Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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The Price of a Kiss – Podcast #146

I’ve been piecing this story together for more than a decade in dribs and drabs. Initially, I had no more than half a dozen newspaper clippings that I had gathered up and placed in a manila folder labeled the “Price of a Kiss.” While I’m still left with a few unanswered questions, I’m confident that I have assembled enough of the puzzle pieces to provide a fairly complete telling of the events as they unfolded. It’s one of those stories that started out being focused on one particular woman but soon shifted to that of a man.

His name was Justin Lowell Mitchell. He was born on April 3, 1877, in Napoleon, Ohio, which lies approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers) southwest of Toledo. By the turn of the twentieth century, he had relocated 45 miles (72 kilometers) southward to Lima to become a barber. His first, and far from his last, mention in the press came on October 6, 1903, with a brief blurb in the Times-Democrat: “Marriage License. Justice [sic] Mitchell, 26, barber, and Della McElvane, 23, both of Lima.”

Dr. Justin L Mitchell
Dr. Justin L Mitchell’s passport photo.

Justin Mitchell had grander dreams. Two years later, he gave up his tonsorial profession and the couple relocated to the windy city, Chicago. There, Della secured a job as a clerk in a retail store where she worked to pay her husband’s way through medical school. It was not enough to make ends meet, so Della’s father generously helped to support the couple.

In 1911, Della intercepted two postcards that had been mailed to her husband. They were from another woman. On May 3, 1911, Della was in court suing her husband for a divorce. “I’m not going to stand for any ‘Morning Glory’ calling my husband ‘Honey Bunch.’” She added, “That wasn’t all, but he used to go to shows with a tall blonde that called him ‘Honey Bunch.’”

The trial quickly evolved into a he-said/she-said accusatorial circus that made headlines in quite a few newspapers. It was quite scandalous for its time. Della accused her husband of numerous affairs with his patients, told of a time that he had thrown her to the floor and broke her eyeglasses, and accused him of using both abusive and profane language when they argued. In turn, Justin called men to the witness stand who supposedly had affairs with Della. Both denied the other’s charges.

Two days later, Judge William Fennimore Cooper, instructed the jury to deliver its verdict. The court found each guilty of infidelity and the divorce request was denied. Both requested new trials, but the press dropped the story like a hot potato. Dr. Mitchell would remarry in 1931, so his first marriage clearly did come to an end at some point. The details, however, are unknown.

As I had mentioned earlier, this story was originally centered around a woman, not Dr. Mitchell. Her name was Mathilde Benkhardt. Born in Germany on December 24, 1892, she arrived in New York and passed through Ellis Island on September 5, 1911. Her 1920 application for naturalization describes her as being “Color White, complexion fair, height 5 feet 1 inches [155 cm], weight 110 pounds [50 kg], color of hair D-Brown, color of eyes D-Brown, other distinctive marks none.” On that same document, she declared, “I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside therein; SO HELP ME GOD.”

Mathilde Benkhardt
Mathilde Benkhardt. Image appeared on page 22 of the March 1, 1923 publication of the Harrisburg Evening News.

Mathilde was determined to improve her position in life. For two years, she worked by day so that she could earn enough to pay her way through high school, which she attended at night. (Sidenote: My late grandfather, Jack Silverman, explained to me many years ago that going to high school in the early 1900s was considered an advanced education. High school was not compulsory nor was it free in many locales.)

Upon graduation from high school, Mathilde spent three years training to be a nurse at the German Evangelical Deaconess Hospital in Chicago. Known to the staff as “German,” she was considered to be an excellent nurse. Mathilde was almost certain to be granted her nursing diploma. Yet, they refused to issue it to her and gave her a simple certificate instead.

Why was she denied her diploma? Very simple. At 2 PM on Thursday, April 24, 1919, Mathilde was working in the maternity ward of the hospital when Dr. Mitchell came in and forcibly tried to kiss her.

