During desperate times some people are forced to do desperate things. The trick is to not get caught. Let’s just say that Maybelle Trow Knox was not very good at that last part. An interesting story that involves a speakeasy raid, double identities, forged documents, a missing mom, and more…
Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date: August 30, 2017
We’ve finally reached the concluding episode of my three-part series on Le Mars Iowa from the 1930’s.
As a quick refresher, all three stories are tied together by the odd bequest of Le Mars lawyer T.M. Zink. He asked that his estate be invested for a period of seventy-five years, after which the proceeds would be used to build a womanless library. The court voided his will and his daughter Margretta Becker inherited his entire fortune.
If you recall, a promissory note valued at $10,000 had been filed against the estate. It had been signed by Zink in April of 1930, just five months prior to his death and, if valid, could have wiped out a large portion of his estate.
So, here’s a little background on that note:
Two days following the death of Zink, a bank in Le Mars received an envelope postmarked Kansas City. Inside was a letter from a woman named Irene M. Brown and the original promissory note. Bank officials were concerned about the validity of the claim, since the document had not been sworn and affirmed. Correspondence between the bank and Ms. Brown’s attorneys in Sioux Falls commenced, but no resolution could be achieved between the two parties. That’s when a suit was filed on Ms. Brown’s behalf with the court. A copy of the note was included with the documents provided to the court, but almost immediately the suit was withdrawn.
Woman-hater T.M. Zink was not hurting for money at the time of his death, so it seemed surprising that he would promise Ms. Brown – a woman – such a large sum. The filing of the suit was brought to the attention of Zink’s daughter Margretta and she obtained a photostatic copy of the note. As a side note, keep in mind that the photocopier had yet to be invented. The photostatic process was basically as it sounds: documents were photographed on to long rolls of film prior to being developed.
Anything to do with the Zink estate was certain to sell more newspapers, so reporters in Le Mars, Des Moines, and Sioux City quickly jumped on the story. All attempted to track Irene Brown down, but were unsuccessful. The woman seemed to have just vanished into the ether.
With such a large portion of her inheritance at risk, Mrs. Becker decided to seek out the help of professionals. She turned the investigation over to the Burns Detective Agency in New York.
Investigators obtained their first clue to solving this mystery in Laurel, Nebraska. They learned that a woman named Maybelle Trow Knox owned some farmland in the area and, like so many others during the Depression, she had run into trouble paying the mortgage. In an effort to avoid losing the property, she provided the mortgage holder Union Central Life Insurance a promissory note for $2,500. This was money that she didn’t have at the moment, but was certain that she would have shortly. That’s because the note had been provided by the mysterious Irene Brown and endorsed over by Mrs. Knox to Union Central. And just where was Irene Brown going to get all that money from? That was quite simple. She insinuated that she would shortly be receiving a large payout from the estate of T.M. Zink.
Starting from there, detectives soon learned that on-and-off over a period of a few months Irene Brown had been lodging at the Cataract Hotel in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A little sleuthing determined that Irene looked very similar to Mrs. Knox. So similar that they could pass for twins. There was a very good reason for this: Detectives determined that the two women were, in fact, the same person. Mrs. Knox invented the Irene Brown persona to fraudulently obtain money from the Zink estate.
On March 10, 1932, a Plymouth county grand jury handed down an indictment against Mrs. Knox, charging her with the forging of a legal document.
This news came as a great shock to the citizens of Le Mars. Maybelle Knox was a highly regarded member of the local community. She had been active in her church and was a member of various church organizations. As a strong supporter of the social reforms, Mrs. Knox became president of the Plymouth county chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Forging a promissory note seemed like the last thing that anyone would expect from such an upstanding citizen.
