The Marguerite Favar – J.C. Crowell Murder – Part I

From the author – This is the story of a double homicide that happened in Memphis in 1915. It was never solved and was talked about for years. It involved the brutal murder of a Vaudeville Performer named Marguerite Favar and her married lover from Greenwood, Mississippi, James C. Crowell.  

This is not a happy story, but it is a true story. The people I wrote about were real. They were not characters in a play or a book of fiction. They moved through the streets of Memphis and their lives ended here.  

This was a difficult story to write. It is difficult to explain, but I could only work on it for a short time, and I would start to feel bad. It wasn’t the content even though it was not necessarily a pleasant subject. It was more like something, or somebody didn’t want the story told. I always felt like something, or somebody was looking over my shoulder in a disapproving way and judging me while I researched and wrote the story. People roll their eyes when you mention these things, but I keep an open mind. I often felt as though any moment they were going to tap me on the shoulder and complain.  

It was also difficult to research. Something like 45 to 50 newspaper articles covering a four-month period in two different newspapers. I experienced something like the frustration the detectives felt while working on the case. 

Who could it have been? Was it Miss Favar, judging me for how I presented her, James Crowell wanting anonymity, Fred Bradley trying to reconcile his feelings, or was it the murderer himself? I am not really sure I want to know for certain. I hope the people who went through this terrible tragedy approve of the story as I have told it.  

The Marguerite Favar – J.C. Crowell Murder September 21, 1915 

Early in the morning of Tuesday, September 21, 1915, a janitor at the Benham Flats apartments, 889 Poplar at Claybrook, noticed smoke in an upstairs apartment from outside the building. The Fire Department was notified and dispatched Engines 7,1, 4 and Truck 2. The firefighters entered the building, forced open the locked door to the apartment and began a search.  

The fire had almost burned itself out before they arrived but there was heavy smoke in the apartment. During the search, a man was found lying on the floor in a hallway and a female was located in a bedroom. Both were deceased. Once the smoke cleared it was evident that the two people found were not victims of the fire but had been brutally murdered. 

Police were immediately notified. Sergeant Mike Kehoe and a group of officers quickly arrived on the scene and began an investigation.  

From the arrival of the Fire Department and discovery of the crime, the investigation would lead Police in many directions. Promising leads would again and again dry up leaving the investigation at a standstill. Conflicting information would slow the investigative progress while the press and others pressured Police to find and arrest the perpetrator.  

The female victim was identified as Marguerite Favar, a dancer, actress and vaudeville performer. She moved to Memphis in June of 1915 from Greenwood, MS and took an apartment at Benham Flats.  

James Crowell, the male victim of the homicide, was the very wealthy general manager of the Buckeye Cotton Oil Company in Greenwood. Crowell and Miss Favar met and became involved while she was living in Greenwood.  

Homicide investigations always begin with the people closest to the victim. The vast majority of the time a person is killed by someone they know or have a relationship with. Money, jealousy, infidelity and property disputes are a few of the issues that can drive people past their limit. In this case, Fred L. Bradley was the number one person of interest.  

Miss Favar traveled with a man named Fred L. Bradley. Bradley was a former mechanic who at some point several years before became a stage carpenter. Bradley said he and Miss Favar met on the Pacific Coast 4 or 5 years back. He stated to Police that he and Miss Favar traveled around the country together for a while and settled in Greenwood MS, living in a houseboat on the Yazoo River. 

Bradley told police it was his job to build the scenery needed by Miss Favar and other ladies for their plays. The extent of their relationship was never quite explained. He initially maintained it was a business arrangement but later there would be proof this was not exactly true. Bradley and Miss Favar told curious people Bradley was her uncle. 

While she lived in Greenwood, Miss Favar and James C. Crowell met and began a relationship. Crowell was a wealthy and prominent citizen of Greenwood. He was highly respected in his community. He managed the Buckeye Cotton Oil Plant where Bradley was employed as a machinist.  

