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Isabel McHie – A Fortune to the Dogs – Podcast #150

When I was a kid, I ate what was probably the worst breakfast cereal every single morning. Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks. I just loved it. Perhaps the fact that it was 56% sugar by weight had something to do with my love of it.

Okay, so the sugar was bad for me, but I always read every single word that was printed on the cereal boxes. And the one thing I noticed at an early age was that nearly every cereal box that I ever read – whether it be manufactured by Kellogg’s or Post, was that the cereals were made in Battle Creek, Michigan. So, it came as no surprise when I learned years later that Battle Creek was commonly referred to as the Cereal City.

It was during the evening of Wednesday, March 20, 1935, that Battle Creek would be thrust into the national spotlight and this time it had nothing to do with cereal. The entire event began aboard the Grand Trunk Railroad’s International Limited, which had started its run at Chicago’s Dearborn Station and was traveling in a somewhat northeasterly direction as it made its way to its final destination of Montreal.

Aboard was a Canadian customs official whose job it was to question each passenger before they entered into the country. Typically, this procedure is just a formality and is easily completed. Not on this day. A 60-year-old woman refused to answer the customs officer’s questions. While clearly Caucasian, she refused to identify her race. When asked about her religion, she again refused to answer. In fact, she would not state the name of any relative that she had in the United States, her occupation, or the value of any effects that she was bringing into the country. The most specific piece of information that the official could extract from the woman was that she planned to stay in “Some hotel in Montreal.” The decision was made to deny her entry into Canada and she would need to leave the train in Battle Creek.

Grand Trunk Railway map. Chicago, Battle Creek, and Montreal have been highlighted with red stars.
Grand Trunk Railway map. Chicago, Battle Creek, and Montreal have been highlighted with red stars. From the 1920 Grand Trunk Railway System time tables on archive.org

Upon arrival at the station, the woman refused to leave the train and had to be forcibly removed by local officers. Dressed in a fur coat, a blue dress, and worn shoes, she put up quite a struggle that resulted in bruise marks on her arm. She was talking incoherently and appeared to be undergoing some sort of mental distress, so this mystery woman was transported by ambulance to the nearby Leila hospital. (Named for Leila Post Montgomery, the widow of C.W. Post of Post Cereal, who donated a half-million dollars toward its construction.)

A Fortune is Found

During the struggle to get her off the train, a plain white envelope fell to the station platform. It contained $173,505 in hard, cold cash. This included (14) $10,000 bills, (1) $5,000 bill, (27) $1000 bills, (3) $500 bills, and (1) $5 bill. Yet none of that was as interesting as the collection of valuable jewels that were found. One large black jewel box contained (18) rings, (2) earrings, (12) bracelets, (9) bar pins, (3) neck chains, (2) wristwatches, (3) dress clips, (1) pendant, (2) lorgnettes (opera glasses), and an envelope containing broken pieces of jewelry. But, that’s not all. Two smaller jewelry boxes were found and each contained a pearl necklace. The estimated value of the jewels: $500,000.

On top of all that, after the train departed the station, a porter proceeded to clean her private compartment and found $691 wrapped in a towel, which was turned over to authorities when the train reached Lansing, Michigan.

In all, she was carrying $674,196, or nearly $13,000,000 adjusted for inflation. Had she robbed a bank? Was she an international jewel thief? The answer was neither. In addition to all of the cash and jewels, this lady of mystery had been carrying numerous documents related to financial matters and various court suits. That allowed authorities to tentatively identify her as a wealthy eccentric named Isabel McHie. She asserted that she had been kidnapped from the train and that “I have Federal Reserve Bank receipts for the money and I intend to get it back.”

Who was Isabel McHie?

Born Isabel Agnes Mulhall on April 20, 1875, in St. Louis, she was the only child of Susan J. and John F. Mulhall. According to various newspaper reports, both of her parents came from wealthy families and her father John was a multimillionaire silver mine owner. When Isabel reached the age of fourteen, her parents decided to divorce, at which point Isabel was sent off to complete her education at a convent.

