Francis Lewis Clark, the “elegant entrepreneur,” left his mark on many parts of Spokane, Washington. A famed yachtsman, he named his award-winning craft “The Spokane.” He made much of his fortune in Idaho, and spent much of his fortune on a 900-acre estate, Honeysuckle Lodge, on Hayden Lake.
Francis was married to the willowy and charming Winifred, and they liked to winter in California. On January 17, 1914, F. Lewis accompanied Winifred to the train station in Santa Barbara - she was traveling visit a family member in San Francisco. According to some reports, they quarreled. After seeing her off, he dismissed his chauffeur, saying that he planned to walk back to the hotel himself. He asked for a key to the side door of the hotel.
He was never seen again.
Investigation, Phase 1: Suicide or Accident
The first theory, of course, was that he went into the water, either intentionally or unintentionally. Santa Barbara is a coastal town, and the railroad tracks are only a few blocks from their famous deepwater pier, Stearns Wharf. A few days after he disappeared, Clark’s hat was found floating a mile off-shore, focusing the search on the water.
Investigation, Phase 2: Intentional Disappearance
On January 20th, Winifred volunteers that Francis may be in a sanitarium somewhere in Los Angeles. Evidently their winter plans had been “disarranged suddenly” by Clark deciding to take a “rest cure” in San Diego. According to this version of events, relayed by unnamed “friends” who she spoke to on the train, she was unhappy that she wouldn’t get to see much of him if he were in San Diego, and had decided to go back north to be with family. I think from context that "going back north" is referring to San Francisco (300 miles north of Santa Barbara) and not Spokane.
“Clark Is Alive Is Belief of Police,” says the Associated Press on January 21. Clark’s valet volunteers that he does not think that Clark was suicidal when he left the hotel that evening (to take Winifred to the train station). Mrs. Clark agrees that she does not think there was anything that might have caused him to take his own life, although “he had been in ill health for some time.” Winifred turns back toward Santa Barbara, and Clark’s son, Theodore, departs Cambridge to join his mother in California.
On January 21st, Winifred’s brother-in-law offers a $5,000 reward for finding Clark alive, or $200 for his body. He states, “We are unable to disabuse our minds of the possibility that Mr. Clark is in some sanitarium, hospital, or even held in duress in this vicinity.” As of the 24th, detectives have searched area hospitals and sanitariums for Clark, without success.
Investigation, Phase 3: Abduction
By January 29, 1914, Clark had been missing for 12 days. The Los Angeles Chief of Police makes public the fact that he has a ransom note from a group claiming to be holding F. Lewis Clark. The letter reads as follows:
We are holding Millionaire Clark for ransom of $75,000. State in Examiner if his folks will pay it or not. He is well taken care of. Yours, THE BLACKMAILERS
Across the top they added, “Make prompt reply in the papers as he is very anxious to get out.”
Mrs. Clark says she is willing to pay the ransom if they can prove that they’re the real deal, but the police are skeptical. Mrs. Clark and the detectives both ask for some kind of evidence - a personal item or key sentence that would prove the reality of the message. Evidently they do not get this, because by the 31st, an article on the case notes that police are confident that the kidnapping message was a hoax, and that there are a lot of “tin-star” detectives who want to “get a finger” into Clark’s money.
It’s certainly not unheard of for people to affiliate themselves with prominent crimes just for the attention, or for money. But we actually have some very, very plausible candidates for the authors of this note, and they were not rubberneckers or “tin-star detectives.” They were the most bizarre criminal ring that you’ve never heard of. They had various names, including “The Big Five” and “The Ring” but my absolute favorite is “The Long Beach Spook Trust.”
Meet the Long Beach Spook Trust
The activities of the Spook Trust were revealed over several court cases, many court appearances, and multiple locations between mid-1914 and 1916. The first strand of the web unravels when the Trust overreaches itself and tries to blackmail the mayor of Santa Monica. Going after the mayor was a bit too close to the bone even for experienced fleecers like the trust. The mayor went to the police, who gave him marked bills with which to pay the blackmail. The bills ended up in the hands of two Spook Trust members, private detective Edgar C. Byron and Santa Monica police officer C. C. Minger, both of whom are arrested on May 28, 1914.
CLEVER WOMEN USED AS BAIT, one headline proclaims excitedly. The scope of the ring is coming into focus - it’s clear that they have connections and operations even over in major East coast cities - and their appearance in the papers is bringing out other victims. The police issue a dozen warrants, including four for unnamed female badger-gamers (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Badger_game) and one specifically for “Clarice the Blondy.” These women would apparently “get acquainted with wealthy young society men shortly before their marriage” and then start blackmailing them, in addition to working the “time-worn badger game."
