The unsolved locked room murder of Joe Elwell, 1920

On June 11, 1920, Joseph Bowne Elwell was killed in a room that was locked from the inside. So how did his death happen?

On June 11, 1920, shortly after sunrise, Elwell was shot in the head by a .45 automatic pistol in his locked New York City house. That morning, housekeeper Marie Larsen arrived as she normally did at Elwell’s elegant apartment. However, this time she was confronted by a gruesome sight that momentarily shocked her.


Joe Elwell
A care-free Joseph B. Elwell reclining on the Florida sands shortly before his murder in 1920. © Library Of Congress

She hurriedly exclaimed that there was a stranger in Mr. Elwell’s apartment, and that he was dead. Upon further inspection, it was discovered that the stranger was Joe Elwell, only without his designer wigs and gleaming dentures, which he used to enhance his appearance in public.

Elwell is believed to have been shot in the head, but suicide is not a probable explanation. There was no sign of the weapon in the room, but the murder weapon appears to have been fired at a distance of 1–2 metres (3–5 ft) away.

Crime scene

The news of Elwell's mysterious death
The news of Elwell’s mysterious death © Library of Congress

The police were stumped by the crime scene. There was no gun found at the crime scene, but the bullet that killed him was found neatly placed on a table. It’s possible that the bullet ricocheted off a wall and onto the table, but the placement looked staged. The bullet’s cartridge was lying on the ground.

The killer was crouched in front of Elwell when he pulled the trigger, so he could see the angle of the wound. Nothing was stolen, and no foreign fingerprints were found at the scene. There was no sign of a struggle or forced entry into the house. Everything was locked, including the room and the house.

Elwell must have known his killer and freely allowed him or her into the house. He sat down and ignored a visitor while opening his mail. Did he chat amiably with his guest while doing this mundane task? There was no indication as to the crime in the letters or on the ground.


Elwell dined with Viola Kraus, a recently divorced woman, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel the previous evening. Elwell was romantically involved with many women, including Kraus. Helen Derby, who married Elwell in 1904, introduced him to her well-connected friends and acquaintances.

Helen Derby Ewell, wife of Joseph Elwell
Helen Derby Ewell, wife of Joseph Elwell © Front Page Detectives

Even though Elwell became a millionaire from bridge games, his wife assisted him make connections with her well-connected friends and acquaintances. They divorced in 1920. Although Derby was a prime suspect at first, her alibi was airtight, and she wasn’t implicated in her ex-husband’s demise.

According to District Attorney Edward Swann, Elwell was chatting in his apartment just before he was shot, and therefore he probably knew his murderer. The murderer’s sole purpose was to kill him. No valuables were stolen. In fact, valuables were strewn around Elwell’s corpse.

Elwell's apartment building
Elwell’s apartment building © Library of Congress

Despite all the evidence was collected by the investigators, but they were never able to determine who shot Joe Elwell, and the case remains an unsolved mystery.