Mathilde decided to sue. And just what was the price of a kiss? Mathilde Benkhardt was requesting that a jury award her $25,000 (approximately $393,000 today.)

The trial opened in a Chicago courtroom on January 10, 1922, once again placing Dr. Mitchell in the center of a scandalous, he-said/she-said, headline-grabbing story.

Mathilde testified that this was not the first time that Dr. Mitchell had attempted to kiss her. He had done it one other time, back in 1916. “He kissed me in the drug room.”

On the day of that second forced kiss, Mathilde was dressed in her nursing uniform and attending to eighteen newly born babies whose cribs were arranged in a semicircle around the hospital nursery. She testified, “I was standing near the crib of a new born baby. I was bending over the crib. Dr. Mitchell came in. We were alone. He put his hand on my neck.” She continued, “He lifted me up and pushed me into the corner.”

Mathilde was frightened and attempted to push the doctor away but was unable to do so. Just then, the door to the nursery swung open and the superintendent of nurses came in, questioning what had just happened. The doctor whispered to Mathilde, “Don’t mention the incident” before turning to the head nurse and stating, “I think this case was caused by the instruments.”

Within twenty minutes of that attempted kiss, Mathilde reported the attack to the night superintendent, Sister Anna Buschell. In turn, Sister Buschell informed Reverend Frederick Weber, the superintendent of the hospital.

Mathilde described what happened next. “He questioned me privately, also Dr. Mitchell. The same day the board of directors was convened, and I told my story. Dr. Mitchell told the board that he had merely tried to tickle me.”

Mathilde Benkhardt
Mathilde Benkhardt. Image appeared on page 9 of the January 1, 1921 publication of the Chicago Tribune.

Right after the meeting concluded, Mathilde was informed that “Dr. Mitchell must leave within twenty-four hours.” Not long after that, Dr. Mitchell approached Mathilde and told her, “Girl, you’ve made the mistake of your life.”

The next day, Mathilde was subjected to a humiliating examination by a group of six doctors to determine if she was still a virgin or not.

Mathilde was not allowed to return to her nursing position and soon learned that the hospital had decided to dismiss her without her nursing degree. Instead, Reverend Weber handed Mathilde a letter of reference and told her that she could complete her studies at the epileptic school in St. Charles, Missouri. In place of a diploma, on June 6, 1919, six weeks after the incident, the hospital issued Mathilde Benkhardt a certificate that read, in part, “her conduct has been very satisfactory.” Dr. Mitchell, on the other hand, was allowed to stay on as a staff physician without penalty.

When it was Dr. Mitchell’s turn to take the stand, he declared that the charges “are the bunk” and “I am the victim of a plot.”

In his closing argument, Dr. Mitchell’s attorney, Hugh R. Porter, stated, “I believe that the first thing any woman, placed in a position similar to that charged, would do would be to scream. And Miss Benkhardt testified that for twenty minutes she was unable to speak. Can you believe this?”

He added, “While it is true that the examination of the physicians has proved this girl a virgin, it is also true that a girl may be ever so virtuous and still tell a story. She isn’t anybody’s baby. She is 27 years old.”

The jury deliberated the case for nine hours and, on January 14, 1922, notified the court that they had been unable to reach a unanimous decision. The vote was 10 to 2 in favor of Miss Benkhardt. Mathilde’s attorney immediately requested a new trial and the judge agreed.

Miss Benkhardt expressed her displeasure with the press. “If they had only assessed him a penny, I would have been more than satisfied.” She continued, “The money does not mean anything to me, whether they allow me 1 cent or $25,000. It is the principle and my good name I am fighting for.”

A few months prior to the start of the second trial, Dr. Mitchell told reporters, “I’m ready for trial. I have full confidence in my attorney Hugh R. Porter and the average jury. This girl was never wronged either by me or by the hospital. If she wants to go ahead and make more trouble with her suit after juries are allowing such damages as $1 and 6 cents in similar cases, I’m ready.” In fact, there had been a number of similar cases around the same time as this trial. Many were either dismissed or settled out of court, although a few women were awarded small amounts including $3, $25, and $58.50.