In 1893, Isabel, who was considered to be “one of the most beautiful girls in the world,” was chosen to be the beauty queen of the World’s Columbian Exhibition, aka the Chicago World’s Fair. When the Planters Hotel in St. Louis opened one year later, Isabel was the central model chosen for a large mural that was painted on one of its walls.

It is said that the breathtaking Isabel had many suitors. Among them was a wealthy stockbroker named Albert Royal Delmont and the two would marry at her mom’s residence on March 25, 1896. They then moved to Chicago and lived a life of luxury until the stock market tanked and Albert lost nearly everything. Isabel asked for a formal separation in 1901 and the two were officially divorced on September 17, 1903. Isabel was granted $2,400 per year in alimony (approximately $70,000 per year today) and opted to move to New York City to pursue a career on the stage. It wasn’t long before Isabel landing a role in “A Country Girl,” which was playing at Daly’s Theatre on Broadway.

Daly's Theatre on Broadway in New York City, 1893.
Daly’s Theatre on Broadway in New York City, 1893. Wikipedia image.

On February 10, 1906, Isabel was staying at an acquaintance’s house in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, which lies about 20 miles (32 km) up the Hudson River from Manhattan. Edgar Purdy, who Isabel employed as her chauffeur, suddenly broke into her room and put a revolver to her head. Purdy, who was drunk as a skunk, professed his love for Isabel, even though he was married and the father of five children. He also demanded $10,000 from her so that he could start a business in Mexico. Somehow Isabel wrestled the revolver away from Purdy and he made a run for it. Isabel then turned the weapon over to the police and a warrant was issued for Purdy’s arrest.

Fast forward to March 21st and Isabel was back at her apartment in the Hotel Stratford, located at 11 East 32nd Street in Manhattan. Purdy called to speak to Isabel but her doctor intercepted the call. As he kept Purdy on the line, the doctor signaled to another man that he should contact the police. Officers found Purdy at a nearby tavern and arrested him. He was in possession of a gun and was charged with carrying a concealed weapon. Purdy denied the charges and was released on a $500 bond. Lawyers for the two sides discussed the case and it was agreed that if Purdy stayed away from Isabel, no further charges would be filed.

What’s interesting about this somewhat sensational story is that it would mark the first time that Isabel’s name would be thrust into the headlines of New York City’s newspapers. And it wouldn’t be the last.

Sidmon McHie

At this point in Isabel’s story, a man named Sidmon (Sid) McHie enters the picture. He had started his career in 1884 by operating a cigar stand on the ground floor of a Chicago office building that was home to several brokerage firms. After the dealing was done for the day, his stand became a place for the brokerage clients to hang out and shoot the breeze. It didn’t take him long to realize the only people always earning money were the brokers. Even if a client’s stock declined greatly in value, the broker was guaranteed his percentage. It was a world that Sid knew that he needed to be part of.

He started small, setting up what was then referred to as a bucket shop at his cigar stand. Players would simply bet on whether a stock would rise or fall in value and Sid would get his cut of every bet. It wasn’t long before Sid was raking in the dough and set up additional bucket shops in Detroit and Milwaukee.

With a sudden influx of money, Sid needed a place to invest his cash. He set his sights on Hammond, Indiana, which was located at the far end of Chicago’s newly constructed elevated railway. Sid realized that Hammond was about to experience significant growth and he wisely invested in real estate there. Perhaps his most significant investment there was his 1906 purchase of the Hammond Tribune, which he renamed The Lake County Times. Today, the paper is simply called The Times. To house his newspaper, he constructed the five-story Hammond building. On the second floor of that building he set up the offices for his bucket shop, which he had transformed into what we would call a brokerage today.

But, Hammond proved too small for the man. He left all of his operations in the hands of his brothers and set his sights on New York City. Sid was incredibly successful in New York and became a millionaire many times over. One estimate placed his fortune in excess of $20 million. Adjusted for inflation, Sid McHie had more than half a billion dollars.