It was through her work as a prohibitionist that Mrs. Knox first made headlines. At 9:30 PM on Saturday June 8, 1929, Maybelle was standing outside Joe Duster’s soft drink parlor at 22 Central Avenue SE in Le Mars and overheard one of his customers state “Let’s go in and get a drink.” She immediately went to the mayor’s office and the next thing you know, the supposed speakeasy was being raided by Mrs. Knox and police officer Fay Terpenning. A large jeering crowd gathered outside the parlor as the two searched the place. No “likker” was found, but May stood by her claim that there was plenty of alcohol on the premises prior to the raid.
In late June 1929 Joe Duster turned around and sued May Knox for $15,000 in damages (approximately $241,000 adjusted for inflation). And just who did he get to prepare and file the lawsuit? If you have been following these three stories on Le Mars, you probably already know the answer: Joe retained the services of T.M. Zink’s law firm of Kass, Zink and Kass.
Of course, Zink would never get to represent Joe Duster in court. He died on September 11, 1930 and soon after that promissory note supposedly forged by Mrs. Knox made its first appearance. It wouldn’t be until March 7, 1931 that Zink’s bizarre womanless library bequest was invalidated by the court.
One month later, on Monday April 20, 1931, a jury was seated for the case of Joe Duster vs. Maybelle Knox. Opening statements were made, a few witnesses were called to the stand, and then the judge announced Tuesday morning that the two sides were discussing proposals to settle the case. At noon, the judge announced that no agreement had been reached and everyone should take a break for lunch. Upon their return, it was announced that the two sides had finally settled the case.
Joe Duster agreed to withdraw his lawsuit if Mrs. Knox would make a public announcement that no alcoholic beverages were found at his parlor and that the statements that she made against the establishment were unjustified.
Mrs. Knox suddenly became suspiciously ill and was unable to be present in court at the time that the judge made his announcement, but her husband Sumner sat with her attorney as the following statement was read in the courtroom: “It is undisputed that on the occasion of the alleged search of Joe Duster’s soft drink parlor on June 8, 1929, no intoxicating liquors were found, nor was there anything discovered that would tend to show that Duster had been engaged in the illegal sale of intoxicating liquor at that place.”
Both sides agreed to split the court expenses and for most people that would have been the last time that they would have appeared in the news. That was not the case for May Knox.
Less than one-year later, Maybelle was back in the news for pretending to be Irene M. Brown and forging that $10,000 I.O.U. against the Zink estate. This time she was placed under arrest and her bond was set at $4,500, which would be about $80,000 today. Mrs. Knox vehemently denied all the charges and was certain that the real Irene Brown, who she described as being quiet and shy, would soon step forward and clear up this entire mess.
Less than two weeks later, Maybelle and her husband Sumner were arrested in Kansas City after the couple attempted to hire a woman to impersonate the mysterious Irene M. Brown. Their plan was simple: The woman would come forward and testify that she had met T.M. Zink in a hotel café, they became friends, and then loaned him the $10,000. Once it was proven that Irene Brown was a real person, Maybelle Knox planned to file a $50,000 damage suit against the Zink estate for malicious prosecution. A portion of that monetary award would be used to pay off the impersonator that they hired. The mistake that they made was that one of the women that they interviewed for the job was married to a federal postal inspector. Oops…
Her bondsman, Morris Levich of Sioux City, immediately withdrew his bond. Mrs. Knox was brought back home and thrown back into the county jail.
Her trial for the forged document opened six weeks later on Monday May 22, 1932. Mrs. Knox was apparently too weak to walk into the courtroom and had to be carried in. Then, just as the jury was seated, she dramatically fainted and had to be taken home. She was still in a supposed “coma” the next morning, and was ordered to be admitted to the hospital. The remainder of the trial was cancelled and Mrs. Knox continued her recovery in county jail. On December 9th, she finally admitted that she had forged the promissory note and plead guilty to the charge of forgery. The next day, Maybelle Trow Knox became prisoner #841 at the state penitentiary in Fort Madison. Admission records describe her as being a 40-year-old Catholic woman who stood 5’9” (175-cm) tall, weighed 198-1/2 lbs. (90-kg), with blue eyes, light brown hair, a medium complexion, and was college educated.
