The Mysterious Death of Mary Ravenel, 1933
In the fall of 1933, on a brisk November evening, Miss Elsa Efferhardt and a companion were heading home after an evening spent driving when they came upon the prone figure of society matron, Mary Ravenel. They flagged down passerby John Townsend and a “one-armed boy,” Allan Holmes, who recalled that “two ladies asked us to give them a hand [because] a lady was lying on the sidewalk.” Assuming she was the victim of a hit-and-run accident, they loaded Mrs. Ravenel into the vehicle and set off for Roper Hospital. On the way, Mrs. Ravenel screamed in agony, “Let me out of [the] car. I know I am going to die. The pain hurts me so!”[i]
At the hospital, Dr. J. Avery Finger and Nurse Glascock tried in vain to determine the cause of Mary Ravenel’s condition. When Dr. Finger asked Mrs. Ravenel what happened she replied, “A man hit me.” When pressed if it was a car, she responded, “No. I don’t know what it was.” With no clues as to her condition, there was little that Dr. Finger and Roper Hospital staff could do, and Mary Ravenel soon passed away. Only as the coroner examined her body post-mortem did they discover the source of her downfall, a small gunshot wound under her right arm. Mary Ravenel had been shot! The bullet grazed her forearm before entering her body under the upper right arm and becoming lodged in her chest. The cause of death was internal bleeding. The trajectory of the bullet was an indication that Mrs. Ravenel likely raised her arm as if to ward off a blow.[ii]
One thing was certain: nobody could imagine why anyone would want to harm Mary Ravenel. Mrs. Ravenel was a well-known, respected figure in Charleston society and her death sent shock waves through the community. Although originally from Detroit, Michigan, Mary had lived in the South since her marriage to William E. Martin in 1892. The Martins owned Woodside Plantation in the small town of Shirley, South Carolina, and had four children prior to William’s premature death in 1905.[iii]
While living in Savannah, Georgia, a few years later, Mary became engaged to wealthy Charlestonian John Ravenel and they married in 1907. John Ravenel was the eldest son of prominent Charleston physician and pioneer of the phosphate industry, St. Julian Ravenel. John Ravenel carried on his father’s work in the lucrative phosphate industry. He was also a prominent member of Charleston’s burgeoning golf community and had even medaled in several tournaments.[iv]
After relocating to Charleston, Mary became active in a number of charitable and social organizations including the Country Club of Charleston, the Epiphany Guild of St. Michael’s Church, and the American Legion Auxiliary. As president of the Social Affairs Committee of the Country Club, she organized afternoon teas and dances that were the talk of the town. Ever the consummate hostess, Mrs. Ravenel regularly held benefits for local charities in her home and even accommodated New England poet Robert Frost when he visited Charleston to address the South Carolina Poetry Society in 1929.[v]
Mary Ravenel’s prominence in the community is one of the reasons her sudden, violent death came as such a shock to Charleston society. Community leaders demanded answers. The Charleston Police Department responded with an extensive investigation. The police detectives assigned to the case, Herman R. Berkman and W.P. Rentiers, conducted over seventy-five interviews in the days and weeks following the shooting. They met regularly with Chief Detective John J. Healy to discuss the particulars of the case. As their investigation unfolded, the detectives considered a number of theories on the circumstances surrounding the cause of Mrs. Ravenel’s death.[vi]
The theory that someone intentionally murdered Mary Ravenel held little sway. “We have investigated the case from every angle” stated Chief Detective John J. Healy, “and have found nothing that would indicate a motive for taking her life.” By all accounts, Mrs. Ravenel was a popular and well-liked community member who no one could imagine causing the type of rage that would provoke murder. The police believed that her death was likely unintentional, possibly caused by a stray bullet. A number of residents reported hearing a screeching cat or a catfight prior to a gunshot. The police theory supposed that someone annoyed by the cat fired a shot that inadvertently struck Mrs. Ravenel. The fact that the police found no gunpowder on the body supported the theory that she was shot from a distance. Yet Mrs. Ravenel’s assertion that a man hit her, along with the trajectory of the shot indicating a defensive stance, made this theory somewhat less plausible.[vii]
Another theory put forth by an acquaintance of Mary Ravenel, Nicky Paine, presumed that she either committed suicide or accidentally shot herself. Mr. Paine adamantly insisted, “We don’t shoot cats down here!” He claimed that Mrs. Ravenel owned a 38-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun and, at one time, had asked him to teach her to shoot, a request he refused. Mr. Paine postulated that Mary might have accidentally discharged the gun after tripping. This theory quickly evaporated as no weapon was found at the scene; and, based on the trajectory of the bullet, the police did not believe the wound was self-inflicted. Moreover, Mrs. Ravenel’s son, Dudley Martin, claimed she never owned a gun and when he brought one home, she refused to let him have it in the house because it frightened her.[viii]
