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The Murder of the Beautiful and Accomplished Mrs. Edith Woodill, 1909

 

Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast

In the year 1893, Col. Charles A. Thompson and wife took up their residence on a farm near McDaniel in Talbot County, Maryland. The couple had several children and a pretty little adopted daughter known as Edith May Thompson.

The records in Minneapolis show that this child was born in Asoton, Washington, on November 30, 1886; that she was the daughter of Mathew and Zetella Witz and was adopted by Charles and Laura Thompson in Minneapolis on October 13, 1890.

Notwithstanding the fact that both Witz and Thompson were comparatively poor men, this little girl was always provided with plenty of money, and in addition to receiving a fine literary and musical education, she traveled extensively in Europe.

The child claimed that a rich “Uncle” furnished the money, but her closest friends stated that she never knew the circumstances surrounding her birth.

Edith was a very pretty girl and possessed a fascinating personality. When she was twelve years of age she visited Washington, DC., where she met Secretary of the United States Treasury Lyman Gage. Her beauty, sweet disposition and accomplishments at once attracted his attention and she was thereafter known as his ward. At the age of seventeen years, Edith married Dr. W. W. Caswell of Boston. They lived together but a short time, and eighteen months later the marriage was annulled.

In 1908, Gilbert Woodill, a young Los Angeles automobile dealer, visited New York, where he met the former Mrs. Caswell for the first time. He fell in love with her at first sight and as his business compelled him to return to Los Angeles immediately, he married her after five days’ acquaintance. The couple then left for Los Angeles, where they resided at 1204 Orange Street.

In May, 1909, Woodill was compelled to go east on business and his wife accompanied him. After he had transacted his business in New York, he accompanied his wife to McDaniel, Maryland, to visit Mrs. Woodill’s foster parents, Colonel and Mrs. Thompson. Woodill only remained a few days, but during that time he met a middle-aged man known as “Roberts,” who had purchased a farm adjacent to the Thompson estate, several months prior to the visit of the Woodills. “Roberts,” who appeared to be a highly educated man, who had evidently traveled extensively, became very friendly with the Thompson family before the arrival of the Woodills.

Business compelled Woodill to return to Los Angeles, but his wife remained with her foster-parents.

On Saturday, June 19, Mrs. Woodill informed the Thompsons that she intended to go to Baltimore for a couple of days. On the following Monday, Thompson met “Roberts” and told him that he feared all was not well with Edith, but “Roberts” laughed at the idea. Two days later a letter mailed at Baltimore and presumed to have been written by’ Mrs. Woodill, was received by Thompson.

On the afternoon of June 24, the nude body of a young woman was found floating in Rose Creek not far from the bungalow recently built by “Roberts” on his property.

The left side of the face and head had been crushed in; a cord was tied around the body and at the other end of the cord was tied a kettle filled with stones; it evidently being the belief of the assassin that this weight would keep the body submerged. As the body was terribly swollen and the face beaten to a pulp, it was not identified at once, but Dr. Smithers, who had recently done some dental work for Mrs. Woodill, examined the teeth and at once declared the corpse to be her remains.

It was subsequently learned that instead of going to Baltimore on the preceding Saturday, Mrs. Woodill left the train at a little station called Royal Oak, where she met “Roberts,” who had a team and driver in waiting. They were then driven to a point on the river where they boarded a gasoline launch belonging to Roberts.

Later in the evening the launch was grounded opposite the residence of Dr. Seth, but “Roberts” refused assistance. He waded to the shore and procuring a rowboat, he rowed Mrs. Woodill down the river. When this information had been gathered, a search was made for “Roberts” at his bungalow.
He had disappeared but blood stains were found on the floor and fragments of burned cloth were discovered in the fireplace.

Near midnight, on June 25, John McQuay, a farmer residing on the bank of a little wandering stream called Harris Creek, heard the splash of oars, and looking out saw the dark figure of a man pulling up the stream. He called to the oarsman, but received no response. Suspecting that he was the much wanted “Roberts,” McQuay telephoned to Deputy Sheriff Mortimer, who formed a posse and started in pursuit.

About three hours later the posse heard faint splashes from oars and presently they saw the dark shadow of the lone boatmen. Members of the posse called out: “Roberts, throw up your hands.” His reply was a pistol shot. Believing they were being fired upon, the posse fired a volley, but there was no response and the man had disappeared from view. As the posse feared that he might have laid down in the boat and would shoot if they came closer, they merely kept the boat in sight until daylight, when they approached and found the dead body in the boat. It was “Roberts’ remains, and he had committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart, powder burns being found around the wound.

The dead man’s clothing was then searched. One hundred and sixty dollars was found and also letters showing that “Roberts” was in reality Robert Eastman, called “Lame Bob” because of his crippled foot. He was formerly a New York broker and had offices at 33 Wall Street, but at the time of his suicide he was a fugitive from justice, having swindled various persons out of sums aggregating many thousands of dollars.

