- Historic Sites
The Girl Who Never Came Back
Dorothy Arnold’s baffling disappearance, fifty years afterward, is still unsolved
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
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.