Joseph Bowne Elwell, one of the greatest bridge players of the early 20th century, was shot to death in his Manhattan home on June 11, 1920. His housekeeper found him slumped in a chair in the drawing room, a bullet hole in his forehead. He was only 44.
The murder made national headlines because of Elwell's larger-than-life persona and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the crime. Elwell had been shot point-blank by a .45 revolver, yet the house was locked from the inside. The New York Times called it "among the most remarkable in the annals of crime in this country... The victim was not robbed, there was no struggle, no papers were disturbed, no one was seen to enter or leave the house after a quarter to 4 in the morning, when Elwell himself went in." 1
Police failed to find the murder weapon or even any witnesses. The killer was never apprehended.
Who exactly was J.B. or "Joe" Elwell? In bridge, the man was a giant. Elwell learned whist in his youth but adapted to auction bridge as an adult. He developed a reputation in New York City's money clubs as a consistent winner, and ultimately authored several books on the game. Elwell and his partner Harold Vanderbilt (for whom the ACBL's Vanderbilt Trophy is named) were considered the strongest American pair between 1910 - 1920. 2
And Elwell's touch on the game can still be seen today. The "Elwell Double" bidding convention arises every now and then - a double of a 3NT contract that asks for a heart lead.
Talent evinced itself away from the bridge table as well. Elwell accumulated a fortune by investing in the stock market, and owned over 20 racehorses at the time of his death. 3
He was also infamously known as a ladies' man. Elwell's secretary claimed that he slept with "about fifty women, most of them married." 4
Several of them reportedly had a key to his house - or perhaps it was a vengeful husband who came knocking that fateful night.
Elwell's chauffeur, Edward Rhodes, told police that he had frequently driven three different women to Elwell's apartment on 244 West Seventieth Street. However, detectives never located them despite being convinced "there was a woman in the case." 6
Elwell has been the inspiration for several fictional books, including "The Benson Murder Case" by S.S. Van Dine. He may have also been a model for Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Numerous books speculating on possible motives and suspects have also been penned. In his book "Bridge Axioms and Laws", Elwell ironically wrote: "Do not venture upon a post-mortem unless you are certain of what the scalpel is going to reveal." 5
Books by Joseph Bowne Elwell
The following are free eBooks or HTML transcriptions:
(1920, June 20). The New York Times. Elwell, The Man of Many Masks.
Manley, Brent (Ed.). (2011). The Official ACBL Encyclopedia of Bridge.
Sterling, Hank. (2006). Ten Perfect Crimes.
Elwell, J.B. (1907). Bridge Axioms and Laws
The Southeast Missourian, June 12, 1920.