It is unknown how Isabel Mulhall Delmont and Sid McHie met, but on July 20, 1909, the two tied the knot in a rush, secret ceremony. At first, the couple seemed ideal for each other. The two traveled to places like England, France, and Bermuda. Sid lavished Isabel with gifts, homes, and just about anything that she desired. In 1919, the two signed reciprocal wills leaving all of their worldly possessions to each other. And that’s when everything seemed to all fall apart.

1920 passport photos of Isabel McHie and Sidmon McHie.
1920 passport photos of Isabel McHie and Sidmon McHie.

Annoying Choir Boys

In 1923, Isabel announced that she was leaving her entire fortune of more than $450,000 (about $7 million today) to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to construct the largest animal hospital ever built in New York City. To be known as the Isabel McHie Memorial, it would feature a marble bust of Isabel and was to sit on a pedestal that would contain her ashes. In addition, inscribed over the entrance to the hospital would be the words, “The more I saw of people, the more I thought of dogs.”

This instantly brought Isabel to the attention of the national press and nearly all interpreted her generous donation in just one way: Isabel McHie was a first-class kook.

In a January 11, 1923 interview, Isabel stated, “Just say it is all I have in the world, or will have from trusts that will come to me. Even my jewels will be sold and the money given to the memorial fund.” She continued, “I can do anything with animals and mine have always been so well trained that I could take them to a friend’s home for bridge and know they would not be an annoyance. Indeed, I’ve been told that it was a pity I could not have trained children, they would’ve been so well mannered.” Isabel added, “My husband has nothing to do with this. It is not his money. It is mine. It is all my affair.” Interestingly, the only pet that Isabel had at the time was a nine-year-old parrot.

Isabel’s original plan was to leave her entire estate to build a hospital for terminally ill children. What changed her mind was the St. Thomas Episcopal Church. It was located directly across the street from the couple’s home at 18 West 53rd Street in Manhattan and Isabel couldn’t tolerate the sound produced when the boys’ choir would sing. In an effort to drown them out, she would take her Victrola, place it near an open window, and use an amplifier to blast her music toward the church. Realizing that those terminally ill children could grow up to be annoying choir boys, Isabel rewrote her will so that all of her money went to the building of an animal hospital.

By this time, her husband Sid had moved out of their apartment. He could no longer live with Isabel’s incessant nagging, complaining, and violent temper. The two would officially file for separation in 1925.

Isabel McHie in 1925
Isabel McHie in 1925. Image is mislabeled. Text at top should read Mrs. Sidmon McHie. A similar image appears on page 1 of the May 13, 1931 issue of the New York Daily News, confirming that this is definitely her. Library of Congress image.

On August 16, 1928, while traveling aboard the Cunard Lancastria, Isabel had caused such a commotion that the crew locked her in the ship’s brig for the remainder of her trip.

Isabel’s behavior would become increasingly erratic and eccentric as the years went on. In 1930, her mother grew so concerned that she asked a judge to declare Isabel incompetent and to be appointed her daughter’s special guardian. The court went even further: Isabel was not only judged incompetent but was confined to the Shepherd and Enoch Pratt psychiatric hospital in Baltimore.

About six months later, on May 9, 1931, a car drove up to the hospital, a heavily veiled woman exited the car and then entered the building. Isabel quickly changed clothing with the unidentified woman, walked out of the building, and was driven away to freedom. Isabel fled to New York where she challenged the Maryland order that adjudged her incompetent. While this case was pending, Isabel filed a $100,000 lawsuit against the Cunard Line for alleged mistreatment, which brought further attention to her possible insanity. Yet, the New York Supreme Court ruled on November 7, 1931, that Isabel was sane and she regained control of her personal property, reportedly being $510,000 in value. ($8.8 million today.)

This brings us full circle back to where this story began: March 20, 1935. Isabel McHie had been forcibly removed from a train in Battle Creek, Michigan, and was undergoing a psychiatric evaluation at the Leila hospital.

It fell upon Mrs. Eugene Ambos, a friend of Isabel, and her 82-year-old mother, Susan Mulhall to untangle the mess. Upon arrival in Battle Creek, the two demanded that Isabel be released from the hospital, which their staff reluctantly agreed to do. Dr. William Dugan stated, “Mrs. McHie was not confined here long enough for us to determine definitely what was the cause of her mental condition.”

