The Playboy's Folly: The Unexplained Death of John R. Fell

When it was reported that John R. Fell had died on the evening of February 22, 1933, inside his hotel room on the island of Java at the age of 43, the news sent shockwaves throughout Philadelphia. Fell was one of the best known jet-setters of the day, a noted sportsman, clubman, playboy and son of the obscenely wealthy Alexander Van Rensselaer and his equally wealthy wife Sarah Drexel Fell.

Because Fell's parents never had to work a day in their lives, neither did John. As a young man he devoted his life to the pursuit of leisure and the "sporting life". He was an excellent polo player, golfer, yachtsman and horseman, and in 1913 entered a horse in the Grand National Steeplechase at Liverpool. He sold his horses in 1916 at the height of the First World War and enlisted in the quartermaster corps.

After the war he ventured into the world of finance, and became a banker in Paris. This foray into the world of banking must have been done purely out of boredom; John had already inherited $1,000,000 from his grandmother and stood to gain a substantial part of the family fortune-- he held life interests in the $20,000,000 Drexel estate and stood to inherit two million dollars from his mother.

His romantic life was also of great interest to the society columnists of the day. He had married three times; his first wife, Dorothy Randolph, eventually went on to wed treasury secretary Ogden L. Mills. Dorothy divorced John in 1923, but not before bearing him three children. Still young and spoiled and stricken with an addiction to excitement, John and his playboy friends were known to set off fire alarms for the sheer thrill of it. In August of 1923, he was arrested in Narragansett for assaulting his former butler, John Morvischek, who had threatened to report Fell for his prankster behavior.

His second wife, Mildred Santry, divorced him in 1925, on grounds of desertion. After several years of playing the field, John decided to settle down once more, and in January of 1932, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, he married Martha Ederton, a young Ziegfeld Follies showgirl who had been "discovered" working in a tiny dress shop on Fifth Avenue.

John R. Fell

Fell immediately amended his will to provide for his new wife in the event of his demise; his will gave Martha the income from his personal estate, which included a $600,000 trust fund. No small chunk of change, considering that 25% of the American population was unemployed at the time, and millions of men, women and children were starving in the streets and standing in bread lines. As for his stake in the Drexel family fortune, his life interests would go to his children, Dorothy, Philip, and John, Jr.

After amending his will, John and his new wife celebrated their marriage by going on a cruise around the world. In February of 1933 the newlyweds found themselves in a luxury hotel in Surakarta in central Java. John Fell would not leave the island alive.

The truth behind John Fell's untimely death remains shrouded in mystery, as Martha Ederton Fell and others gave conflicting stories to authorities. According one report, as published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, on Tuesday evening Mrs. Fell was standing near a washstand with her back to her husband, who was finishing dinner. She heard a strange sound and turned around to see John rise from the table and stumble towards her with a table knife protruding from his chest. Martha claims that she seized the knife and threw it away before giving the alarm. One of the hotel guests arrived just before Fell expired, and both witnesses claim to have heard John's last words: "It's my fault. I did it."

Mrs. Fell told the police that her husband had no business or domestic worries, and she could not provide a reason why John would have wanted to commit suicide.

Martha Ederton Fell

Another report of Fell's death provides a different story. On Tuesday evening, after finishing a glass of beer, the Fells went into the bedroom. At some point during the night, John must have gotten out of bed and went into the kitchen. His body was discovered by his Javanese guide, who had intended to pay John a visit. In this version of the story, Martha was asleep the entire time.

The following day, the Hearst-owned International News Service provided additional details. According to the INS, authorities in Java were "mystified" over the indicident, and local police refused to state whether or not Fell's death was suicide or murder. However, it was reported that they had some reason to believe that Fell was upset when the tragedy occurred, having declared, "I shall remain here until I die!"

The Hearst version of the story also states that Mrs. Fell, overcome with exhaustion and depression, was unable to provide any details to the police, and had been given "a strong hypodermic injection" by her physician. This report claims that Mrs. Fell was the sole witness of her husband's death (the Javanese guide seems to have disappeared completely in the Hearst version of the story). It was also reported by the INS that an examination of the body showed that the knife had penetrated through his clothes and breastbone and severed the muscles of his heart.

The Hearst-owned papers also reported the reaction of Fell's closest friends, none of whom were willing to believe that John had committed suicide. "He wasn't that kind of a man," one stated. Another insisted that John "was not a quitter". A brother-in-law, Radcliffe Cheston, told reporters that "Fell was too happy to commit suicide." John's father, Alexander Van Rensselaer, decried the state of affairs in Java, bemoaning the fact that all of the official reports from the island have been "vague and garbled". An uncle, Col. Anthony Drexel, set off for Java at once to launch his own investigation into the mystery. An investigation was also being made by the U.S. consul at Batavia, about 300 miles from Surakarta.