It is unclear if Bradley obtained his employment through Miss Favar and her involvement with Crowell. Miss Favar at the time was putting together a stage production to benefit the local Elks Club. She often utilized local talent in her productions. According to Bradley, she went to the Crowell residence to speak with his daughter about participating in the production. Bradley stated it was there that Crowell was introduced to Miss Favar. Exactly how Favar and Crowell met would later be questioned. 

J.C. Crowell was a very successful individual. He worked for the Buckeye Cotton oil Company for several years moving steadily up the company ranks. He reached his present position of general manager of the Greenwood Plant after working at several other locations. He was highly respected in the Greenwood Community and active in local affairs.  

When Crowell met Miss Favar he was married and had one daughter. Like many other men who knew Miss Favar, he became infatuated with her.  Crowell began spending time with her. He bought her gifts and took her for long rides in his car, often accompanied by Bradley. At some point they became involved but kept it very quiet. 

Marguerite Favar was born in Australia in the mid 1880’s. The exact year is unknown. Her christened name was Adelaide Favar or possibly Farwarth. Her father, William, died at some point of unknown causes. Marguerite and her Mother Alice immigrated to the United States in 1897. It is believed they originally settled in Portland, Oregon.  

In the early 1900’s Miss Favar became involved in show business.  She performed as a dancer with several groups eventually rising to the top of the bill. She was called “Petite Marguerite Favar”. She was a very talented dancer and her large brown eyes charmed men from all walks of life. Men would sit mesmerized by her during a performance and gather at the stage door afterwards hoping to meet her. She never had to search for male companionship.  

She appeared at the Lewis and Clark Exposition held in Portland Oregon in 1905. The exposition ran from June to October of that year and over 1,588,000 persons attended. While appearing in the exposition Miss Favar received a lot of attention as a performer.  

During her time with the Exposition, she met and became involved with a world renowned Italian musical conductor named Giuseppe Creatore. Known as the “Great Creatore”, his fame as a conductor was said to rival that of John Phillip Sousa. He performed at the Lewis and Clark Exposition at the same time as Marguerite Favar. As with so many other men he was enamored with her, and they became involved. Creatore was more than 10 years her senior.  

It is not known how long Creatore and Miss Favar were together. They told people they were married, though no record of a marriage can be found.  

Miss Favar toured the US on several vaudeville circuits between 1905 and 1909. In 1910 she was living in a house with her mother in Hollywood California. Miss Favar was employed by two movie companies the Bison Company and the Selig Company, working as an actress. She was highly thought of by all of the people she worked with and had many friends. 

While living in California in 1910, she met and married Frank D. Tompkins, a retired Army Captain. Tompkins served in the Philippines as a Lieutenant. After he retired from the Army, he became employed in the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  

Favar and Tompkins lived in Los Angeles, CA. They had only been married a few months before he became sick. At the time, Miss Favar was working at the movie studios in Hollywood. One morning Tompkins complained to her of feeling sick and having abdominal pain as she was about to leave for work. They talked about it and decided it would pass and she left.  

Later in the day she received a phone call at the studio that Tompkins was gravely ill, and she needed to come home immediately. She rushed to her friend Dr. Dowley’s home. They drove to her home as quickly as possible but arrived too late. Sometime before her arrival Frank Tompkins died.  

An autopsy was performed on Frank Tompkins by Dr. Dowley. At first, he thought the death was suspicious. He checked for poison in Tompkins’ system and found none. It was later determined Tompkins’ death resulted from an undiagnosed heart defect but the rumor of his taking his life by drinking poison persists still today.  

After Tomkins death, Miss Favar continued performing on several Vaudeville circuits as Marguerite Favar and her Eight Dancing Girls. She also performed on the Pantages Circuit in a play called The Golden Dream, an extravaganza in 11 scenes. 

The morning the Favar-Crowell homicide was discovered officers quickly responded to the call. Captain Keough and several other officers arrived on the scene minutes after the Fire Department had doused the flames and cleared the smoke. A crowd had gathered outside, attracted by the fire trucks.  

