Previously: Mother Love: The Townsends Pt 2
Feb. 17, 1921; Chicago
Nancy Luther Chamberlain died in her 90s, at home, after a perfectly ordinary life. It was the kind of unremarkable death that doesn’t raise an undertaker’s eyebrow. But what happened after – her daughter Ruth and granddaughter Marian kept Nancy’s body above ground for weeks; they buried her in their backyard; and they never told the authorities – meant that a serious investigation was required.
As Cook County Coroner, Peter M. Hoffman was tasked with getting some answers. By 1921, Hoffman had been coroner for 17 years. He’d seen everything from race riots to the crash of the Wingfoot dirigible. After the Eastland Disaster killed hundreds, he managed the operation that turned the Second Regiment Armory into a morgue, and watched thousands of weeping relatives file past the bodies.
And yet, Hoffman was not ready for Ruth Townsend.
On the morning of Feb. 17, 1921, the Townsend women, officials, police, and gawkers gathered at an undertaker’s rooms on Michigan Avenue for the inquest. It went sideways from the start. Hoffman’s incisive detective style was no match for the erratic Ruth, who giggled and fidgeted through her testimony. She gave inscrutable answers, when she agreed to answer questions at all. The tenured Hoffman struggled to stay professional.
Among other revelations, Ruth told Hoffman that she was only 25 years old, that she had two souls — Ruth and Achsah — and that Marian was not her daughter.
“There is another Ruth Townsend whose daughter she is. I am not that one. Another one is that one. That one is a myth. One is one and all in one,” she said. “Find Ruth in the great beyond and she’ll tell you all about it.”
Despite the crowd snickering behind him, Hoffman pressed on, trying to tease out a thread of evidence or fact. According to Ruth, “the first power” had instructed her to keep her mother’s body in the house for weeks. “We enjoyed every minute of it,” she added.
When Hoffman paused to question a police officer in the audience, Ruth interrupted him, saying that the officer could know nothing. She also stood up from her chair, claiming that her deceased father’s spirit had entered the room. The crowd was amused; Hoffman was not.
He called her daughter Marian to the stand, but things didn’t get any easier. Before Marian could even speak, Ruth (from her chair) loudly warned her daughter to be careful about what she said.
Fortunately, Marian was able to give some coherent testimony. Her grandmother Nancy had often talked of death, and she had specifically requested the extended stay above ground. “Wasn’t there an odor?” Hoffman asked. Marian conceded there was — the women had tended the decaying body with disinfectant-soaked towels for weeks.
Mostly, though, Marian was no clearer than her mother. “We kept grandmother because we were ordered to do so by direction. Power is one, not two.” She clarified for the crowd: Power number one was her grandmother. Number two was Ruth. And Marian was power number three.
“It was from the Bible, yes, the Bible…” she said, standing up to stare at Hoffman. “Granny and mother and I liked to talk of death. Often we would sit together of a whole evening and discuss different aspects of the other world. I know of no hereafter, though. I only know now. Everything is power, one, unity, spirit.”
Hoffman had had enough. He told Marian to step down, declaring, “I have never heard such stuff in my life.”
As the Chicago Daily News put it: “Coroner Hoffman declared that in the 57,000 cases he had handled he never had encountered two people as ‘looney’ as the mother and daughter.”
“Not that I think they’re crazy… It’s this spiritualism bug that’s hit them. I think the daughter could be restored to normalcy if she were separated from her mother. Her mother dominates her and drives her crazy with the cracked notions about sprits and spirit love and communications with the beyond. The girl herself is a brilliant, talented girl, but she is under the hypnotic influence of her mother. Dr. Hickson will be able to tell just what ails the mother to-morrow. If she’s as bad as she acts she should be locked away somewhere.”
The inquest was postponed for a week. In the meantime, officials could perform chemical tests on the corpse, and much-needed psychiatric tests on Marian and Ruth.
Feb. 18, 1921: The Board Tells All
Hoffman was not alone in struggling with Ruth and Marian’s unusual closeness, which had complicated the investigation all along. They had been kept in separate detention homes until the inquest, and that had only validated the need to keep them apart. Ruth was treated like a lost cause, beyond help. She doesn’t seem to have had any advocates – possibly because she had burned too many bridges over the years. Instead, everyone centered their hopes on getting Marian to a new life away from her mother’s influence. Friends offered a temporary home, and her father and brother were laying plans for a move to her sister Carole’s home in California.
It followed that the women’s psychiatric examinations would be separate, too. Dr. William J. Hickson, the founder of the city’s psychopathic laboratory, was called in. Hickson was a psychiatrist of his day; his diagnoses were sometimes as basic as granting the label “feeble-minded” or “moron.” His claim to fame was his ability to determine someone’s sanity or criminal insanity within two hours. He was in the papers regularly.
He examined the two women in their separate detentions, and his findings (“hopelessly insane”) were no surprise. The interesting part is what happened when he told Ruth that she would be moved to Cook County’s Psychopathic Hospital, and thus permanently separated from Marian. She wasn’t insane, she insisted – it was her Ouija board’s fault. She, her mother, and Marian had used their Ouija board often, writing down and retyping hundreds of “sermons” it provided them. The power of one, two, and three was not part of any cult belief but “a result of the things the Ouija board taught us in the sermons.”