Yet, the two women were unsuccessful in their attempt to get Isabel’s fortune in cash and jewelry turned over to them. Both Police Chief Hugh Gordon and Grand Trunk Railway officials agreed that they would not release the loot without a court order.

Shortly after that, Maurice H. Wolpe produced a writ of attachment issued by a Chicago court charging that Isabel was indebted to him for $14,509.74. It was argued that she was “about to dispose of, conceal and defraud her creditors” by crossing the border into Canada.

It fell upon Circuit Court Judge Blaine W. Hatch to determine who was the rightful owner of the cash and jewels. Two doctors who had examined Isabel at the hospital took the stand and testified that they found her fully capable of handling her own affairs.

On Saturday, March 23, Isabel took the stand in her own defense. She was able to provide withdrawal slips for $172,000 of the $173,505 that had been taken from her. She was also able to describe each and every piece of jewelry. When questioned as to why she was carrying such a large fortune with her, she told the court that this was not unusual and that she had little trust in banks. As for the jewels, she stated, “My day for jewels is quite over.” Her plan was to go to Canada and sell her many jewels there because she could get a better price for them.

By the end of the day, Judge Hatch was satisfied that Isabel had proven her identity, her ability to handle her own affairs, and that the cash and jewels were hers. He ordered that everything, minus the funds claimed by Maurice H. Wolpe, be turned over to Isabel. As Isabel read down her list of jewels, there was a brief gasp when she stated that a string of sapphires was missing. To everyone’s relief, she later found it in her handbag.

From the courtroom, Isabel quickly went to the express office and arranged that her jewels be shipped back to Chicago. Later that evening, she checked out of her room at the Kellogg Hotel. On April 15, Isabel’s lawyers were able to prove that she did not owe Mr. Wolpe anything and the remainder of her fortune was returned to her.

But, wait! There’s more!

And that should be the end of the story, but it wasn’t.

Feeling that she had been subjected to ridicule and deprived of both her property and fortune, Isabel filed a $1 million lawsuit against the city of Battle Creek, several city policemen, the Grand Trunk Railroad, Leila Hospital, the Associated Press, and several other people. Most of these cases were tossed out, but a federal judge allowed the suit against the railroad to proceed.

And proceed it did, albeit very slowly. Four years later, the case was still pending when there was a sudden turn of events. On April 27, 1939, Isabel McHie died in New York City. She was 64 years of age. On November 21 of that same year, attorneys for her estate indicated that they were not prepared to move forward against Grand Trunk and the judge assigned to the case dismissed the lawsuit.

Remember her unusual will that left everything to SPCA for the construction of the Isabel McHie Memorial animal hospital? That idea was out the window. She had since written a new will.

Fearing that she could be murdered, one clause specified that an autopsy be performed to determine whether or not she had died from natural causes. It further specified that $25,000 ($473,000 adjusted for inflation) be set aside to prosecute anyone who may have had a hand in her death. The document directed that her ashes be scattered over “the middle of the Atlantic ocean.”

The bulk of her estate was left to The Seeing Eye, Inc in Morristown, New Jersey. Still in existence today, The Seeing Eye is the oldest existing guide dog school for the blind in the world. To her mother, she left her $6,000 in cash and an annuity that paid out $1,800 per year. (Approximately $113,000 plus $34,000 per year today.)

Advertisement for the sale of Isabel D. McHie's estate that appeared on page 12 of the November 13, 1939 issue of The New York Times.
Advertisement for the sale of Isabel D. McHie’s estate that appeared on page 12 of the November 13, 1939 issue of The New York Times.

Almost immediately, challenges were made to her will. The first came from her mother. It was argued that under New York State law, no person could leave more than one-half of their estate to charity if survived by parents or blood relatives. That meant that Mrs. Mulhall was entitled to at least 50% of her late daughter’s estate.

Isabel’s will made an unusual claim in that she had “received letters from extortionists,” and that it should be “distinctly understood that any person claiming to be my father is an imposter.”

