Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Cape Cod Case History: Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Her Parents John Danforth and Josephine (Atwood) Taylor, Sanderstead Court and the Florence Rush Affair

And the last week of the Tuesday Club Bloggers claims three participants this week: me (see below) and Bev Hankins and Kate Jackson, over at, respectively, Cross Examining Crime and My Reader's Block:

Review of The Criminal C.O.D.
Review of Death Lights a Candle

As befits a Cape Cod local color mystery writer, Phoebe Atwood Taylor [henceforth PAT] knew Cape Cod down to the ground. By my calculation, she was was a tenth generation Cape Codder on her mother's paternal side of the family (the Atwoods), an eleventh on her mother's maternal side of the family (the Freemans) and a (mere) eighth on her father's Taylor side. All these lines extended back to Cape Cod in the first half of the seventeenth century.

PAT's migrating Atwood ancestor was John Atwood (1582-1644), of Sanderstead Court, Surrey. Members of the Atwood family resided there for some three centuries (Justice Peter Atte Wood purchased the land back in 1346), but by the time PAT was writing her mysteries the house had been converted to a hotel named Selsdon Court. Occupied by the RAF during the Second World War, the house sadly was gutted by fire in 1944 and almost entirely pulled down in the 1950s.

John Atwood migrated to Plymouth, dying there in 1644.  His distant descendant Ebenezer Tilton Atwood (1835-1900), of Wellfleet, Cape Cod, married Clara Maria Freeman (1842-1911) and with her had three children: Alice Tilton (1872-1942), Josephine (1875-1929) and Freeman Dana (1879-1885).  You will notice that PAT derived her pseudonyms Alice Tilton and Freeman Dana from, respectively, her aunt and long deceased uncle, who died when he was only five.

Alice never married, but Josephine wed John Danforth Taylor (1876-1964), a prominent Boston doctor who had graduated from Harvard Medical School.  Danforth Taylor's family came from Orleans, a town near Wellfleet, where he maintained a summer cottage, and young PAT spent much of her time in Cape Cod.

Sanderstead Court in the early 19th century

Danforth Taylor was a notable freethinker, belonging to the Boston Rationalist Society and contributing articles to the Truth Seeker, a journal modestly devoted to "science, morals, free thought, free discussions, liberalism, sexual equality, labor reform progression, free education, and whatever tends to elevate and emancipate the human race."  Although PAT's crime novels hardly are saturated with weighty political and philosophical sentiment, certainly an irreverent attitude to life finds its way into her books.

Danforth Taylor also was professionally involved in a nine days' wonder criminal case in Boston in 1920, when PAT was eleven years old.

On the Sunday morning of July 18, 1920, a seventeen-year-old girl named Florence Rush, who was employed as a clerk in a jewelry store, departed her house at 62 West Eagle Street, East Boston, having told her mother she was going to church. Instead of church, however, she went with her "chum," sixteen-year-old Gertrude Smith, to spend the day at Revere Beach, five miles north of Boston and the cite of numerous Coney Island style attractions.  Florence, five feet one inch tall and weighing 125 pounds, was clad "a blue dress, pink scarf, black stockings and brown pumps."

July 18, 1920 was *not* a day at the beach

Later that day it started to rain and the two girls began looking for shelter.  Up came an automobile with six young men in it, and the girls promptly asked them for a ride.  After a few minutes in the car, however, things took a troubling turn, according to Gertrude, for "the men began to act in an improper manner."  Gertrude hit one of her assailants in the face, then bit another before jumping from the car and escaping.  Florence, however, remained in the vehicle, which drove off down the street.

Three days later a dazed Florence stumbled into Gertrude's house, babbling incoherently. Having been summoned to the scene, Danforth Taylor concluded that the girl had been drugged with some form of liquid poison and "criminally assaulted."

Phoebe Atwood Taylor's father was
the physician in the case and testified
concerning Florence Rush's condition
Several days later, when Florence was able to talk cogently, she stated that she had become unconscious after having eaten some proffered cake in the car. When she recovered her wits she found herself in a house in Providence, Rhode Island, with three men in an adjoining room discussing what should be done with her.  One man suggested shipping her to Cuba, but the others "had different plans for her."

According to Florence's account, after several hours of wrangling among her captors she was taken by a blonde woman named Alice and her companion named Fred and put aboard a Boston-bound train, where she lapsed into unconsciousness.

Hearing all this, the Boston police declared themselves confident that Florence had been held in the clutches of a nefarious Providence white slavery gang.

After receiving an anonymous letter with information about the affair, police investigators traveled to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they were able to identify all the men who had been in the car. The men insisted that Florence had willingly gone in the car with them to New Bedford and that "the invitation also had been extended" to Gertrude as well, "but she declined."

What happened to the putative gang of Providence white slavers, the poisoned cake and the enigmatic blonde named Alice?  Was this a "Wonderland" tale on the part of the dazed Florence?  In her crime fiction PAT herself later pooh-poohed the veracity of sensationalist white slavery stories in Boston newspapers.

In the event one of the men in the car, Cornelius Vanderbilt Sweeney (his parents apparently were admirers of the great American business magnate), was in fact arrested and charged with Florence's "enticement" (i.e., persuading a minor to accompany one for the purposes of sexual activity).

Florence Rush
In the next month, August, Cornelius was found guilty on this charge and sentenced to one year's imprisonment, which sentence he appealed.  A few years later he married and with his wife had a daughter. He continued to reside at New Bedford, where he labored as a truck driver in the building trade. Born in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1897, he was 23 when the incident with Florence occurred.

A year after her abduction Florence Rush wed a Boston taxi driver.  The couple raised eleven children together.

Escapades with mysterious blondes and automobiles are known to take place in PAT's mysteries, but I don't believe PAT ever allowed sexual assault into her cozy fictional Cape Cod world.  However, her father had played a role in an important part of Cape Cod history just a couple of years before the Florence Rush affair; and this did make it into PAT's books after the outbreak of the Second World War.  More on this soon.


  1. This true life crime case sounds like the kind of story that would've appealed to a writer I just discovered and whose books I'm devouring with relish. Deloris Stanton Forbes grew up in Missouri and Oklahoma and had a career as a newspaper reporter in Massachusetts where she lived with her husband for most of her life. She published under the pseudonyms Stanton Forbes and Tobias Wells. As Forbes she leaned towards Southern Gothic and Grand Guignol imbued stories. As Wells she wrote police procedurals with some nice touches of genuine detection. Her plotting is offbeat, her writing straightforward, but her sense of drama is her real skill. She never shied away from controversial or taboo subject matter and used both to her advantage in delivering her final plot twists.

    1. By the way, John, let me know if you'd like to contribute to the Tuesday Club postings. We are starting a new round in May, a theme, not an author. Would love to have you aboard!

    2. I wish I had got on board for Taylor. As I said on someone else's blog I have all but four of her books and never read one! Now, of course, I've pulled three to read in the coming weeks. What is the theme for May? It may fit one of the five books (!) I've already read but have to yet to write up for PSB. Very behind. I read much faster than I can write these posts. You can email me if you'd rather not publicize it in advance.

  2. Whoo, that's some story. AFter reading others' contributions, I do want to read more of PAT herself...