It rapidly becomes clear that this is a massive and complex operation. Byron’s home is full of telegrams, wire reports, letters, and codebooks - including some that indicate he was behind the ransom letter for F. Lewis Clark.
The Ring and F. Lewis Clark
In May 1914, Detective Felts had posed as a “Dr. Edwards,” a representative authorized to pay $50,000 for the safe return of Clark, and met with Mrs. Byron, who said she was aware of the whereabouts of Clark. He then met Mr. Byron by appointment at a hotel. Felts was “hot on the trail” when the mayor blackmail case broke open and Mr. Byron and Constable C. C. Minger were arrested.
“Developments” in the Ring's case led Felts to suspect that they may have had a hand in Clark’s disappearance, and that in fact Clark could possibly still be alive - months after his disappearance - and held hostage on an island off the coast. The Californian detectives prepared to search for Clark, while the Spokane detectives interrogated Mrs. Clark about conversations she had had with members of this psychic ring. There was evidence that Mrs. Clark, when she came to Los Angeles, was met by a female medium who said she could locate Mr. Clark.
Felts claims that he has reason to believe that Millionaire Clark was induced to take an interest in spiritualism. Through this, according to Felts, the millionaire induced his wife to leave Santa Barbara and go to San Francisco. Shortly after she left Santa Barbara Felts believes that the conspirators persuaded Clark to go aboard a steam launch. Then, as the detective reasons, the millionaire was taken away in bondage. With this accomplished, Felts believes that the blackmailers then approached Mrs. Clark through a medium. Felts claims that one of Clark’s most intimate associates was acquainted with a man who is now being sought as an alleged accomplice to Private Detective Byron… (The Oregon Daily Journal, May 31, 1914.)
This sounds outlandish, but it was completely consistent with the activities of the Spook Trust. They specialized in cons that involved a dose of spiritualism, a promise of riches, and a long grift that generally ended in blackmail. They preyed on wealthy widows, preferably those from out of town. They had both male and female mediums in the gang who regularly would do cold approaches on their targets, saying they had received a message from the spiritual realm.
One of the Ring's advertisements https://imgur.com/a/cKucKky
Clarice the Blonde is arrested in connection with the Clark case in early June, and is said to have been involved with several other of the ring’s blackmail and extortion plots. She says “it’s all a mistake” as she’s taken in. “I have never heard of Clark, whom I’m supposed to have kidnapped, and I never heard of Alexander, McCullough, or Byron.” (If you’re thinking that it would be unusual for her never to have even heard of the missing millionaire from her area, we’re on the same page. That’s like somebody in 1991 Los Angeles saying they haven’t heard of Rodney King.)
Marie Ella Allen, a.k.a. Clarice the Blonde https://imgur.com/a/Fj1Kh8i
Clarice is released only four or five days after her arrest, and the newspapers say that “their investigations have failed to uncover any facts that might connect the ring with the disappearance from Santa Barbara several months ago of J. (sic) Lewis Clark.” The rest of the ring is rounded up over the next few months. The ring is broken when two of them quarrel over how to divide up the loot and one shoots the other. A few sentences are handed down. All in all, it’s estimated that the ring took over $200,000 from its targets.
The trials of the ring shed no further light on Clark’s disappearance and/or their connection to it. He is not found, dead or alive, by any searches of the islands. Several of his business ventures are closed or sold. His will leaves $700,000 to Winifred and $10 to Theodore.
The Confession The story jumps ahead to February 1929, when Marie Allen Kelley - formerly known as Marie Ella Allen, or Clarice the Blonde - comes forward to Los Angeles police, saying that she had played a role in Clark’s death and wished to confess.
Marie’s story is as follows. Back in 1914, a man who she calls “Blackie” paid her $800 for riding with Clark in a taxi from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, where a “mob” (later clarified as five men) was waiting to rob Clark. Specifically, Marie was going to meet Clark at a hotel. Marie asserts that she did not know that the mob planned to kill Clark until it was too late. She eventually discloses the real name of “Blackie” to the police, and an address for him in Chicago.
I have told you that I did not see Mr. Clark killed. I drove with him to Santa Barbara, as I have told you, and he left me out at a hotel there, promising to return later. I knew the mob was coming up there and probably would rob him but I did not know of the murder until several months afterward.
