Special thanks to Laurel Hill tour guide and author Tom Keels for providing us with this wonderful written account of the life and crimes of Mabel Tinley – featured on our True Tales from the Tombs tour on October 12th.
ACT IV: DEATH AND THE MAIDEN
Once again, an avalanche of unpaid bills brought Mrs. Roberts’ castles in the clouds crashing down to earth. By the end of 1907, she was a prisoner in her Riverside Drive apartment, with an angry army of process servers and bill collectors pounding on the door. She had been summoned to the District Attorney’s office on Christmas Eve to answer a complaint from a business contact, who had paid her $7,500 for financial leads which never materialized. Unable to contemplate another term in prison, Mrs. Roberts overdosed on strychnine pills, then commonly available as a cathartic and stimulant, on Friday, January 3, 1908.
Death by strychnine poisoning is not a pleasant experience. Within a few minutes of ingestion, the victim’s muscles begin to spasm, starting with the head and neck and spreading throughout the body. The victim’s lips are drawn back in an uncontrollable smirk known as risus sardonicus. Soon the entire body is wracked with convulsions which grow stronger and more frequent until the entire spine arches off the floor. Any stimulus – a bright light, a sudden noise – can throw the convulsions into excruciatingly painful overdrive, accompanied by nausea, vomiting, migraine, and elevated temperature. The victim can die in a number of ways: suffocation as the nerves that control breathing shut down, cardiac arrest, or exhaustion triggered by the endless seizures. Death usually takes several hours.
All of the servants had been dismissed, so there is no way of knowing how long the woman’s body lay on the apartment floor before it was discovered. The coroner was positive her death was a result of an accidental medicinal overdose, negating the need for an autopsy.
Among Mrs. Roberts’ possessions was a memorandum leaving certain jewels to Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, New York’s acknowledged social leader. Most of the Mrs. Roberts’ jewels were in hock; the few that remained were paste. A bemused Mrs. Fish told reporters she had never met, or even heard of, Mrs. John Van Ness Roberts.
A handful of loyal friends organized a funeral service for Mrs. Roberts on January 6 at the Catholic Church of the Holy Name of Jesus at 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The body was then taken to Calvary Cemetery in Queens and placed in a receiving vault, with the name “Katherine Roberts” on the coffin plate.
Colonel Robert Haire, Louise Vermeule’s attorney for her two trials, was aware of her new alias and identified the corpse as that of Vermeule. Haire telegrammed Richard W. Roelofs in Cripple Creek with the news that his ex-wife might be dead. Reporters tracked down Roelofs, who issued the following statement:
All this is humiliating to me, but the incident is now closed. My little son has been kept in ignorance of his mother’s eccentric conduct for years. If the woman who died in New York was my former wife I have done all I can when I sent money to provide a decent funeral for her. I am not sure that this woman is my divorced wife. If she is, she was not in her right mind for at least fourteen years.
Roelofs authorized the lawyer to confirm that the corpse was his ex-wife and to take charge of the burial at his expense. An officer of the Union Trust Company in Philadelphia made a positive identification shortly before the body was to be buried at Calvary. Instead, Roelofs directed that his ex-wife be laid to rest in her parents’ plot at Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Col. Haire delivered the following eulogy for his former client to the newspapers:
Why, the woman was crazy, utterly crazy. That is the only explanation one can give for the amazing turnings and twistings to which she had recourse. It would account, too, for the effrontery by means of which she has fooled so many men of recognized keenness. Her mother, whose name was Helen W. Tinley, died in an insane asylum in Jacksonville, Florida, soon after her daughter’s marriage, and the strain has been continued in her daughter.
On the day of her funeral, the mighty New York Times published a kinder tribute to the departed, in an editorial entitled “The Lady of Cloud Rift.” The writer acknowledged that “people who knew her, or thought they knew her, now say she was ‘always queer.’” But in her defense, the Times noted:
Insanity such as hers, however, coupled with great courage and executive force, has overturned dynasties. The secrets of Louise Vermeule’s success, such as it was, were rare personal charm and ingenuity. She seems to have been utterly lawless and morally incorrigible…With no claim on society but good looks and a fascinating manner, she lived in luxury and frequently passed in decent society as a woman of culture and means.
On January 11, Mabel Tinley Roelofs was interred beside her parents in South Laurel Hill. Only two witnesses were present, one of them the trust officer who had identified her at Calvary Cemetery. An individual marker for Mabel was never erected. Perhaps her former husband felt he had done his final duty by paying for her burial. Today, the reunited Tinley family resides in Section 16, Lot 48.
And what of Richard W. Roelofs, the penniless young man who had made the first of many amendments to Mabel Tinley’s name? He spent nearly twenty years as superintendent and co-owner of the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mine and its successors. Through his hard work, Roelofs was able to rescue the struggling firm from near-bankruptcy and make it profitable. During much of this time, he also labored to maintain his own solvency in the face of Mabel’s long-distance scams while raising his son alone.
Then, in November 1914, Roelofs was supervising exploration of the Cresson Mine, his company’s major holding. A large gold-filled vug or cavity was blasted open, revealing a “cave of sparkling jewels” where gold-laced quartz lined the walls and gold nuggets littered the floor. The vug eventually yielded 60,000 troy ounces of gold, worth over $70 million in today’s prices.
Overnight, Richard W. Roelofs was able to enjoy the lifestyle that his ex-wife had always expected him to provide for her. Richard moved to New York City, living in comfort until his death at the age of 82. He never remarried.
His son Richard Jr. was sent east to school, graduating from Harvard University in 1918. The little boy who wouldn’t kiss his mamma grew up to become a prominent Wall Street banker, marrying a relative of the Rockefellers. Would his mother have been proud, or jealous?
The author wishes to thank Carol Yaster, Board President of the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery and researcher extraordinaire, for discovering the story of Mabel Tinley and for sharing her findings so generously.
We hope you enjoyed the story! Mabel is just one of the many stories buried in Laurel Hill, and autumn is the perfect time to come here and listen to as many as you can. We suggest beginning with our our Hot Spots and Storied Plots Tours, or any of the wonderful programs on our complete fall lineup.