The final theory examined by the police held that Mrs. Ravenel fell victim to a robbery. The crime occurred in one of Charleston’s best neighborhoods, near popular Ohlandt’s Grocery store and a stone’s throw from the Battery, yet crime often spilled over from neighboring areas where prostitution and blind tigers thrived. Moreover, the nation was deep in the throes of the Great Depression and the economic downturn may have led some to resort to desperate measures including robbery. The police, however, did not believe robbery a likely cause, as Mrs. Ravenel’s pocketbook and jewelry were untouched. The detectives tried in vain to determine whether she had been wearing her costly fur stole, an item that a robber might quickly seize in the heat of the moment. Several residents, including Col. F.W. Glover, Army instructor of reserve officers, recalled hearing a shot followed by the sound of “the patter of feet” running away. Could a robber have accidentally fired the shot that killed Mary Ravenel and then fled the scene in a panic?[ix]
As the trail of evidence grew cold, the administration of Mayor Burnet R. Maybank offered a $250 reward to anyone with information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for her death. Despite this incentive, months of fielding tips turned up no reliable evidence. The detectives could not conclusively determine the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Ravenel’s death, and the investigation ultimately stalled.[x]
The years leading up to the Great Depression in the United States saw a drastic increase in violent crime. The murder rate in the U.S. peaked in 1933 at 9.7 murders per 100,000 people.[xi] The newspapers at the time were full of sensational stories of mob-related atrocities in cities like Chicago and New York. A number of high-profile murder cases in South Carolina, including that of Mary Ravenel, hit closer to home. In Columbia, the kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Herbert H. Harris, Jr., the son of a chain store executive, outraged residents of Columbia. Meanwhile, in Charleston, the very same night of Mary Ravenel’s death, Earl Riggs killed ex-policeman Charles G. Hilton with an icepick after an argument on Market Street.[xii]
The death of Mary Ravenel, in particular, ignited fears of violent crime seeping into the lives of the seemingly insulated upper class. Mrs. Ravenel did not frequent questionable establishments where one might run into trouble. The night of her murder, she ate dinner with a friend at the lavish Fort Sumter Hotel before settling in for the short walk home. The rector of St. Michael’s Church likely echoed the feelings of many Charlestonians when he lamented “the tragedy of murder in the place of public traffic where the walls of friends’ houses but cast dark shadows helplessly over her fallen figure victimized alone in the dark before she could reach her human home.”[xiii]
South Carolina community leaders in the 1930s decried the increase in violent crime and robberies. Businessmen and law enforcement personnel across the state united to create a special committee to study crime in South Carolina. Many blamed increased crime rates directly on prohibition, which they argued created a bootleg system that thrived in back alleys and bodegas. Some, including Attorney General John M. Daniel, denounced the motion picture industry and the creation of “gangster moving pictures” that glorified violence. “While the government of our country is seeking to wipe out the activities of gunmen,” Daniel stated, “crime is being taught in many moving picture exhibitions.”[xiv]
The Great Depression, which drove thousands of Charlestonians into unemployment and left many without the means of providing for their families, likely contributed to rising crime rates in the early 1930s. The crisis precipitated by the massive increase in unemployment quickly overwhelmed local charities and government agencies. For men, women, and children struggling to put food on the table, criminal activity may have seemed the only means of survival.[xv]
In South Carolina, and across the nation, relief came in the form of federally funded employment opportunities initiated by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s New Deal sought to alleviate the suffering of Americans through the inauguration of a broad plan for public relief that provided basic necessities for the poor and created work relief projects. The creation of jobs for those who might otherwise turn to illegal activities, along with the repeal of the 18th Amendment, facilitated a reduction in crime rates. According to criminologist, Barry Latzer, between 1934 and 1937, the murder rate fell by 20% and by 1940 was down to 6.4 per 100,000.[xvi] At the National Parole Conference in 1939, Roosevelt made his thoughts on the connection between poverty and crime clear when he asserted that by initiating “a broad program of social welfare, we struck at the very roots of crime itself.”[xvii]