As with her earlier spiritual interests, Ruth was following the crowd when it came to Ouija boards. In the years immediately after World War I and the global influenza epidemic, with their corresponding death tolls, Ouija board popularity skyrocketed. Norman Rockwell even put one on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. They were both the new fad and the new danger, so of course her comment made headlines.
Hickson actually agreed with Ruth. “The thing was obviously brought on by an indulgence in the Ouija-board absurdities. Listening to messages from the beyond and making the Ouija board write out things dictated by the alleged spirits eventually broke down the mental clarity of both mother and daughter.”
But if Ruth had hoped that the Ouija board alibi would get her out of psychiatric care, she was mistaken. The next day, in a closed insanity hearing, Hickson testified that both women were “hopelessly insane.” He concluded that Marian and her mother were suffering from dementia praecox, one of his frequent diagnoses.
“The weakened mentality of both women is the result of their constant religious study and seclusion,” he opined. “They have developed their intellectual sensibility at the expense of emotional development. Their brains are lopsided. They are abnormal in one way and subnormal in the other. In both cases the emotional brain cells have become atrophied through lack of use. Such a case is almost incurable.”
There were no snickering crowds this time, just the women, the experts, and a room that must have been overwhelming with the cold reality of how their lives were changed. Ruth was declared insane, and committed to the psychopathic hospital as she had feared. If she was upset, it wasn’t noted by the newspapers.
At her brother Frederick’s urging, Marian was sent back to detention. He was also one of the few attendees at the close of the inquest on Feb. 24. He was there only to advocate for Marian. The examiners found no foul play, no chemicals or poisons, in the old woman’s death. Her death was ascribed to natural causes. There would not be a murder trial. But the inquest jury also found that the two women were “either insane or on the borderland of insanity.” Marian, too, would have a stay at the psychopathic hospital.
At last, this brought out her anger: “How long must we stay there?” she asked with some fire. “Indefinitely” was the answer she got back. There was nothing Frederick could do for now.
The next evening, a Friday, Nancy Chamberlain was cremated at Frederick’s request. The case was done.
The After Life, 1921-?
Tracking the path of Marian and Ruth after 1921 was tricky at best. Much like two ghosts, they seem to have disappeared.
Their stay in the psychopathic hospital ultimately proved to be brief. By early March, both had been discharged and were headed to stay “with friends.” The bohemian storefront they had enjoyed on 57th Street was no longer an option.
And after that, there is no trace… for years. No definitive appearances in the 1930, or 1940 censuses. No directory listings. They were somewhere — probably California. The whole family appears to have moved there (and died there), one by one.
Earliest, in 1927, was their father Charles Townsend. He died in Santa Barbara – presumably having chosen it to be near his daughter Carole. Naturally, there’s no obituary that would give any clues as to Marian’s whereabouts. Nor are there hints in the documents around Carole’s death in 1939.
Nothing appears until 1944, and it’s a bit grim – it’s Ruth’s death certificate.
The document hints at an itinerant existence. Her listed address, at 851 S. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles, was the Embassy Hotel. Under “Informant,” we can see Marian is living there, too. It also tells us that Ruth had been in Los Angeles for two months, and California for only a year. Where was she before then? My hunch is there may have been other hospital stays. With no money to speak of, she was probably dependent on friends or relatives.
The most alarming part is found under the causes of Ruth’s death: Senility, and an accidental scalding. It’s a terrible and frightening end for her.
And yet, and yet. In her obituary there is a glimmer of something better.
Marian, the gifted musician, at last makes her reappearance. Why she opted for the pseudonym Lea Gainer is a mystery – perhaps the events of 1921 seemed still too close. Maybe she needed a new start. Clearly, as a musician in the movie industry, she had found one. How ironic that the shy pianist found a way to produce music that would be heard by thousands – and they would never know her name. I couldn’t find a single movie credit for her.
The movie career didn’t last long. In the spring of 1948, Marian married Grover Cleveland Staley. They were together until his death in 1955.
Marian appears to have lived her remaining years in Texas. She died in the small town of Cameron in 1985. Even that is a bit of a mystery – I couldn’t find a death certificate, an obituary, or anything beyond a solitary Social Security Death Index mention.
It’s as if she slipped into the ether. ☗
Chicago Tribune; 18 Feb, 19 Feb, 20 Feb, 25 Feb, 27 Feb 1921
New York Daily News; Feb 18, 1921
Chicago Daily News; Feb 18, 1921
Tucson Citizen; Feb 17, 1921
The Gazette (Montreal); Feb. 18, 1921
The Decatur Herald; Feb. 18, 1921
Hickson’s skills: Hartford Courant; Aug 31, 1924
State of Illinois Medical Center District Fact Book, 1948
Peter Hoffman photo
Achsah’s Death certificate
Encyclopedia of Chicago: Mental Health
The Story of Dunning, A ‘Tomb For The Living’
Ouija board history
Hoffman/Eastland: Chicago Tribune; July 25, 1915