Young Dorothy Arnold lived a life of class in New York City. Her father was a wealthy perfume importer, and her family had descended from the original Mayflower passengers. A student of literature, Dorothy spent her days writing with the grand hopes of publishing—much to the amusement of her family and friends.
Then, on December 12, 1910, after a pleasant encounter with an acquaintance while shopping along Fifth Avenue, Dorothy Arnold vanished without a trace.
She had between 25 to 30 dollars on hand—a great deal of cash at the time—and intended to buy a new dress for her younger sister’s upcoming debutante party. Dorothy never made it to any dress shops, however. In fact, after she said goodbye to her friend on 27th Street, it is entirely uncertain what happened to her.
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Her friend had said that Dorothy planned to cut through Central Park on her way home. But by dinnertime, she had not yet returned. Dorothy’s parents, Francis and Mary Arnold, grew concerned; their daughter never missed family meals without first informing them of her whereabouts. After calling several of Dorothy’s friends and finding that no one had seen her, the Arnolds’ concern grew.
At the same time, the well-to-do Arnolds wished to maintain an appearance of composure and propriety. They kept Dorothy’s disappearance hidden from the outside world. When one of Dorothy’s friends called the house on December 13, Mary lied and said that her daughter had indeed returned, but was in bed with a headache.
Secretly, the family hired private Pinkerton detectives, who worked tirelessly to find their missing daughter. Several weeks went by, and the private investigators were unsuccessful in uncovering any reliable leads. They urged the family to contact authorities.
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Reluctantly, the Arnolds filed a missing person’s report with the police in mid-January, 1911. Later that month, at the insistence of the police, Francis Arnold held a press conference in his home, which catapulted the case from a private family matter to a media-sensationalized public affair.
Theories about Dorothy’s disappearance abounded. The PIs had discovered brochures from transatlantic steam-liners in Dorothy’s room the day after she had disappeared. One theory stated that she had secretly eloped and moved to Europe. A summer affair with one George Griscom Jr. seemed to corroborate this story, but it soon fell apart; George too had been searching for Dorothy, rather than living with her in Europe.
Weeks passed and additional theories surfaced, each testing the limits of plausibility. Some believed that Dorothy had undergone an illegal abortion and died from the procedure; her burial or cremation was kept secret by the underground clinic. This possibility gained traction in 1916, when the doctor of a raided abortion clinic in Pennsylvania told police that Arnold had indeed died in his care. Francis Arnold dismissed the claims as nonsense. Others maintained that the young socialite was murdered; yet no one could give a plausible cause for the slaying or present clues as to her body’s whereabouts. Others still suggested that Dorothy had slipped on a sidewalk while walking along Fifth Avenue. She hit her head on the concrete and suffered amnesia that caused her to forget her identity. No hospitals had any record of female patients that matched Dorothy’s description at the time of her disappearance. Yet another rumor spread that claimed Dorothy had committed suicide—apparently because of her extreme disappointment over having two of her stories rejected for publication.
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Despite the many theories that followed in the wake of Dorothy’s disappearance, no real traction was ever made. In all, Francis Arnold spent about $250,000 attempting to locate his missing daughter. He died believing that she was dead, and left her no part of his estate in his will. His wife Mary, however, refused to give up. She remained hopeful until her death in 1928 that Dorothy was out there somewhere.
No doubt, Mary Arnold was encouraged—or haunted—by the numerous sightings of her daughter that surfaced in the years after that fateful December evening in 1910.
Photos (in order): Wikimedia Commons; New York Historical Society / Getty; Clipping from 1914 edition of "Harrisburg Telegraph" courtesy of Gary Sweeney