The Return of the Hobo Heiress
The adventures of Runaway Heiress Laura Louisa Fletcher did not end after her disappearance in 1920. Her tragic life continued to entertain readers from coast to coast.
“Life is just one hoboing adventure after another for little Louisa Fletcher, daughter of the millionaire banker of Indianapolis,” wrote the Buffalo Times. “She hoboed to sea, she hoboed to land, she hoboed into ‘hobohemia — and now she has hoboed her way into the heart of Count Gottfried von Schmettow, scion of one of the oldest houses of the Prussian nobility.”
Louisa Fletcher, after gaining national attention after running away from her governess in 1920, did not stop providing newspaper editors with material to entertain their readers. Unfortunately, like many young Americans who were trying to make sense of a post-war world in a country whose confidence had been shaken by the casualties overseas and pandemic deaths at home, Louisa was a bit lost. Although born into a wealthy family, an advantage denied most of her peers, as the Roaring Twenties took hold, Louisa entered a downward spiral.
And though many people suffered personal tragedies and setbacks during this period, few had to endure the relentless gaze of the national press. Laura Louisa Fletcher’s life had become a national story. Every tragedy, every misstep, was fodder for the newspapers, documented in grubby newsprint from Miami to Honolulu.
Suicide and Bankruptcy
After Louisa’s Massachusetts’ escapade, the family managed to stay out of the newspapers for seven months. But in March 1921, the Fletcher name again sold papers across the country.
Louisa’s mother, May Fletcher, had suffered “severe attacks of nervous trouble and stomach ailments” for two years. While visiting Louisa in New York, she consulted the best specialists in the city about her condition, but the physicians failed to provide an effective remedy for her problems. After her return to Indianapolis, Mrs. Fletcher fell into a depression.
On Wednesday morning, March 23, Louisa’s grandmother, Eva Henley, entered May’s bedroom. Her daughter had not been seen since the previous evening, and Mrs. Henley wanted to check that she felt all right. A shocking scene awaited her: May was dead. A glass of liquid stood on the table beside her bed.
Eva screamed for the butler, Russell Stahl. When the man-servant entered the bedroom, he discovered the mother frantically massaging her daughter’s wrists. She ordered Stahl to phone the doctor and to bring a glass of whiskey to revive her daughter. Stahl hurried out and telephoned. When the butler returned, he found that Mrs. Henley was no longer by her daughter’s side.
Eva was found, convulsing in her own bedroom. Apparently she had sampled the liquid that had killed her daughter. An hour later, she joined her daughter in death, succumbing to the powerful poison in the glass
Coroner Paul Robertson had the mystery liquid tested. It was a mixture of water and cyanide. At the inquest, family members expressed their belief that Eva Henley’s death was accidental; she had tasted the glass by Mrs. Fletcher’s bedside to see what it was. The coroner was doubtful; he deemed it more likely that Louisa’s grandmother had joined her daughter in a double suicide.
In one stroke, Louisa lost both her mother and grandmother. The two were buried in Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery.
The shock of the double-suicide had scarcely abated before fresh troubles arose for the Fletcher family. Before his wife’s death, Louisa’s father, Stoughton Fletcher II, had enjoyed a pleasant life. He ran the bank he had inherited from his father; he bred champion race horses in his Indianapolis stables.
After his wife’s death, his empire began to crumble. On May 20, 1923, the Indianapolis Star ran a two page story reporting that Fletcher had “stepped down” from his post as chairman of the family bank. A bad investment in the Midwest Engine Company had consumed his fortune and left him with more than a million dollars in debt. Although his colleagues spoke flatteringly of the fallen titan, and the other board members in his bank spun the coup as an opportunity for Stoughton to expand his portfolio into the field of financial counseling, it was evident that he was being driven from the Eden of the banking industry.
Stoughton Fletcher lost everything: his position as bank chairman, his fortune, and his stables. He lost his pedigreed horses, which included the famous race horse, Peter the Great. Laurel Hall, the stunning home he had built for his wife in 1916, was sold to an order of Catholic nuns and converted into a girls’ school. He was left with little for his heiress daughter to inherit.
The Count and the Heiress
Spring 1925. Louisa’s friends thought a European trip might take her mind off her troubles. They persuaded the ex-heiress to join them on a tour of Germany. While in Berlin, she met 24 year old Count Ernst Gottfried von Schmettow of Berlin. Captivated by Louisa’s beauty and vivacity, the young count proposed. A cable from Berlin announced an imminent marriage.