If you are like me, you probably never read the legal notices in the classified section of the newspaper. Well, someone was paying attention while reading the September 8, 1933 publication of the Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel. Hidden away in the fine print on page six was a notice accusing Mrs. Knox of another impersonation. This time a man named R.J. Koehler was requesting that the court foreclose on two properties that Mr. and Mrs. Knox owned in Le Mars. The claim was that Maybelle posed as one Mabel Brotten and used phony collateral to secure a $1070.00 loan from him. These properties and several others that the couple owned were all foreclosed upon over the next few years.
May Knox was released from prison as scheduled and did her best to stay out of trouble. Let’s just say that she was not very good at it. She was once again front-page headlines for an incident that occurred on Monday February 7, 1938. A group of approximately 100 WPA – Works Progress Administration – members met with Plymouth county officials to request an increase in the hourly wage rate. Sumner Knox was their spokesman, but he expressed his personal grievances instead of representing the group as a whole. It seems that Sumner had been dismissed from his duties a few weeks prior and blamed the county board. That’s when Harry Cannon, a representative from the state’s welfare office, opened his mouth and told Sumner that he personally fired him because of both his refusal to follow directives and the fact that he could no longer be trusted. Maybelle Knox then jumped up and started screaming at Mr. Cannon. She then stormed across the room and slapped him several times. One blow was so intense – that it knocked out the crown of a tooth. Police were called but everything was calm by the time of their arrival on the scene.
Two months later May Knox would once again be in the news. This time she was not in any sort of trouble. Instead, she was challenging her local elected officials in court over their decision to hire a tax ferret – aka a tax bounty hunter – to collect unpaid taxes. The group that she represented sought to get an injunction while the legality of the tax ferret was determined. The case was ultimately dismissed for want of prosecution. That’s because May Knox was about to be the center of perhaps the greatest mystery ever to occur in Le Mars. A story so great that it would capture the attention of the entire nation.
In November of 1938, rumors started to spread around town that Maybelle’s mother 80-year-old Lucinda Trow had not been seen in quite some time. In her later years, she rarely ever left her home and would often be seen sitting on her back porch or in front of a window, but that had since ceased. It was her late husband’s $90 per month (approximately $1500 today) Civil War Veteran’s pension that she used to meet expenses.
Oh where, oh where, could Lucinda Trow be?
On Monday November 7, 1938, two reporters from the Le Mars Globe-Post decided to make a visit to Mrs. Trow’s home to investigate. Can you guess who answered the door? You are correct. It was her daughter Maybelle Trow Knox. Due to a lack of income, she had been forced to take up residence in her mother’s home.
May told the reporters that she didn’t allow anyone to see her mother because it caused her to become agitated, which ultimately meant a sleepless night for both women after visitors left. The reporters said that they needed to interview mom so that they could end all further inquiries as to her well-being. Maybelle agreed and the reporters came back at 3 PM to interview Mrs. Trow.
When they arrived, there was no one home. Since Mrs. Knox had a history of fainting spells – remember her supposed coma during her trial? – reporters were afraid that she may have had a heart attack. They reported to the matter to the police. Permission to enter the premises was given by the Le Mars city council two days later (Wednesday) and the house was finally entered. No one was inside except for Maybelle’s Pekingese. Later in the day a local constable went to the house to padlock it, but found that Mrs. Knox was now home.
On Thursday the 10th, The LeMars Globe-Post supposedly received a tip that Mrs. Knox’s dog was lying dead in her backyard. The reporters didn’t find a dog, but were soon approached by neighbor Charles Bingenheimer. He informed the reporters that Maybelle had taken her mom to Nebraska to celebrate Thanksgiving with relatives and asked him to keep watch on the house while she was gone. He agreed and she lent him a key.
Fearing that the dog may be sick or dying inside, Mr. Bingenheimer agreed to allow the reporters into the house. Upon entering, they were immediately confronted by the sounds of a woman moaning in distress. They went up to Lucinda Trow’s bedroom and there they found May Knox lying in the bed nearly passed out and in great pain. She declined the help of a doctor, but was willing to accept the ultimate cure for everything: orange sherbet.
