The Redbury Hotel
29th East 29th Street
Part 3: Sensational News Clips from the Martha Washington
If the walls of The Redbury could talk, they would have a lot of stories to tell. From the days of its predecessor The Martha Washington Hotel, there are echos of numerous attempted and successful suicides by young women, from the sad account of a woman who was distraught over her mother’s death to the unhappy history of a chorus girl despondent over being fired from a show. There would also be stories of women recovering from divorce and widowhood, and a range of other intrigues. However, the three that follow are of special interest and tell us a great deal about life in the early 1900s.
Interestingly, times were not so different from today — if not even a bit wilder, and these articles read as though they could be from the front page of today’s New York Post.
At the turn of the 19th/20th Centuries, it seems horsewhipping was in vogue, especially with women seeking to punish their husbands.
A sampling of period coverage of women horsewhipping their husbands.
In 1904, The Times reported a horsewhipping story, but this one was different. It told the story of a blonde who appears to have stolen a brunette’s husband in Chicago. The brunette followed the blonde to the Martha Washington (today’s Redbury) and horsewhipped her in its main hallway, while the errant husband slyly slinked off.
“The sweet peaceful atmosphere of the Martha Washington Hotel was rudely disturbed yesterday by a real old-fashioned horsewhipping in which the principals were two women, one —she with the lash—being a muscular brunette and her victim a petite soft-eyed blonde . . . The diner’s (in the hotel’s dining room) first intimation that something was up came from the main corridor with the ominous sound of the swish of cowhide. They shuddered and listened apprehensively, terrified, and for the moment dumb. . . . ‘Take that! And that! I’ll teach you!’
These and other expressions of a similar nature were punctuated by the sound of the falling whip . . . Mustering up courage, the occupants of the dining room, led by some half dozen strong-minded members of their sex, finally set out in a body to investigate . . . Mr. Cadwell (the hotel’s manager) finally pacified her (the brunette) and she told him that the object of the horsewhipping had injured her in Chicago. She said she had followed the blonde to New York . . . People about the place said that the blonde woman had been in the habit of meeting there almost daily a tall, good-looking man about thirty-five years old and met him there yesterday. The man is said to have scented trouble and to have beaten a hasty retreat before the storm broke.”1
Sympathy for a Shooter
Hopefully, there will be no furtherhorse whippings at The Redbury today . . . or shootings, but back in the days of the Martha Washington there is the curious tale. This involves a shooting of an elevator boy by a fellow member of the elevator squad and the unusual reaction of the women guests.
Due to his extreme politeness, Harry McAuley was the most liked elevator boy at the Martha Washington Hotel in 1903. However, when he refused to apologize to a member of the elevator squad, William Morrisey, McAuley was sacked. Upon leaving, he said he would return to get even. At 4:00 p.m. the same day he returned and shot Morrisey, who survived the attack. “When Morrisey was assisted to the ambulance a dozen women appeared and expressed sympathy for him. They also expressed sympathy for the boy who had shot him, and declared they would go to court to-day to help him out of his trouble.”2
The Times followed up on the story three days later in a particularly acerbic “Topics of the Times” column. “Sometimes these exhibitions of morbid sympathy (for criminals) are ridiculous, sometimes they are disgusting . . . Just what classification should be made of the emotional display which followed the shooting of a bellboy by an elevator boy at the Martha Washington Hotel we will not attempt to decide, but the conduct of the women who allowed themselves to become so strangely excited over the case was particularly reprehensible, because it not only excuses a new repetition of old criticisms upon a whole sex, but it created doubts as to the truth of the impression that the patrons of this particular hotel are a group more than ordinarily sensible and practical. Certainly a lot of giggling school girls could not have ignored facts in a sillier and more reckless way . . . He (the shooter) had . . . by previous assiduity in attentions and courtesies to the women living in the hotel, won remarkable favor with some of them and this persisted after he had shown himself to be at heart an extremely dangerous young ruffian.”3
The article continues with unabated disdain and condescension, “A consuming eagerness to help him developed, the police court was invaded and offers of all sorts of comfort and assistance were pressed upon the fellow. Why?. . . One (of these women) . . . is quoted as hoping she may win for the object of her admiration the sympathy and support of the newspapers. She will be disappointed.”4
A Twisted Tale
Perhaps the most lurid story from The Redbury’s past is the one that begins with this first peculiar, reserved, headline: “Shot at Park Lake: Keeps Identity Secret.”
The bridge at the lake in Central Park near which Dana was shot.
From late July through the beginning of September 1904, New Yorkers were following the twists and turns of a story that began with an attempted suicide and a miraculous recovery. A story that slowly unwound to reveal secret identities, bigamy, and divorce — one so intriguing that it appeared in newspaper articles across the country.
On July 30th, The Times reported that a man was found shot at the lake in Central Park. He would not reveal his identity, but his underwear had “Dana” written on it. In the first report, “Dana” claimed that another man had shot him but would say little else. He wrote to a Mrs. Beatrice. W. Dignon staying at the Martha Washington. She said she knew the shot man, but would not reveal his name, and neither would the attorney she engaged, a Mr. Cornwall, who said Dignon was from a good family and that he had acted for her several times before.
