The strange and tragic death of Mabel Douglass, First Dean of NJ Women's College.
|Written for and published in Weird NJ magazine, and introducing the 'shiny red fire truck' school of article research.
Death of the Dean
Camp Onodaga on Lake Placid was one of many comfortable family retreats in the first half of the 20th century. It was owned by the Douglass family, which by the 1930s consisted of the widowed Mabel Smith Douglass and her daughter Edith. Here they spent many peaceful days with servants on hand, away from their otherwise busy lives. On September 21st of 1933, they were expecting guests.
Mabel was 56, enjoying her time in the country. It was a pleasant reprieve, following a nervous breakdown months earlier and a stay at a sanatorium. No one in the household seemed worried when she announced that she was going out for awhile, to find some nice fall foliage for decorations. At 1:30 she left the house and except for a report of being seen rowing on the lake, it was the last time she was seen alive.
By 4:30, Mabel’s daughter contacted the State Police, and an extensive search through the surrounding woodland began. When the family’s boat was found capsized near Pulpit Rock, the deepest section of the lake, the search took a grim turn. Despite attempts to drag the lake, a body was never found. All that could be done was to have a memorial service and move on. Death was officially listed as accidental drowning.
Welcome to the world of SRF-- shiny red fire trucks. Around here, that is a particular affliction, brought on by a chance encounter with an odd bit of information found in an old photo, book or news clipping. It hints at something yet to be discovered and attracts your attention. Before you know it, you are off and running, chasing down more clues and searching for long forgotten and obscure information. Hence the shiny red fire trucks, short attention span not required.
And before you start questioning what a missing-and-presumed-dead woman in NY has to do with the great state of NJ, well, you’ve heard of Douglass College, right?
Anna Mabel Smith was born in Hudson County NJ in February of 1877 or 74, depending upon which source you consult. She would marry a successful produce merchant, William Shipman Douglass, in 1903. Her involvement in establishing the New Jersey College for Women is well documented, as she led the drive with the State Federation of Woman’s Clubs in starting it. Plagued with poor health in 1915, she was forced to temporarily step away from this pursuit. The college was eventually established, and she accepted the position as its first dean in 1918.
Many sources that will tell you she worked at gleaning necessary funds from the state, or about her relationship with students and faculty, and what inroads she helped forge in the field of women’s education. However, none of this is why I am here. There are in my opinion a few points more interesting to share, not the least of which is the amount of tragedy that seemed to swallow this family whole.
In 1916, William Shipman Douglass died prematurely, leaving his wife with two children, Edith and William Jr. Mabel was still working toward establishing the Women’s College, and while his death made her a wealthy widow, it did not deter her from her goal nor prevent her from accepting responsibilities as dean.
She moved into College Hall, the dean’s residence, and with her children lived on the second floor. In 1923, while a junior at New Brunswick High School, young William ended his life with a rifle. No explanation or reason was ever offered publicly. Despite the personal blow, Mabel Douglass continued working.
There followed many years at the college, with Mabel dedicated to her position. Unfortunately, she suffered bouts of ill health, including mental problems toward the end of her career. She was away from her office early in 1930 and after another 2 years elected to take a year’s leave of absence as of June 1932.
The following May, when she was expected to return, her resignation was formally announced. At that point a nervous breakdown sent her to a sanatorium in Cross River NY. While there, she suffered a broken arm, which may be another SRF to chase. After all, how does one break their arm while a patient recovering in a sanatorium?
At the time of her death, Mabel Douglass was credited with advancing the cause of women’s education, and establishing a college that grew from an original enrollment of 54 students to 1,000 by 1934. Despite her presumed death in 1933, her accomplishments were not forgotten. In 1955 the New Jersey College for Women was renamed Douglass College in her honor and memory.
It would seem the Douglass family was cursed. Daughter Edith lost her husband in a plane crash, yet another violent and premature death.
In 1948, Edith called a minister to her apartment in NYC, and during the conversation asked to be excused for a moment. She then went to the window and leapt to her death. With both of her children dead by suicide, Mabel’s story was still not over.
This brings us to the article that started my original chase. Sorting through a box of old newspapers at the museum where I work, I found the following item several pages in, in a paper dated 1963.
“Missing Dean May Have Been Murdered.
Malone, NY (AP)-- State police said today they were withholding for the moment an opinion as to whether murder, suicide or accident caused the death many years ago of a woman whose body was found Sunday in Lake Placid.
Skin divers who discovered the body have reported that a rope was knotted about the neck and tied to a 50 pound weight, but that the rope and weight were lost in recovery of the body.
The body is thought to be that of Mrs. Mabel Smith Douglass, the New Jersey college dean who disappeared 30 years ago. A pathologist reported yesterday that his examination indicated a strong possibility the body was that of Mrs. Douglass.
But he said further tests and studies needed to be made.
Lt. Supervisor W. B. Surdam told reporters here today that troopers were concentrating on identifying the body positively before reaching an opinion as to the cause of death.
He said skin divers had told the police of the weighted rope on the body. He added that the police investigators had not seen the rope.
The divers told newsmen that they were unable to find the weight on a second dive.
Mrs. Douglass, 56, disappeared while rowing on Lake Placid Sept. 21, 1933. She had been the dean of the New Jersey College for Women, later changed to Douglass College in her honor.”
The discovery was made Sept. 15, 1963, just one week shy of exactly 30 years since her disappearance. Members of a recreational diving group called the Lake Champlain Wreck-Raiders Club were visiting Lake Placid and exploring some of the rock ledges in the deepest sections. They discovered the body 95 feet from the surface. It was reportedly in remarkably preserved condition, due to the extremely cold temperature of the water at that depth. (Some sources claim it was perfectly preserved.) A week later the remains were positively identified as Mabel Smith Douglass.
The rope and weight were as mentioned never recovered, lost on ascent, dropping deeper and inaccessible. Technically there was no way of proving, beyond the statements and observations of the divers, that the rope was tied around the victim’s neck. It certainly looked like suicide, though there was no mention the existence of a note, nor any reason to suspect she was suicidal at the time. However, given her history of medical and mental problems, the claim has been made by many that it was in fact intentional.
The tragic life and death of Mabel Smith Douglass reads like fiction, especially in light of her role regarding the history of education in NJ.
In 1985, George Christian Ortloff authored the book ‘A Lady in the Lake: the True Account of Death and Discovery in Lake Placid’ for those who are interested in further reading on the subject.
When the body was discovered in ‘63, there were no living family members to claim it. The college paid for her burial in the Douglass family plot located at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Official records still rule it accidental death.