According to the Miami Herald, when Louisa’s father received her message in Indianapolis, he cabled permission: “Yes, and congratulations.”
After the recent tragedies, luck appeared to once again be smiling on the young woman.
Appearances can be deceiving: fortune often wears a fickle smirk. A couple of days after the news of nuptials was spread across the country, a fresh development soured the cream. The wedding was to be delayed. The young count insisted that his soon-to-be father-in-law, Stoughton Fletcher, travel to Germany to attend his daughter’s wedding. The newspapers hinted that the count’s desire to meet his prospective father-in-law had little to do with a filial desire to embrace a new branch of the family. To the contrary the count wanted to ascertain how much money Fletcher proposed to upon the happy couple through Louisa’s dowry.
Unfortunately, Stoughton Fletcher had not recovered from his financial Waterlook. The ex-banker was in no position to show generosity.
When the count’s family learned of Stoughton’s reduced circumstances, they backed away from the “heiress.” German red tape was cited as the reason for a delay, but an official spokesman for Count Schmettow’s family stated, tersely, “There will be no wedding.”
When Louisa returned to New York in August, the count was not in her party. Newspaper reporters met the RMS Berengaria when the ship docked; the hobo heiress might be poorer than she once was, but she was still of great interest to national readers.
Had the Germans really blocked the wedding, asked one reporter?
“It was postponed, not called off,” Louisa replied. “We would have married at Berlin, only I didn’t have my birth certificate. One must have a birth certificate to marry in Berlin, you know.”
A reporter pressed her about the relationship. Did she really love the count, or had the birth certificate simply been a convenient excuse to slip free of the engagement?
“Well, the certificate had a lot to do with it,” replied Louisa. “But so far as love is concerned, I do not care to discuss something I don’t know much about.
“You see, I am only 23.”
Her inexperience in matters of the heart aside, Louisa predicted a successful outcome: “Unless he drops dead, the count will come here in October, and we will be married next fall, perhaps in California, perhaps in New York.”
Louisa’s optimism lacked a foundation. The count remained firmly ensconced in Germany; the blissful union did not materialize.
Louisa and the “Lady”
After a couple of years of quiet obscurity, Louisa reappeared in the national press. She had moved to Los Angeles to live with her brother, Stoughton III, who was trying to launch an acting career. In January 1927, Los Angeles County Sheriff Deputies arrested Louisa and her friend, Ruth Miles. The pair were charged with assault and battery.
According to the complainant, “Lady Diana Bathurst,” the two young women had attacked her, beat her, and left her with a black eye. The source of the squabble? A trunk of lingerie and other finery that Louisa claimed belonged to her. Diana Bathurst had stolen the clothing, and the women wanted it back. Judge H. E. Billings of the Beverly Hills Township court was not amused: he fined the defendants fifty dollars apiece and awarded them thirty-day jail sentences (suspended). Louisa’s brother, Stoughton Fletcher III, who had attempted to burglarize “Lady Diana’s” apartment in order to recover his sister’s possessions, was charged with larceny. Judge Billings dismissed this complaint a week later when “Lady Diana” was unable to identify the clothing she claimed as her own. Although the court exonerated Stoughton Fletcher, it did not rescind Louisa’s fine.
The Sad End of the Hobo Heiress
After her brush with “Lady Diana,” few days remained for the hobo heiress. In mid-July 1927, newspapers from Honolulu to Miami announced the death of Laura Louisa Fletcher. She died, July 18, in Los Angeles “from the ravages of a lingering illness.” Her father, Stoughton Fletcher, had her body returned to Indianapolis and interred in the city’s Crown Hill Cemetery.
“Short,” “stormy,” and “colorful” were the adjectives most frequently used to describe Louisa’s career. From age 17 to 24 her mistakes and missteps had played on a national stage. The girl who had once longed for the simple, obscure life enjoyed by a hired hand on a Massachusetts farm was forced to entertain a national audience.
In eulogizing the young woman, the editors missed the most appropriate adjective: tragic.
Sources: Boston Globe, Mar. 24, 1921; Buffalo Times, Sept. 6, 1925; Huntington Herald, July 19, 1927; Indianapolis News, March 23, 1921; Indianapolis Star, Mar. 24, 1921, May 20, 1923; Los Angeles Times, Jan. 21, 1927; Miami Herald, Aug. 16, 1925; Miami News, Aug. 16, 1925; The Star Press (Muncie, IN), Mar. 24. 1921; Spokesman-Review, Aug 23, 1925