Despite the gradual decline in crime rates, the tragic death of Mary Ravenel remained in the minds of Charlestonians for many years to come. In 1938, a suicide note found beside the body of thirty-four-year-old William Allen in Blackstone, Virginia confessed to the killing of five people, including two in Charleston, South Carolina. Residents of Charleston immediately thought of the unsolved murder of Mary Ravenel. The Charleston Police Department sent Chief Detective Joseph F. Wise and Detective James B. Atteberry to Virginia to investigate.[xviii]
At the time of his suicide, William Allen had a warrant out for his arrest for the brutal murder of twenty-eight-year-old Jeanette Worsham. Allen wrote his confession in two parts, the first portion was dated three days prior to the killing of Miss Worsham and detailed “the knife and swift weight I used [to kill] two in Charleston, S.C., one in Hopewell, [V.A.] one in Petersburg [V.A.].” The second portion of the note read, “No job, no money, no health. I am going to take Jeanette with me.”[xix]
Detectives Wise and Atteberry conducted a series of interviews in an effort to track William Allen’s whereabouts during the preceding years. They learned that Allen, the adopted son of Virginia farmer, Peter C. Skinner, married a woman from the Charleston area who had traveled to Hopewell, Virginia for work in 1926. The pair had two children prior to separating in 1929 when Allen was arrested for poor treatment of his family. His wife returned to South Carolina where she remarried a Charleston County man. Despite this connection, the detectives did not believe that Allen had ever visited Charleston. From interviews with his friends and family, they determined that Allen lived and worked in Blackstone throughout 1933.[xx]
Upon their return to Charleston, the detectives interviewed Allen’s former spouse (who remained unnamed). She claimed to have not seen Allen since their 1929 divorce. From her, the detectives learned that Allen always carried a knife strapped to his leg and was very practiced in its use. This was the same type of knife used to kill Jeanette Worsham and which, according to Allen’s own words, he used to kill his other victims. They also learned that Allen was very fond of detective stories. In his report to Police Commissioner, Henry W. Lockwood, Chief Wise hypothesized that “in order to convey the news of his deed and death through newspapers to his estranged wife and to other possible friends in Hopewell, Va., and Petersburg, Va., Allen mentioned these places.”[xxi] Owing to inaccuracies in his confession and the lack of evidence that Allen ever visited Charleston, the detectives dismissed the confession as a hoax and the murder of Mary Ravenel remained unsolved.
Nearly one hundred years after her death, the Charleston Police Department Detective Notebook: Ravenel Murder, 1933-1935 made its way to the Records Management Division where it holds a special place in our little archive. The notebook serves as both a reminder of the brutality and violence that characterized Charleston during the early twentieth century, and stands as a testament to the dedication of the detectives who investigated her murder. Moreover, the murder of Mary Ravenel provides unique insight into the class struggles that plagued Charleston throughout its history. Elite Charlestonians held deep-seated fear and anxiety that the violence that permeated disadvantaged, struggling, working-class neighborhoods would spill into their own lives. For Mary Ravenel those fears proved valid.
“Advises Film’s Censor: John M. Daniel Lays Crime to Pictures.” Charleston News and Courier, October 6, 1933.
Charleston Police Department Detective Notebook: Ravenel Murder, 1933-1935. City of Charleston Records Management Division, Charleston, SC.
City of Charleston Yearbook, 1938. Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans, and Cogswell Co., 1937.
“City Offers $250 in Ravenel Death.” Charleston News and Courier, November 21, 1933.
“Earl Riggs Held in Icepick Death of Ex-Policeman.” Charleston News and Courier, November 2, 1933.
“For Thanksgiving Tea: Served by Ladies’ Committee at Country Club.” Charleston News and Courier, November 22, 1915.
Goodwin, Conrad Harrison. “Mrs. John Ravenel.” Charleston News and Courier, December 11, 1933.
Johnson, Ryan S., Shawn Kantor, and Price V. Fishback. “Striking at the Roots of Crime: The Impact of Social Welfare Spending on Crime during the Great Depression.” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. w12825, last modified July 18, 2022, https://ssrn.com/abstract=956864.
Justice Research and Statistics Association. Crime and Justice Atlas 2000. Washington, D.C.: Justice Research and Statistics Association, June 2000. https://www.jrsa.org/projects/Crime_Atlas_2000.pdf.
Latzer, Barry. “Do Hard Times Spark More Crime?” Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2014. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-latzer-crime-economy-20140124-story.html.
“Mayor Offers $250 Reward.” Charleston Evening Post, November 21, 1933.
“Mrs. John Ravenel Elected President.” Charleston Evening Post, June 9, 1927.
“No New Light on Slaying.” The Charleston Evening Post, November 4, 1933.
“Police Quote Robert H. Miles in Story of Killing Boy of 15.” Charleston News and Courier, December 27, 1933.
“Police Think Stray Shot Killed Mrs. John Ravenel.” Charleston Evening Post, November 2, 1933.
“Police to Probe Blackstone Note.” Charleston News and Courier, April 3, 1938.
“Ravenel Death Still Mystery.” Charleston News and Courier, October 4, 1936.
“Ravenel Murder Still a Mystery.” Charleston News and Courier, April 5, 1938.