Residents also crowded the apartment building hallway, and some entered the apartment along with the press. Crime scene preservation was not as organized or as thoroughly trained as it is today. It was developing science and processing the scene of a high-profile case like this one was not the norm for Memphis Police.  

It would never be known what items were moved, handled, or taken from the scene. Police focused on the bloody handprints on the walls and on a window, photographing them for comparison. Later some of that evidence would prove to be a result of actions not associated with the crime.  

When officers entered the apartment, they found papers and other items strewn around the room. Chairs were overturned and a trunk that appeared to have clothing in it was opened. Blood was all around the room. A puddle of blood surrounded James Crowell’s body where it laid on the floor.  

Blood was smeared on the wall near the bed and blood spatter was on the walls and ceiling. There were several bloody handprints on the walls and a window frame. Other items including the clothing in the trunk and the trunk itself had blood on them also.  

The same was true of the bed where Miss Favar lay. The mattress was burned around her, and the sheet and pillow were covered in her blood. She had burns on the bottom of her feet from the fire.  

Homicide detectives Surrency and Klinck were sent to the scene by Chief of Detectives Roper. Not long after their arrival the hammer used in the homicide was located in the bedroom by Sergeant Keough and Officer Louis Davis.  

The murder weapon turned out to be a three-pound mechanics hammer with a crude handmade handle. Initially, ownership of the hammer was in question, and it was hoped it might lead investigators to the perpetrator. Later the hammer was proven to be owned by James Crowell. He was known to keep it in a toolbox in his car. Later it would be determined that the hammer was forged at the Buckeye Plant at Greenwood for James Crowell. The knife used to cut Crowell’s throat was not found.  

On Wednesday the 22nd, Dr. Louis LeRoy performed an autopsy at Thompson Brothers Funeral Home on both Victims. It was determined that Crowell was struck at least 18 times on the right side and rear of his head. His skull was fractured in several places. His throat was also cut almost to his spinal cord, approximately 6 inches. Miss Favar received two blows to her head and each blow fractured her skull. The force of the blows drove her hair and curlers into her skull. Both victims had burns on the bottom of their feet from the suspect setting the bed on fire. Crowell also had burns on his left arm.  

A partially empty bottle of wood alcohol was nearby, and it was believed the suspect used the alcohol as an accelerant to set fire to the closet and the bed.  

At approximately 9 am, Homicide Captain Glisson arrived at the scene. The bodies had already been removed and the reporters were asking questions. One representative of a local newspaper referred to a “struggle” between Crowell and the suspect. Captain Glisson’s immediate response was “I don’t see any sign of a struggle”. 

The crime scene was never sealed off. Crime scene science was emerging at the time, but it was in no way as refined as it is today. The contamination of the crime scene would be referred to in a critical way by the media several times in the weeks that followed. 

Investigators began to piece together a timeline and sequence of events based on the physical evidence and interviews. As with any investigation this would evolve as new evidence and discovered facts emerged. In a high-profile case like this, where the victims are entertainers or public figures and have contact with many people, it can be complicated and difficult to assemble a case.  

In 1913 Miss Favar was touring with different vaudeville circuits. Her mother Alice became ill with Cancer and died during that year. Miss Favar returned to the Pantages Vaudeville circuit following it farther East. Very little is known regarding her movements during the next year and a half. 

While traveling on the Pantages Vaudeville circuit Miss Favar was performing in Greenwood, MS. It was there in 1914 that her dance troupe broke up with the other dancers going their separate ways. She was without an act and began trying to rebuild her career. Miss Favar opened a dance studio in Greenwood, but it didn’t do well.  

She and Bradley occupied a houseboat on the Yazoo River built by Bradley. By all accounts the Houseboat was very comfortable and well furnished. Bradley was employed as a machinist at the Buckeye Cotton Oil Mill in Greenwood. She passed Bradley off as her uncle to anyone who might be curious. It was during this time that she became acquainted with James Crowell.  

It is unclear if Bradley became employed at the Cotton oil plant before or after Crowell and Favar became involved.  