Ultimately, the authorities in Java concluded that John R. Fell's death had not been a case of suicide or murder, but that his death had been accidental. This was the best of all possible scenarios for anyone looking for a slice of the Van Rensselaer-Drexel pie, and the race was on.

Martha Ederton, absolved of any wrongdoing, returned to America and immediately went to work in claiming her share of the fortune. She was devastated to learn, however, that she was not entitled to any part of the $20,000,000 estate. Although her husband had left her a trust fund worth $600,000, a judge awarded her a "mere" $110,000-- while the rest of the estate, valued at $3 million, went to John's three children.

As rich folks are wont to do, the three wealthy-but-furious wives of John R. Fell launched a bitter legal battle over the estate. Even though they had more money than the average Depression Era worker would see in ten lifetimes, they were nauseated at the thought of John's estate going to his children.

Martha Ederton hired famed attorney Joseph Sharfsin to represent her, and filed a lawsuit claiming that she was entitled to $50,000 worth of jewelry and furniture belonging to her late husband. Meanwhile, Mildred Santry filed her own lawsuit, claiming that John had promised her $1,250 a month for life. Fell's first wife, now married to multi-millionaire Ogden L. Mills, also hired an army of lawyers.

This stomach-turning display of unbridled greed in the age of the Great Depression is remarkable in its obscenity; it proved that the rich are never satisfied and will always hunger for greater wealth-- even if it means stealing it from under the noses of a dead man's grieving children.

Take the case of Dorothy Randolph, who married Ogden L. Mills after her divorce from John R. Fell. Mills, who was serving as President Hoover's treasury secretary at the time of Fell's death, unarguably played a greater role in the collapse of the American economy than any of the out-of-work laborers who were throwing themselves in front of trains, throwing themselves off buildings, or strapping dynamite to their heads and blowing themselves up on a daily basis. Yet, he was also the owner of Wheatley Stable, which bred the likes of Seabiscuit and Secretariat. After the Depression, as millions of workers struggled to put their lives back together, Mills-- one of the men who caused the Depression-- went on own parts of several railroads, steel companies, and served on the board of the Shredded Wheat Company.

I sincerely hope that there is a special place in hell reserved for people like John Fell's ex-wives and the Ogden Millses of the world, but I digress; this article is about the "accidental" death of John Fell who, truth be told, probably isn't winning any Citizen of Month awards in Heaven right now, or wherever he may be.

As pointed out earlier, an examination of Fell's body showed that the knife-- an ordinary kitchen knife-- had penetrated through his clothes and breastbone and severed the muscles of his heart. While this might have led authorities to suspect "accidental" death in 1933, it would not pass the smell test today.

Thanks to studies done by the SAE ( Society of Automotive Engineers), we now know that it takes 960 pounds of force to break the human breastbone. Researchers at Wayne State University in Michigan, meanwhile, have determined that professional boxers hit with an average force of 765 lbs. How, then, is it humanly possible for a 43-year-old man to cause this sort of injury to himself-- "accidentally" or otherwise? I'm not a mathematician, but I'd say that the only way this could be possible would be if Fell had either fallen from a considerable height or ran from considerable distance into a knife that was in a fixed position. It would be rather difficult to achieve this in a Javanese hotel room, especially without alarming every other guest in the whole building.

Fell's widow also reported to authorities that her husband had cried out, "It's my fault. I did it." This is almost certainly an impossibility, as any fracture of the chest cavity would have undoubtedly caused a collapse of the lungs due to the collection of air in the pleural space between the lung and the chest wall. Any pressure change would cause a full or partial collapse of the lungs, either when Fell's breastbone was pierced, or when the knife was pulled out by Mrs. Fell (as she originally told the police). At any rate, John Fell would not have been able to talk.

No, It is far more likely that Fell was stabbed, and stabbed viciously by a hand other than his own.

Ultimately, the death of John Fell was forgotten as the shifting sands of time redistributed the fortunes of the wealthy and covered the traces of murder. We all know that loose lips sink ships, and that the best way to get away with a crime is to never talk about it. While it cannot be proven that the Playboy of Philadelphia was killed by a Follies girl with a taste for the finer things in life, Martha Ederton went to her grave without uttering a word.

Further reading:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 23, 1933. Page 1.
Longview News-Journal, Feb. 23, 1933. Page 1.
Bradford Evening Star, Feb. 23, 1933. Page 1.
Indiana Gazette, Feb. 24, 1933. Page 2.
Bradford Evening Star, Feb. 25, 1933. Page 1.
Wilkes-Barre Record, July 19, 1933. Page 16.
Canonsburg Daily Notes, Aug. 7, 1933. Page 2.