On April 19, 1940, nearly one year to the day after she had passed away, that imposter walked into a New York courtroom. An 89-year-old man named John F. Mulhall claimed to be her father and was staking a claim for his share of Isabel’s estate.

And this is where much of Isabel’s story of her youth falls apart. In 1879, while Isabel was still a small child, her father left for Texas to look after the cattle interests of her grandfather. He tried to convince Mrs. Mulhall to bring Isabel to Texas, but she refused. Until this day in court, the couple had not set eyes on one another for more than sixty years.

Isabel had clearly embellished details of her youth. She didn’t come from a wealthy family, nor was her father a multimillionaire silver mine owner. While he was a prospector for a while, he didn’t earn much doing so and never sent a single penny back home to help support his former wife and child. Isabel had been the central model for the mural at the Planters Hotel, but there is no evidence that she was the beauty queen at the Worlds Columbian Exhibition. (The September 24, 1893 publication of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that she had attended the fair with her mother, after which they were headed to the northwest for a few weeks, but there is no mention of her being beauty queen.)

Planters Hotel in St. Louis, circa 1901.
Planters Hotel in St. Louis, circa 1901. Library of Congress image.

But was he really her father? Isabel warned that anyone who claimed to be so was an imposter. In court, he described how he married a young Susan J. Robinson “in her mommy’s parlor” on Olive Street in St. Louis back on May 11, 1874. He was completely unaware that she had divorced him in 1881. “Ha-ha, it was hidden from me. No one ever told me, that’s a cinch.” When asked to identify the woman who he claimed to be his wife, the nearly blind Mulhall stepped down from the witness stand and squinted for nearly a minute before confirming, “Yep, that’s her. That’s Susie Robinson. That’s the gall [sic] I married.” He was able to produce their marriage certificate, daughter Isabel’s birth certificate, and a family bible noting the date of their marriage.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge James A. Foley ruled that Mulhall had proven that he was Isabel’s father and was entitled to one-quarter of her estate. Mrs. Mulhall was not pleased. “I wouldn’t touch him with a 10-foot pole. He never gave Isabel or me a 5-cent piece in his life.”

Isabel McHie
Isabel McHie. Image appeared on page 77 of the November 21, 1942 publication of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Isabel and Sid McHie had divorced three years prior to Isabel’s death, but that didn’t stop him from trying to regain the fortune that he had given her while they were still married. As previously mentioned, the two had agreed to a reciprocal will agreement ten years after their wedding. But, when the couple separated in 1926, they drew up papers nullifying that 1919 contract.

The catch in that 1926 agreement was its sixth covenant which forbid Isabel from “annoying, molesting and bedeviling” Sid for the rest of his life. She clearly didn’t do that, resulting in the federal district court of northern Indiana ruling that she had breached the 1926 agreement and that the contract rights of the 1919 reciprocal agreement were reinstated. In other words, Sid was entitled to the entirety of Isabel’s estate. And he needed it. He had lost the bulk of his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash and was now only worth about $40,000, far less than the value of Isabel’s estate.

Not so fast! The decision was challenged and the appeals court invalidated the lower court’s ruling. Sid challenged that ruling but the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Sid would receive nothing from Isabel’s estate.

Just as it seemed that all of the challenges to Isabel’s estate were coming to an end, a new will suddenly appeared. This document had been written in 1934, which was one year before Isabel’s final will was penned. In it, Isabel left $5,000 to The Seeing Eye, $6,000 to Mrs. Mulhall, $5,100 to Mrs. Elizabeth Beatty, and the remainder of the estate to her son, 19-year-old Robert Owen Beatty. The argument was that Isabel was not mentally competent when she drew up her final will. The court didn’t buy it and the challenge was dismissed.

On August 13, 1944, Barry Baron, executor for Isabel’s estate, handed over a check to The Seeing Eye for $123,205, which is more than $1.8 million today. Both of Isabel’s parents were deceased at this point, so their estates were each awarded $35,000 apiece. After more than five years of legal haggling, the estate was mostly settled in the manner that Isabel had intended. Her fortune went to the dogs.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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