She then explained why she broke off the interview with the reporters on Monday. “My mother has changed so much in recent years I was afraid people wouldn’t believe that she was the same woman. I thought it best to take her to Nebraska where she wouldn’t be annoyed.”
Maybelle explained that the two had driven to Nebraska City in a car operated by friend Ed Roach. Upon completion of the interview, a reporter called Mr. Roach in Nebraska and he confirmed that he had been in Le Mars on Monday and had visited Maybelle. But the story that he told was far different from what Mrs. Knox had told the reporters. It seems that May had been sending love letters to Ed Roach claiming that she was unmarried, both of her parents were dead, and that she was ten years younger than her real age. In one letter May wrote that she “needed lovin’” and requested that Ed come get her. She did add one condition to her offering of love: he had to give her $500 to pay off her mortgage.
No one really knows why Ed went to see Mrs. Knox that day. Ed told reporters that he was considering hiring her as a housekeeper, but he may have had more lustful thoughts on his mind. He claimed that Mrs. Knox did not impress his 9-year-old daughter Geneva and the two opted to return home without her. But this may have been to save face. The fact that police later discovered bushels of correspondence that Maybelle had with men all across the country who had advertised for wives, suggests that Ed may have really come to Le Mars for the lovin’.
Caught in what was clearly a lie, Mrs. Knox told the sheriff on Friday a totally different story. “My mother left with Sumner Knox the latter part of May 1938, in a car driven by Clifford Smith, a cousin of Sumner’s. They went to Wisconsin – either to Monroe or Janesville.” She continued, “I haven’t heard from my mother in a long time – I did hear at first, when Sumner took her away… from Janesville, Wisconsin.” She claimed that Sumner spiked her mother’s tea with sleeping tablets and that he “took my mother away from me because he said that I didn’t take the right care of her.”
Are you starting to get a sense of déjà vu? First May Knox is found nearly passed out on her bed and then she is coming up with two crazy stories to explain it all away. All that is missing from this puzzle is an attempt by Maybelle to go somewhere and hire an imposter to play the part of her mother.
Shocking as it may sound, it was later learned that she did just exactly that. On that first day when reporters arrived to the empty Trow home for their scheduled interview, Maybelle was really hitching a ride to Sioux City. She lodged with a friend and then proceeded to contact the local senior home, requesting that one of the woman take a taxi to Le Mars and impersonate her mom. Her clever plan was squashed when home officials learned of the proposal. Supposedly Mrs. Knox was willing to take anyone, no matter how sick, to stand-in for her mom.
No one was buying her latest claim that Sumner had drugged Mrs. Trow, so police decided to ask Mrs. Knox to voluntarily go to a nearby rest home while they continued their investigation. She agreed.
Police soon deduced that her mom was neither in Nebraska or Wisconsin. They were now certain that she had not left home at all. Instead, they believed that she was buried somewhere in the backyard of the family home. And just how did they come to this conclusion? Let’s just say that Mrs. Knox wasn’t very good at keeping her mouth shut. During a conversation with a friend, Mrs. Knox supposedly remarked, “If they find a body in the garden be sure it is my mother.”
On Saturday November 12th, the digging commenced. Behind the house was a garden mound approximately 15-feet (4.5-meters) in length and bordered with bricks. One portion of the mound had sunken in and seemed like the best place to excavate. It didn’t take long. Less than 2-feet down (60-centimeters) shovels started to uncover a large wooden box. Well, not really a box. It was a veneer kitchen cabinet that measured approximately 65” (165 cm) long x 14” (36 cm) wide x 18” (46 cm) deep. The cupboard was opened and the shrunken remains of an elderly woman were discovered. Maybelle’s brother Len Trow identified the body as that of his missing mom Lucinda.