The police are skeptical of her claim, and give her a sanity test in which she is examined by two “alienists” (the contemporary term for psychologists) to determine whether the story is a product of her imagination. Marie is defiant.
I saw in this morning’s papers where they believe I am a mental case. If I look like an insane person put me down as one and let it go at that. I am trying to help you solve a case that has weighed on my conscience for many years. Call all the alienists and psychiatrics you desire and I will gladly face all of them.
The case closes again in early March, when the Chief of Police for Santa Barbara declares that Marie’s story is a “fabrication which could not be checked or proven if true. Her story differs in some key material points previously authenticated at the time of Clark’s disappearance. The facts determined at the time of the episode were enough to convince a Coroner’s jury that it was a case of suicide and Mrs. Kelly’s story hasn’t been sufficient to warrant a reopening of the case.”
Besides, it’s been fifteen years, he says. Attempts to check records of hotels were futile, as were their attempts to find the parties she named. “We couldn’t have a criminal case against anybody in connection with Clarks’ disappearance as things stand now.”
After being questioned for several hours and hearing the Chief’s verdict, Marie is described as “resigned and noncommittal about the case.”
The police have done all they can do, I guess. Maybe I’m crazy. It all seems like a dream now. There is something funny about the whole works. I hope I’m not goofy. If it was a dream, it was a bad one.
The trail goes cold again. F. Lewis Clark becomes a story in a roundup of “famous mysteries” that papers can publish on a slow news day.
Did the Long Beach Spook Trust Kill F. Lewis Clark?
I honestly can’t claim that I know what role the Spook Trust played in Clark’s disappearance, but their involvement complicates an already mysterious case. I think there are two main ways that you could plausibly interpret the pieces of evidence that we have.
Interpretation #1: All a hoax.
The most popular interpretation over the years. In this theory, the Spook Trust was totally unconnected to Clark before his disappearance (whether it was an accident, self-harm, or foul play at the hands of an unrelated third party). Given their exhaustive interest in wealthy out-of-towners, it’s likely they were tuned in to who he was, where he was staying (newspapers printed this in those days for notable figures, I was able to find the record for Clark’s hotel), and that he was married. It would have been very easy to deploy one of their faux psychics to Winifred with enough vague but hopeful details to hook her, putting the psychic in the position to prime Winifred for a ransom letter the Trust would later send. When the Trust wasn’t able to provide Winifred adequate evidence - since they didn’t actually have Clark - the plan fell apart.
The part that puzzles me with this interpretation is the 1929 confession. Marie seems to have been surprised that law enforcement was uninterested in doing anything with the information she brought forward. She received some attention for her confession, but no money that I know of, and plenty of negative press. It’s possible that she concocted this story as a way to get revenge on a former partner (business, romantic, or both), but it was several days in before she reluctantly gave contact information for her accomplice, and as far as I know he was never apprehended. If it was a revenge plot, it wasn’t very organized and she didn’t pursue it very aggressively.
Interpretation #2: Ripoff gone wrong.
Another interpretation is that F. Lewis Clark was caught up in one of the Spook Trust’s standard cons. This is what Marie asserts happened, give or take. The tendency of the trust to lure victims to hotels puts a slightly different light on Clark’s insistence on dismissing his staff and walking himself home that fateful evening after dropping off his wife. Was he actually planning on going back to his usual hotel, or was he heading to another location for a rendezvous that he didn’t want anyone to know about? Did the shakedown go awry and the Trust ended up with a body instead of a blackmail victim?
It’s possible, but I think unlikely, that the Trust was holding Clark alive at some point and sending ransom letters but then something went wrong and the kidnapping turned into a murder. One way or another, I’m pretty sure that Clark died the night that he disappeared - there’s zero evidence that he was alive for long after he said farewell to his chauffeur.
The question I’d ask Marie about her story, if I could, is why on earth the Trust would then double down on their involvement in the case by writing a ransom letter. If you’ve actually killed someone, claiming that you are holding them alive and will release them for the right sum is what we might call a high-risk, high-reward maneuver. On the other hand, this was a group who did get violent with victims who didn’t pay up, not to mention each other. Would they have gotten this audacious?
If the police in 1929 thought that it was a case too distant in the past to solve, we can hardly do better 89 years later with only newspapers to work with. There are just too many pieces missing in this puzzle.What we do know is that the Spook Trust lied. To their victims, to the newspapers, to the police, and to each other. In 1914, Marie claimed to have nothing to do with the Clark disappearance. In 1929, she said that she led Clark to his death. Which one was the lie?
So what do you think happened?