The Mystery of “M. E. J.” or Insanity, Suicide, and Grief in the Gilded Age


By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

About 9:30 PM, Friday night, June 20, 1891, a home owner named Abraham Anderson saw her walking by his house in Croton. Whether she walked directly to the Hudson River, or waited until morning is unclear. Shortly after 9 AM, Philip Schnell arrived at his waterfront brickyard and noticed a woman’s straw hat and veil out on the dock. He dragged the water with a rake and discovered the clothed body of a “handsome” young woman.

Our ideas of the 1890s in America tend to call up images of decadence and high living among the “captains and kings” of industry and society. There is, however, another less familiar side to that picture, one that reveals the lives of workers and “ordinary people.” These are lives referenced in the period literature of novelist Theodore Dreiser and journalist Jacob Riis among others. The Gay Nineties predated the development of modern psychiatry and the use of antibiotics; it was the height of the industrial revolution, confronting Americans with accelerating social changes.

The Mystery Woman, M.E.J.

The Mystery Woman, M.E.J.

Coroner Sutton of Sing Sing was called to investigate the case of the unknown woman. A suicide note was discovered in the victim’s dress pocket. “I am sick and tired of my life, and if my body is found, I should like to have it buried in the Tarrytown Cemetery. M. E. J.”  The writer of the note clearly meant Sleepy Hollow Cemetery which at that point had long since changed its name—at the suggestion of Washington Irving—from “Tarrytown Cemetery.”  The body was taken by the authorities to Vanderbilt’s Funeral Home in Tarrytown.

Mystery Solved

In Tarrytown, Thomas Fairchild came forward, looked at the woman’s body at Vanderbilt’s undertaking establishment, and pronounced it to be that of Dolly Davis, a young actress, the stepdaughter of a theatrical manager named Davis in New York. The stepfather was associated with the famous producer, H. C. Miner. A Tarrytown dentist, T. V. Roe, confirmed the identification; she was Dolly Davis, who had come to the U. S. from England about nine years earlier. Roe recalled that the young actress seemed nervous and frail the last time he saw her.

The inquest was closed with a verdict of suicide by drowning, and a funeral was planned—to be paid for by “the people of Tarrytown” who apparently had a soft spot for tragic, pretty, young actresses.  But the funeral of Dolly Davis was spoiled by the arrival, on June 23rd, of Dolly Davis herself. Miss Davis appeared at the Vanderbilt Funeral Home that morning to view the body assumed to be hers.

Mystery Solved–Again

The inquest was resumed. Two days after Miss Davis made, perhaps the greatest entrance of her career, Frank Atwood, twenty-six, of Philadelphia, came to Tarrytown with his little girl, Louise, and identified the body to be that of his wife. He informed the coroner that the woman was Purcell Marinia Atwood. The grieving husband recounted how he had first met his wife on a train in Pennsylvania and married her two months later. She had suddenly left them, husband and child, in Omaha. For two years he had searched for her everywhere, following up on any report of an unknown drowned woman, traveling as far as the West Indies. Atwood said he was an agent for a Cleveland hardware company and that he had a brother-in-law in Yonkers. He told Police Chief Nossiter of Tarrytown that he didn’t know why the suicide note was signed, “M. E. J.”

Saturday morning, June 27, one week after the drowning, Atwood was back before the coroner’s inquest, but something about his story, or the way he told it, was not ringing true. Soon his mother, father, and uncle entered the proceedings, their statements did nothing to bolster his story–quite the contrary. Tarrytown Police Chief Nossiter arrested Atwood for contempt. The arrival of his wife was the coup de grace for the alleged grieving husband. Frank Atwood was really Victor George Herdling of New York City, an out-of-work, alcoholic, railroad brakeman. Herdling had recently quit his job and been on a “spree” ever since. He was later released into the custody of his doubtlessly overjoyed wife.

Mystery Solved–Finally

That evening at the inquest, after a near riot in the afternoon, two unknown women entered the crowded room; they walked to the coffin and sadly identified the victim. The younger sister of the deceased woman identified the body as that of Marie Eugenie Josephine Arigacci, a French woman.


Marie was born in Dieppe, France, in 1863. She arrived at New York in 1880, at the age of seventeen, and soon went to work as a domestic with the Edward Field family in Dobbs Ferry. Field was the son of Cyrus Field, the famous creator of the first trans-Atlantic cable, and the son’s home was located on the father’s grand estate, Ardsley Park. In 1883, Marie left the Fields’ employ and was not heard from for two years. In March 1885, Clara Field, the wife of Edward, was contacted by Marie. Mrs. Field found her in a New York apartment, the mother of a baby boy.

Marie told Clara Field that she had married and moved to the South, where her child was born. She said her husband took his own life by drowning shortly after the child’s birth. Mrs. Field brought them out to the Field estate where they lived for two months in a cottage occupied by a family named Harvey. Marie and her child were ill, and they were subsequently moved to a farmhouse in Irvington for better care. The two were then transferred to the Field home where the child died of cholera. The body of the boy, Eugene Gaston Duval, was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in a plot near the Pocantico River and a tiny headstone erected over the grave.


In the years after her son’s death, 1885 to 1891, Marie worked as a seamstress on the Field estate, taking trips home to France on three occasions. In 1888, her sister came from France to live with her at the Field house. At the time of her final trip to France, January to March of 1891, both of Marie’s parents had died, and Marie herself was evidently diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Returning to New York, she found a home at 147 West 42nd Street, where she worked as a seamstress for the landlady at $1.50 per day, plus board. Marie sometimes spoke of her troubles and would be found crying. Her sister was then living at 135 West 35th Street.

One day in early June, Marie wrote to her sister, care of a friend in Irvington, that she intended to visit her child’s grave and then take her own life. She wrote that their friends in France knew of her illness and would not be shocked. Marie requested that her sister not wear mourning clothes and warned her that, if she ever returned to France, to stay there.

The money donated by “the people of Tarrytown” to bury Dolly Davis was now used to bury Marie Eugenie Josephine–although it was apparently insufficient to provide her with a marker. To this day the grave of Marie Eugenie and her son Gaston is marked only by her son’s small headstone, which carries no mention of the mother.

The Fate of Marie’s Benefactor

At the time of Marie’s funeral, in June of 1891, her erstwhile benefactor, Edward Field, was attempting to disguise his financial irregularities. In early December, his Wall Street business failed, taking with it his father’s considerable wealth. In a few days he was admitted to a Mount Vernon mental asylum. By the 15th he was arrested for grand larceny. On Christmas Eve he was declared insane by a court in White Plains; his firm’s creditors considered this to be a legal dodge to avoid prosecution. The unhappy father, Cyrus Field, died the following July of 1892. Edward Field was arrested in New York City for vagrancy in 1894. He later spent three years in a Buffalo State Mental Hospital. In 1930, he died at a state hospital on Long Island; an autopsy showed that his insanity was caused by a head injury he sustained during a childhood riding accident, in 1866.


©2009-2016 Henry John Steiner





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  1. Ed Murphy

    Thanks Henry, atnother bit of interesting history about our home. i love ur stories. Ed Murphy

  2. Daniel Jewett

    Very interesting and enjoyable read Henry. Your wealth of knowledge about this area is astounding. Thanks for taking me out of my time for a moment.

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