Tragedy came to Smith College on Friday, November 13, 1925, when 20 year old Jean Robeson was found dead in her dormitory kitchenette. Her death was accidental, attributed to asphyxiation from a gas leak in her room’s lighting. This sad incident would likely have been lost in the folds of history altogether, if it had been the only trauma to strike the elite Northampton college that day.
By Saturday, though, news had broken of a search under way for another Smith student, Alice Corbett. Corbett, a friend of Robeson’s, had left her room at 8AM the morning of her death, and was not seen again. An unsealed letter found in her room addressed to her mother was never released in its entirety, but indicated “a confused state of mind” according to investigators. “Mother, I am coming home,” read its final line.
Friends of Alice said in retrospect that she had seemed in poor spirits the week leading up to her sudden departure, but not to an extent that had alarmed anyone. Widespread searches were made, particularly of the Mount Tom woods, where a girl fitting her description had been seen. Her father immediately posted a $500 reward for information.
On November 20, some telephone lineman reported that a girl resembling Corbett’s photo had held them up at gunpoint on nearby Mount Whiting, demanding food before disappearing into the woods. A deluge of less reliable tips and outright hoaxes came in, as well, as they do in any well publicized missing persons case. In April, a middle-aged woman “of at least 45 years” went about some stores in Cheshire, Mass, claiming to be the missing student; she was interviewed by state police, who ended up giving her trolley fare and sending her back to her home in Adams.
Active searches of woodlands and waterways throughout western Massachusetts and neighboring states continued for nearly 2 years. Despite an increased reward of $1000, no worthwhile information about Alice ever surfaced.
Barely more than 2 years after her disappearance, another Smith student went missing. On Friday, January 13, 18 year old Frances Smith was reported missing from her dormitory, by a friend who said she had not been in her room all day. From the very first day of the investigation, suspicions percolated about a connection between her disappearance and that of Alice Corbett from the same campus 26 months ago. Lead Detective Joseph Daley of the state police -“although not superstitious,” according to Boston police commissioner Alfred Foote, who wrote of the case 2 years later- certainly felt the Friday the 13th timing gave the two cases an ominous connection. Only the lack of a note seemed to differentiate the circumstances.
Certainly, such disappearances were not a common occurrence; prior to Alice Corbett, the last case of a student going missing anyone could recall in the area was Bertha Lane Mellish, who vanished from Mt Holyoke College in 1897.
Publicity was even greater for this disappearance, as Frances was well known in society as the heiress daughter of a millionaire family. Coincidentally, she was also a somewhat close friend of Anne Morrow, who shortly would become Anne Lindbergh, and whose child would 5 years later become one of the most famous disappearances of the 20th century. As with the Lindbergh disappearance, and Alice Corbett earlier, dubious tips and unhelpful leads poured in and were systematically investigated, to no avail. Frances was “sighted” in Westfield, in Boston, in the Berkshires; in Connecticut and Maine, in New York, and more. By the following year, Frances St John Smith had been seen in almost every corner of the U.S., and in Europe.
The search for Frances was the most extensive ever conducted in Massachusetts at that time. After two weeks of failed searching, Commissioner Foote called a “secret conference” at the Lee barracks, with Frances’ father, uncle, top police officials from around the region, and the president of Smith College. Over two straight days, “the life of Miss Smith was discussed and considered from every angle since childhood.”
By 1928, Daly, Foote and other police investigators had become convinced Frances must be dead. Proof of their suspicions came on March 29, 1929, from two men dragging the Connecticut River 20 miles from Northampton in Longmeadow, for a coworker who had drowned the previous day. Instead, they found the partially nude body of young woman, who was later identified by clothing and dental records as Frances. An autopsy by Dr. Frederick D. Jones listed her cause of death as “drowning, sustained under circumstances undetermined.”
National coverage of her body’s discovery didn’t stop people from “seeing” the famous missing heiress, and tips continued to come in from around the country over the next couple years.
The strangest reference to Frances came in 1933, where she is alluded to in one of the many bizarre anonymous letters received early in the search for her friend Anne’s infant son Charles. In the ransom message, which investigators at one point considered one of the only credible letters, the anonymous author writes, “You know the fate of the Smith girl, who received a similar letter and did contrary to our instructions by making it known… she was dropped out of the picture, and so will you if you tell anybody about the contents of this letter.”
There’s no indication Frances ever received any such letter, though a $50,000 ransom letter had been received by her father in 1928, dismissed at the time as a malicious prank. Charles Lindbergh Jr, meanwhile, was ultimately found dead in May 1933. Richard Hauptman was convicted and executed for the crime, though there’s at least half a dozen books questioning that conclusion.
The murky, unresolved nature of Frances death, and the overall loss of three students from the 2500 student population of the private Northampton college in a 26 month period- all on Fridays that fell on the 13th- led to considerable rumor and speculation for years to come. Some inevitably spoke of a “curse” over the college related to Friday the 13th, though this idea was diluted away as decades passed without related incident.
The intuitive magic marker in the human brain cannot help but try to draw lines between some dots; it’s this mental capacity that most muddies unsolved mysteries. Conversely, this intuitive dot-connector is also the thing that most often solves cold cases, when they do get solved. Double-edged tools should be used with great care. With that said, I will relay just one more coincidence (it cannot be more than that, can it?) in this legend built on coincidence. About 20 years after Frances St John Smith’s disappearance, another Smith student, Anne Straw, went missing. This July 1947 disappearance took place nowhere near the college, but at her parent’s summer house in Squam Lake, New Hampshire. When a thorough search of the area and dredge of the lake was made without sign of her, investigation did circle back to the Northampton area, but without any credible leads.
After more than a year, the search for Anne Straw ended when two boys fishing on the other side of Squam Lake caught a piece of clothing still attached to her remains on one of their hooks. The date was August 13, 1948; a Friday.
Boston Globe, Nov 16-21, 1925; July 31, 1930
Brooklyn Daily Eagle,March 31/1929
Foote, Alfred; Norris, Lowell. “The Strange Case of Frances St. John Smith”, True Detective Mysteries, November 1929.
“Smith Students are Still Missing,” Nov. 13, 1928, North Adams Transcript
“Scores of Clues Scoured in Vain Search for Lindbergh Baby.” Philadelphia Enquirer, March 4, 1932
“Body is Found” St Louis Star and Times, Aug 14, 1948