The Broken Butterfly

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The Broken Butterfly

In his history, The Lawless Decade, Paul Sann introduces his readers to the 1920s. His claim is that Bullets, Broads & Bathtub Gin fairly define the era that was 100 years ago.  Much of what happened is overlooked and those who lived then are gone. A few names like Paul Whiteman, Rudy Vallee, Shoeless Joe Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Rudolph Valentino, Charles Lindbergh, and Woodrow Wilson live on in history, culture, legend, and on postcards but people like Dot King are forgotten  – who was she?

Dot King was the Broken Butterfly and she came out of the Ziegfeld Follies chorus. She had a doll’s face and an hour-glass body. She had nighttime New York at her feet. She had a choir of men: sugar daddies, playboys, and stage-door Johnnies bringing her candy and roses. She had a plush bachelor-girl apartment just five-minutes’ walk from Broadway and a wagon full of diamonds.

On March 15, 1923, Dorothy was found by her maid dead in her bed, clad only in a silky blue negligee. There was a pair of yellow silk men’s pajamas on the chair in the corner. The apartment was a mess, but there was no sign that a murder had been committed. The maid stuffed the pajamas under a couch cushion in the living room and ran to find a policeman.

The first ambulance attendant on the scene suggested it was a suicide, but the Medical Examiner recorded her death as a murder. He was the only one to notice that Miss King’s neck had been twisted well beyond her left shoulder and her arm was pulled at a grotesque angle behind her back. He also found an empty bottle of chloroform among the rumpled bed clothes.

During the investigation the authorities discovered that a $15 thousand ruby necklace, a diamond wristwatch and several other pieces of jewelry, estimated at $30 thousand were missing.

Dorothy’s mother, Mrs. Anna Keenan gave the police the name of the man Dot had been seen with lately. Alberto Santos Guimares was a Latin gentleman around Manhattan complete with barber shop sideburns and a fine trimmed mustache. Mrs. Keenan told the police that her daughter loved Alberto and often furnished him with all the money he needed but got nothing in return except an occasional beating.

Guimares convinced the police he made the rounds on the speakeasy tour the night of the murder and was no place near her.

Letters and other assorted evidence found at the crime scene led to one dead-end after another.

The only other suspect was a Philadelphia gangster named Kearsley Mitchell. The police were able to prove that he had spent much of the day with Miss King, but he too convinced the police that he left her apartment around 2:00 AM – supposedly some time before the murder – thought to be around 6:00 AM.

After the investigation withered, the tabloid writers, who had dubbed her the Broadway Butterfly changed her nickname to the Broken Butterfly. Six months later the police announced that they were closing the case. Neither Mitchell nor Guimares were charged and no other suspects would be questioned.

The Sunday, September 2, 1923, edition of the New York Daily News devoted a full-page spread entitled The Truth of Dot King’s Death.

Elements in Dorothy King’s obituary (it appeared in newspapers across the country) retold many of the less seemly elements of her life, but the tawdry was not forgotten.

“Dorothy Dot (Keenan) King, (she used her mother’s maiden name as her stage name), an actress dubbed the Broadway Butterfly was born and grew up in the poverty of a first-generation Irish immigrant family in the slums of Harlem but managed to put her petite figure and natural beauty to work in the haute couture shops of Manhattan.”

Her father, John Joseph Keenan and her mother, Katherine Anna Keenan had two other children, a daughter born in 1889 and a son John born in 1897.

She appeared in only one Broadway production, “Broadway Brevities of 1920,” which played at the Winter Garden Theatre for 105 performances from the autumn of 1920. Also in the cast was a young man on the cusp of superstardom, Eddie Cantor. While her hardworking family believed she was working as a model and was an aspiring Broadway actress, Dot had left both modeling and Broadway behind in favor of a career as an honest-to-goodness vamp.

Dot found more success amid the candlelight of her boudoir than among the limelight of Broadway. Described in the press of the day as “a lady with more charm than virtue,” Dot became a popular feature of the New York social scene, particularly the nightclubs and speakeasies.

Mitchell and Guimares were the only men who were allowed to visit Dot’s apartment. While Mitchell gave her gifts, Guimares gave her bruises and black eyes. Despite his violence Guimares was a welcome visitor to the love nest.

Mitchell was the last to see her alive. The elevator operator confirmed that Mitchell departed around 2:30 AM. No one else was seen entering Dot’s apartment, but it wasn’t necessary to use the elevator or even the main stairway to get to her flat.

Between 2:30 and 11 AM, March 15, someone entered the apartment while Dot was there alone. When her maid arrived for work the next morning, she let herself in. It was not unusual for Dot to be in bed at that late hour, because it was from the crowd that she ran with that New York became known as the City That Never Sleeps.

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The postcard of Dot King with this article was found in a quarter-box several years ago. It was recently re-discovered and now appears in Postcard History. There are no logos or trademarks. It has a divided back but is unused.

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Four years later Louise Lawson (a Texas native with Broadway dreams) was murdered under very similar circumstances on February 8, 1924. Her murder received minimal press coverage.

Interesting story. I wonder if there was a demand for pictures of murder victims.

Ginny, thanks for the information! I went there and this wonderful post on Postcard History was fleshed out (pun not intended but I’ll take it!). The story became almost a meditation on life as I thought of the attractions the physical world holds and how when young and seduced by it, one can become trapped and quickly become just another lost soul. Fascinating story.

I suspect that Guimares was the murderer, and would have been proven so had such modern methods as DNA analysis been available at the time.

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