On February 21, 1923, Miss Benkhardt once again told her story a packed courtroom and it differed little from that of the first trial. When questioned by attorney Porter as to why she didn’t scream, Mathilde replied, “Because I was too terrified. I couldn’t say anything or tell anybody for twenty minutes. I was so frightened.”

Mathilde Benkhardt and Dr. Justin L. Mitchell in court.
Mathilde Benkhardt and Dr. Justin L. Mitchell in court. Image appeared on page 32 of the February 22, 1923 publication of the Chicago Tribune.

Well aware that the majority of jurists had voted in Miss Benkhardt’s favor, the overall tone of the defense was far more aggressive this time around.

The Chicago Tribune wrote, “Dr. Mitchell took the stand in his own defense. His attitude was more of that of an angry, denying, and at times confused man than that of a well poised man of medicine. He showed none of the cool impersonality displayed by Miss Benkhardt.”

Dr. Mitchell testified, “I did not attempt to kiss Miss Benkhardt. I did not hug her or make any improper advances toward her.”

With World War I still fresh in everyone’s memory, the defense attempted to use Miss Benkhardt’s German heritage against her. Not only was her German accent pointed out to all in the jury, but Dr. Mitchell claimed that in 1917, “I overheard Miss Benkhardt saying, ‘I wish I was in Rockford. Then some of the boys wouldn’t get across. I would put poison in their soup.’ I reprimanded her, and it seems to me that she disliked me after that.” (He appears to be referring to Camp Grant near Rockford, IL, which was one of the largest military training facilities in the United States during WWI.)

Reverend Weber, the hospital’s superintendent, was also asked to take the witness stand. While he admitted that Mathilde had never been allowed to present her case at the meeting where they voted to dismiss her, Weber did his best to discredit her. “In the first place, I learned from the sisters and the nurses that her reputation for truth and veracity was bad.” To discredit this testimony, Reverend Alfred Wenzel, was brought in as a surprise witness and stated that he doubted Reverend Weber’s ability to tell the truth.

The jury reached their verdict on February 23, 1923 and then went home. The judge ordered their decision sealed until the next day. Surprisingly, neither Miss Benkhardt nor Dr. Mitchell were present when the verdict was read. The jury had awarded Mathilde Benkhardt $20,000 for the two kisses that Dr. Mitchell had forced upon her. And there is the answer: the price of a kiss in 1923 was $10,000 per kiss, although the real charges against Dr. Mitchell and the hospital were far more serious than this headline-grabbing monetary award would suggest. Shortly after the decision was handed down, the hospital did the right thing and they expelled Dr. Mitchell and issued Miss Benkhardt the diploma that she had worked so hard to receive.

Mathilde Benkhardt.
Mathilde Benkhardt. Image appeared on page 16 of the February 27, 1923 publication of the Detroit Free Press.

Yet, that wasn’t the end of the case. The jury’s decision was immediately appealed. On October 9, 1923, Judge Julius Kearns denied the motion for a new trial but agreed to reduce the monetary award to $10,000. He stated, “Ten thousand dollars should repair the damaged feelings of any girl.” He added, “The jury’s award was excessive, when, after all the evidence was in, the case resolved itself, despite voluminous testimony into Miss Benkhardt’s vehement, ‘Yes, he did,’ and the doctor’s equally vigorous ‘No, I didn’t.’”

The judge ordered Dr. Mitchell to pay $600 ($9,265 today) per month until the entire $10,000 was paid off. On October 20, 1923, Dr. Mitchell was arrested for failing to pay a single penny. He claimed that he was insolvent and could not do so. Mathilde Benkhardt’s lawyer requested that Dr. Mitchell be placed in a debtor’s cell until he could come up with the money. Instead, the judge opted to release him on a $5,000 bond.