Now that the remains of Mrs. Trow had been uncovered, the police wondered whether additional bodies could be buried in that yard. There was still no sign of her husband Sumner and an unnamed woman who had been boarding with Maybelle the previous summer who was also missing.
Digging continued. A filled-in old well was excavated and some small bones were found. It was quickly determined that these were the remains of a dog that may have previously fallen into the well. Investigators found no additional remains behind the home, human or otherwise.
After an autopsy was performed on Mrs. Trow’s badly decomposed body, state toxicologist Wilbur J. Teeters reported, “There is no indication of any of the alkaloid or organic poisons.” While he did not rule out the possibility of poisoning, he did not see any evidence of it. A crack was observed in her skull, but that was not believed to have been caused by any sort of violence. The conclusion was that Lucinda Trow had died of natural causes about six months prior. She was given a proper burial next to the grave of her late husband.
May Knox was placed under arrest for illegal burial and fraudulently cashing in her late mother’s pension checks. Yet, even when confronted with all the mounting evidence against her, Mrs. Knox still insisted that her husband Sumner and her mom had driven off with his cousin Clifford Smith.
In an effort to leave no stone unturned, investigators attempted to locate Clifford Smith. With so many Smiths residing within the United States, they ultimately narrowed the field down to two different Clifford Smiths who had resided in Le Mars. It was determined that neither had any connection to the case.
Ten days after Mrs. Trow’s body was uncovered, authorities learned that Maybelle Knox had filed papers in Adel, Iowa on January 21, 1934 charging her husband Sumner with “cruelty, gambling, non-support and intoxication.” The reason no one could find him was because the two were divorced in April 1934.
On November 30, 1938, Maybelle Trow Knox plead guilty to the charge of conspiracy. She was admitted as prisoner number 1248 to the Women’s Reformatory at Rockwell City on December 12, 1939 to serve out a 3-year sentence. Records show that she was now 49-years-old, which was nine years older than when she was in prison seven years earlier. Someone was fibbing about their age…
All of Maybelle Knox’s possessions were auctioned off to help pay her debts. Not only did she need to reimburse the federal government for six illegally cashed pension checks, May had missed numerous mortgage payments and failed to pay a number of contractors for work that they had done while building her a new home in 1929. Far from enough money was raised to cover everything, but it was reported that her beloved Pekingese was sold for $10, which is approximately $175 adjusted for inflation.
With May Knox behind bars and everything she possessed sold off, there was still one unanswered question in the case: Just where was Sumner Knox?
The answer to this puzzling question would arrive in the mail on January 11, 1939. That’s the day Plymouth County Sheriff Frank Scholer received a letter from Sumner himself, dated January 8. It turns out that Sumner had no clue that anyone had been looking for him. He had been working for several months in the state of Washington and was currently in search of additional work. He explained, “So for the past two months I have been practically out of communication as to what is going on.”
Boy, did he miss a lot…
He continued, “The last I saw Mrs. Trow was the last of April and she seemed as well as ever, in spite of her age. This is certainly a great shock to me, as I really thought a great deal of Mrs. Trow.”
In early August 1939, Maybelle penned a rambling letter to the Globe-Post that seemed to blame everyone but herself for what had happened. “I could never understand why the idea first put forth that I had killed my mother and Mr. Knox was not left to stand. I certainly never would have fought it provided I could have had the death penalty. Of course, know this sort of thing is the worst kind of living death.”
On June 23, 1944 Sumner Knox married Edith Haines in Clark County, Washington. My guess is that he was glad to get as far away from Maybelle Knox as he possibly could. He passed away on February 20, 1957. He was 64 years of age and was buried in the Lone Oak Cemetery in Stayton, Oregon.
As to what happened to Maybelle Trow Knox, that has proven difficult to determine. After serving about fifteen months in prison, it was reported that she had become a housekeeper on a large farm in Des Moines. And that’s it. I spent hours searching the various databases for more information, but was unsuccessful. It’s as if she vanished off the face of the Earth. If anyone has any further information, please let me know.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.