On August 1st, “Dana,” still in very critical condition and fighting for his life, identified himself to a coroner as Samuel L. Dana, a single man. He changed his original story and said he had shot himself, but would give no details why.
Postcard of Second Presbyterian Church in Rahway, New Jersey.
The next day, August 2nd, despite Dana’s claim to be single, it was revealed that Dana had married Mrs. Dignon “in a hurry” on April 20th of that year. The Parson at the Second Presbyterian Church in Rahway, New Jersey, who performed the ceremony, said that Mrs. Dignon identified herself as a widow, although the Parson thought her to be too young to be a widow. According to Samuel Dana’s roommate, Dignon had evidently visited Dana often at the YMCA on West 57th Street (some accounts identify his residence as the YMCA on West 23rd). The roommate said Dana was upset about making a decision in February and March between two women. In April, Dana suddenly ripped up one of the women’s photographs. Soon after, he said he had taken an important step, and Mrs. Dignon quit wearing somber attire.
By August 3rd, S. L. Dana was beginning to improve, but there was still widespread speculation as to his claim of suicide. The coroner investigating did not think Dana was telling the truth and there was some question as to how a right-handed man could shoot himself in the right breast. Indeed, the entire story developing around him became more twisted: It seems that Dana and Dignon were involved in a lawsuit in which Dana was the plaintiff. Dana and his attorney denied it was a suit for divorce or annulment.
Well, it seems that was yet another lie. On August 5th, The Times reported that Dana admitted he was trying to get his marriage annulled, because Mrs. Dignon had another husband, who presumably was undead. Dana’s lawyer suggested that due to Dana’s excellent manners and dress, Mrs. Dignon had presumed he was wealthy. Finding out later he wasn’t, she told him she wanted to continue living as Mrs. Dignon and was going out with other men. As for her marriage to Dana, she said it did not count as she had a living husband in the state of Washington. Nevertheless, as the story got worse, Dana got better. He improved enough to have the bullet removed on August 4th and was transferred to a prison ward in Bellevue, under arrest for attempted suicide.
On August 6th, after the revelation about the lawsuit and Dignon’s former husband, her attorney resigned her case, claiming contrary to his earlier statements that he had little knowledge of her prior to the shooting. In a small subnote appearing in The Times, there was this interesting tidbit: “Seattle, Washington. Aug. 5. — Mrs. Beatrice Womach Dignon Dana had a checkered career in Seattle, where in her early youth she was known as “Babe” Womach. Seven years ago, she became the cashier in a restaurant here and received much attention from men about town. In 1897, she married Charles Dignon the son of a laundry owner. Seventeen months ago she left suddenly. Local papers said she eloped with a railroad man. Her attorney, Frederich Dale Wood, says she went to New York to study for the concert stage. She came here (to Seattle) on Tuesday, July 11th from New York. The following day, Superior Judge Hatch heard her application for a divorce from Dignon on the grounds of non-support. The application for which was not resisted and the decree was granted. She left for New York three weeks ago.”5
Mrs. Beatrice Dignon-Womack-Dana.
So, sometime after her marriage to Dana and before his suicide attempt, Mrs. Dignon got a divorce from husband Number One. This is interesting because the suit by Dana to annul his marriage to Mrs. Dignon was withdrawn August 29th, the day before he shot himself.
Here the trail begins to go cold. The press cycle was over. We never find out where Mrs. Dignon disappeared to, although some believed she was in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Dana was released on $500 bail on August 9th and on September 1st, his case was dismissed by the Yorkville court. In little over a month, this full-column story ended with an announcement of less than 1” near the bottom of Page 4 of the Times.
Did Dana withdraw his suit because Dignon was now free, and he wanted her to be his wife? Did she refuse again and that is why he tried to kill himself? Did she try to kill him? How many lies can you find in this one newspaper story?
- The New York Times, “Horsewhipped Her in the Martha Washington,” September 13, 1904.
- The New York Times, “Hotel Boy Shoots Another,” December 11, 1903.
- The New York Times, “Topic of the Times,” December 14, 1903.
- The New York Times, “Cornwall Out of Dana Suit,” August 6, 1904.
Bibliography for A Twisted Tale
The New York Times, “Shot at Park Lake; Keeps Identity Secret,” July 30, 1904.
The New York Times, “Samuel L. Dana Says that He Shot Himself,” August 1, 1904.
The New York Times, “Dana and Mrs. Dignon were Wed in April,” August 2, 1904.
The New York Times, “Wounded Bank Clerk had Sued His Bride,” August 3, 1904.
The New York Times, “Dana Slightly Better,” August 4, 1904.
The New York Times, “Dana Said Mrs. Dignon had Another Husband,” August 5, 1904.
The New York Times, “Cornwall Out of Dana Suit,” August 6, 1904.
The New York Times, “Bail for Young Dana,” August 10, 1904.
The New York Times, “Samuel L. Dana in Court,” August 31, 1904.
The New York Times, “Samuel L. Dana Discharged,” September 2, 1904.