“Robert Frost to Lecture Tonight.” Charleston News and Courier, April 20, 1929.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Address at the National Parole Conference, White House, Washington, D.C., April 17, 1939.” Accessed July 20, 2022. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/209533.
“Society.” Charleston Evening Post, November 2, 1907
“Two Sleuths en Route Home.” Charleston Evening Post, April 4, 1938.
“United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925.” Database with images. FamilySearch. http://FamilySearch.org: 18 July 2022. M1490 Passport Applications, 2 January 1906 – 31 March 1925 > Roll 1996, 1922 May, certificate no 179850-180225 > image 244 of 728; NARA microfilm publications M1490 and M1372. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.
“Visit 15 Persons in Virginia Probe.” Charleston News and Courier, April 4, 1938.
White, James Terry. The National Cyclopedia of American Biography: Being the History of the United States. Volume X. New York: Franklin Printing and Publishing Company, 1900.
“Woodside Plantation – Estille – Hampton County.” South Carolina Plantations. Accessed 27 April 2022. https://south-carolina-plantations.com/hampton/woodside.html.
Schultz, Rebecca L., “The Mysterious Death of Mary Ravenel,” City of Charleston Records Management Division, 29 April 2022, https://www.charleston-sc.gov/182/Records-Management-Division.
[i] Charleston Police Department Detective Notebook: Ravenel Murder, 1933-1935, Box AR-B-019, Folder 10, City of Charleston Records Management Division, Charleston, SC, 2, 13-14 (hereafter cited as Detective Notebook).
[ii] Detective Notebook, 3-4; “No New Light on Slaying,” The Charleston Evening Post, November 4, 1933, 7 (hereafter cited as Evening Post); “Ravenel Death Still Mystery,” Charleston News and Courier, October 4, 1936, 19 (hereafter cited as News and Courier).
[iii]“Woodside Plantation – Estille – Hampton County,” South Carolina Plantations, accessed 27 April 2022, https://south-carolina-plantations.com/hampton/woodside.html; Goodwin, Conrad Harrison, “Mrs. John Ravenel,” News and Courier, December 11, 1933, 4.
[iv] “Society,” Evening Post, November 2, 1907, 5; White, James Terry, The National Cyclopedia of American Biography: Being the History of the United States, Volume X (New York: Franklin Printing and Publishing Company, 1900), 272–273.
[v] “For Thanksgiving Tea: Served by Ladies’ Committee at Country Club,” News and Courier, November 22, 1915, 2; “Mrs. John Ravenel Elected President,” Evening Post, June 9, 1927, 12; “Robert Frost to Lecture Tonight,” News and Courier, April 20, 1929, 16.
[vi] “Mayor Offers $250 Reward,” Evening Post, November 21, 1933, 2.
[vii] “Police Think Stray Shot Killed Mrs. John Ravenel,” Evening Post, November 2, 1933, 1.
[viii] Detective Notebook, 40.
[ix] “Ravenel Death Still Mystery,” 19; Detective Notebook, 5.
[x] “City Offers $250 in Ravenel Death,” News and Courier, November 21, 1933, 2.
[xi] Justice Research and Statistics Association, Crime and Justice Atlas 2000, (Washington, D.C.: Justice Research and Statistics Association, June 2000), 36-38, https://www.jrsa.org/projects/Crime_Atlas_2000.pdf;
[xii] “Police Quote Robert H. Miles in Story of Killing Boy of 15,” News and Courier, December 27, 1933, 1; “Earl Riggs Held in Icepick Death of Ex-Policeman,” News and Courier, November 2, 1933, 1.
[xiii] Goodwin, 4.
[xiv] “Advises Film’s Censor: John M. Daniel Lays Crime to Pictures,” News and Courier, October 6, 1933, 1.
[xv]Johnson, Ryan S., Shawn Kantor, and Price V. Fishback, “Striking at the Roots of Crime: The Impact of Social Welfare Spending on Crime during the Great Depression,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. w12825, last modified July 18, 2022, https://ssrn.com/abstract=956864, 4-8.
[xvi] Latzer, Barry, “Do Hard Times Spark More Crime?” Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2014, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-latzer-crime-economy-20140124-story.html.
[xviii] “Police to Probe Blackstone Note,” News and Courier, April 3, 1938, 10.
[xix] “Two Sleuths En Route Home,” Evening Post, April 4, 1938, 2.
[xx] “Visit 15 Persons in Virginia Probe,” News and Courier, April 4, 1938, 10; “Ravenel Murder Still a Mystery,” News and Courier, April 5, 1938, 12.
[xxi] “Ravenel Murder Still a Mystery,” News and Courier, April 5, 1938, 12.