day, nothing. As Edward Henry Smith wrote in his Mysteries of the Missing, the Dorothy Arnold case has been called “a disappearance which had from the beginning no standard in rationality, being logically both impenetrable and irreconcilable. It remains obstinate and perplexing, a gall to human curiosity, an impossible problem for reason and analytical power.” It is no less so today.

Allen Churchill. The Girl Who Never Came Back. American Heritage. August 1960; Volume 11, Issue 5.


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