Yet, the payments never came. On November 8, Dr. Mitchell filed an insolvent debtor’s petition, but the judge assigned to handle the case suggested that he would dismiss it. Instead, the judge gave Dr. Mitchell two options: either pay Miss Benkhardt the full $10,000 that he owes her or post an appeal bond of $12,500. Failure to do either would get him locked up in a debtor’s cell for six months. With the help of neighbors, Mitchell was able to come up with the cash for the bond.

Dr. Mitchell’s fight to avoid paying the $10,000 continued until July 25, 1924. That’s when the two sides agreed to a settlement. Dr. Mitchell paid $2,000 (about $30,800 today) and Miss Benkhardt agreed to drop all further legal action against him. Five years, three months, and one day after she had filed a complaint against the doctor, the long battle between the two had come to a close.

Mathilde Benkhardt’s name would fall out of the headlines and it appears that she lived a quiet life after that. She passed away on September 24, 1943, at fifty years of age. 

Yet, Dr. Mitchell’s life seemed to spiral out of control. On January 12, 1925, just five months after that financial settlement, he was once again making headlines on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. This time he was arrested for “performing a criminal operation from the effects of which Mrs. Catherine Martos [Marton?], 27 years old, 6026 South Wood street, is said to be gravely ill.”

This article never mentioned it specifically but implies that Dr. Mitchell was caught performing an illegal abortion. The operation had been done at the Michigan Boulevard Sanitarium, now long gone, which was located at 3750 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago. 

On July 10, 1928, Dr. Mitchell was arrested for the murder of three infants, all the result of “illegal operations.” I will avoid the gruesome details of this, but the charges were dropped because the prosecution was unable to provide any form of physical evidence to prove their case. It was all based on accusations made by a former hospital assistant superintendent.

On December 10, 1931, Dr. Mitchell was once again arrested for murder by an “illegal operation.” In this case, thirty-year-old Mrs. Ethel Vaughan had died from surgical complications.

On May 27, 1933, Dr. Mitchell was once again arrested after 20-year-old Mrs. Florence Jordan died. She had told police that Dr. Mitchell had performed an abortion on her on May 8.

On May 23, 1934, Dr. Mitchell was once again arrested on a charge of “murder by abortion.” This time the victim was 24-year-old Mary Schwartz.

1918 World War I Registration Card for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.
1918 World War I Registration Card for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.

On February 2, 1936, 20-year-old Alice Haggin, the mother of two children, died. Once again, it was due to abortion complications, a crime for which Dr. Mitchell stood accused.

Yet, somehow, Dr. Mitchell avoided jail time for any of these deaths. Well, his luck finally ran out on February 12, 1936. That is when he was convicted of manslaughter in the April 3, 1935 death of 32-year-old Mary Nowakowski, who went by the name of Mary Novak. Dr. Mitchell was sentenced to one to fourteen years in the Illinois State Penitentiary. An appeal was filed, but the Supreme Court of Illinois upheld the lower court’s ruling. The US Supreme Court declined to hear his case.

American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician File for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.
American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician File for Dr. Justin L. Mitchell.

Dr. Justin Mitchell passed away on May 8, 1941. He was sixty-four years old. It is unclear from publicly available records if he died in prison or not, but his card in the American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician File offers up a big hint: “April 20, 1939 – Rec’d Ill. State Pen., Joliet, Ill., Nov. 16, 1938 – Convicted of Manslaughter and sentenced to an indeterminate period one to fourteen yrs. Will appear before the Division of Pardons and Paroles at the Nov. 1939 meeting. Given a continuance at Nov. 1939 meeting. Case will be heard again at June 1945 meeting.” That implies that he was still imprisoned at the time of his passing. The file is rubber-stamped in big, bold letters: DEAD.

It’s incredible how far he had fallen in the end.

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

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