On January 26, 1908, he married Vinnie Bradcome, a young actress from New York, who was then playing with the Rogers Brothers, but he deserted her shortly after their child was born.

Eastman had evidently planned to commit suicide if cornered, as will be seen by the following letter addressed to his wife, which was found in his pocket:

“Vinnie—Take this money and go at once to McDaniel, Talbot County, Md., and claim my body and all my property. The property consists of twenty-two acres of land and a bungalow. There is also a motor boat. Have a sale and convert the whole thing into cash.

“Little girl, I had no hand in the tragedy. I was there and removed the evidence after the other two couples fled. I did this for self-protection and am haunted. The victim was my particular friend and we were well mated. Have only known her three weeks.

“We all, that is, two men and two other women from Annapolis, went to the bungalow for a time. Every one got full excepting Edith and myself. Edith tried to win one of the girl’s fellows and was hit three times on the head with a full bottle of champagne and hit the fellow once. She fell over on the floor and died. The man did not come too for an hour. I was left with the corpse and cannot take a chance for a trial.

“Life to me is very bitter, so I will pull down the shades and say good-by. You can claim my property and say as little as possible, but get it. I’m awfully sorry for you and our boy. I have been hustling madly to make your path clear, but fate is against me. BOB.”

A book about the case.

The officials made a complete investigation and at its conclusion they agreed that Eastman alone murdered Mrs. Woodill. Several letters were found in the bungalow, which indicated that the pair were exceedingly friendly, but absolutely nothing was found to substantiate Eastman’s statement that he had entertained a party of guests just previous to the murder. The unfinished bungalow was scarcely habitable and the furniture and accommodations were hardly sufficient for one person. No wine bottles were found.

Two days after the murder, which occurred on June 19th, Eastman visited Baltimore, where he probably mailed the letter supposed to have been sent to Col. Thompson by Mrs. Woodill. He also pawned her jewelry for $200 at the store conducted by Benjamin & Co. in Baltimore, which Thompson afterward redeemed.

Despite prolonged investigation, the authorities have never penetrated the motive for the atrocious murder of this beautiful young woman, whose life, from the cradle to the grave, has been shrouded in so much mystery.

On August 15, 1910, a story was published intimating that Mary Scott Castle Charlton, whose body was found in Lake Como, Italy, in June, 1910, and her husband, Porter Charlton, who was formerly employed in a bank in Baltimore and had made frequent visits to St. Michaels, were members of the party referred to by Eastman and possibly participated in the murder, but there was no evidence produced to connect this couple with the crime.

Special Note: Mary Scott was born in Elko, Nevada, in 1872. Shortly afterward the family moved to San Francisco, where Mary eventually became very popular in the smart set, of which her aunt, Mrs. Monroe Salisbury, was a dictator for years. Miss Scott was distantly related to the late President Harrison and the Breckenridges of Kentucky, and her brother. Captain Henry Scott, U. S. A., married Admiral Sampson’s daughter.

Mary Scott’s marriage to Attorney Neville Castle of San Jose in 1897, was one of the social events of the year. As Mrs. Castle was a beautiful woman and possessed of considerable histrionic ability she decided to go on the stage, and two years after her marriage she made her debut at the California Theater with the Frawley Company.

Soon after domestic tranquility departed from the Castle home and the couple separated, Mrs. Castle going East, where she played on the Keith Circuit for some time, and Castle eventually going to Nome, Alaska.

On August 3, 1909, Mrs. Castle fired a shot at Attorney William Craig in a corridor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, because she claimed he had on a previous occasion made an offensive remark which he refused to retract. Captain Scott came to his sister’s rescue and finally persuaded Craig not to prosecute the woman.

On January 10, 1910, Castle obtained a divorce from his wife. On March 12, Mary Castle and Porter Charlton, the 21-year old son of Judge Paul Charlton of the Bureau of Insular Affairs at Washington, were clandestinely married at Wilmington, Del. Shortly afterward the couple left for Italy, where they rented a cottage at Moltrasio on Lake Como.

On June 10, the woman’s body was found in a trunk partially submerged in the lake. It was evident that she had been struck on the head with some blunt instrument, and as it was known that she and her husband had drank heavily and quarreled frequently, it was suspected that he was the assassin. A search was instituted but he had disappeared.

Feeling certain that Charlton would return to America at once, Captain Scott decided to watch the incoming steamers, with the result that on June 23 he saw the suspect come ashore from the Princess Irene. He was arrested and subsequently confessed that he struck his wife with a mallet after a violent quarrel, and after placing the body in a trunk, threw it in the lake.

As there is some doubt as to Charlton’s sanity it is probable that he will not be returned to Italy for trial.