Miss Favar put together a show to benefit the Greenwood Elks Lodge that was very successful. Due to the success of that performance, she began working on a benefit show for the Memphis Elks lodge. 

In April of 1915, Miss Favar began putting together a show in Memphis called “The 45 Dollar Mystery”. The play was put on as a fundraiser to benefit the Elks Lodge #27 Christmas Charity fund. It was slated to take place at the East End Park outdoor stage on August 18, 1915. 

Favar commuted back and forth to Memphis during the spring of 1915 recruiting local and professional talent for the stage play she was creating. She often stayed at the Chisca hotel. James Crowell would meet her in Memphis during that period and stay in an adjoining or nearby room.  

In June of 1915, Miss Favar moved into the Benham Flats Apartments at 889 Poplar at Dunlap. She was in the process of rebuilding her career and believed that her chances of doing so were better in Memphis. The upcoming play she was putting together for the Elks was an opportunity to bring attention to her talent and she obviously intended to seize that opportunity.  

The investigation immediately came under close scrutiny from the local newspapers. Most of the Memphis area homicides were alcohol related and usually occurred after an argument or a domestic dispute. The large number of saloons and other vice related activities created a stage for probably 95 percent or more of homicide deaths in Memphis. The rest were from robberies and other crime related violations. A small percentage might involve a local politician or doctor. In almost all cases the victims knew or were involved with each other in some way. These were usually quickly solved and might generate a small paragraph on page 5 or 11, then be forgotten.  

Very rarely did local police deal with a high-profile case where the victims were well known entertainers or people highly thought of and or prominent citizens. It always created tremendous pressure from the media for the Police Department. Investigators were under heavy pressure to apprehend the suspect and close the case quickly.  

The lack of a definite suspect and the many people Miss Favar had contact with created a case known to Officers as a “mystery homicide”. No clear-cut suspect was known. Investigating the crime involved a lot of “leg” work and multiple interviews with possible suspects or witnesses. The repetitive and detailed work usually causes this type of case to seemingly be at a standstill. 

Memphis Police were working on two other “mystery homicides” at the time of the Favar-Crowell murders. One was the death of a local grocer, found shot to death in an alley next to his store. The other was the line of duty death of Memphis Police Sergeant Julius Brett. Sergeant Brett was shot by an unknown assailant at Jackson and Decatur at 1:30 am on August 30, 1915. He died of his wound after driving to a nearby doctor’s home for help. All three homicides were being actively investigated. Resources in the Detective Bureau were stretched thin. 

Outside help was called on to help Investigators Klinck and Surrency. Deputy R.B. Wilroy from the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department was assigned to assist. The O’Haver detective agency was also working with the two MPD Detectives.  

The O’Haver agency was owned by Captain O’Haver, a retired Memphis Officer. It was affiliated with the Pinkerton Agency, a nationally known criminal investigative organization. O’Haver employed other former MPD officers who were trusted by Memphis Police.  

Fred Bradley was notified of Miss Favar’s death during the day of the 21st. Bradley was told his connection with Miss Favar was mentioned and he immediately left for Memphis arriving Tuesday Night. 

Bradley told Police he had been in Memphis all day on Sunday the 19th discussing the building of sets for the upcoming play. Bradley stated he left that evening and returned to Greenwood.  

Bradley’s presence in Greenwood on Monday and Early Tuesday Morning were verified to Chief Roper by reliable persons from Greenwood prior to Bradley’s arrival at Police Headquarters. He was seen Monday Night and early Tuesday Morning working in his shop there. 

Bradley was interviewed at Police Headquarters for about two hours on Tuesday the 21st by Detective Klinck and Chief Roper. After the interview Bradley left for his hotel room offering no comment. Later Chief Roper stated that the interview with Bradley offered no further information on a possible suspect.  

During the summer months of 1915, Miss Favar worked with her group of cast members putting together and choreographing the dances for the upcoming play. She was very socially active. She made friends easily and had many male admirers.  

The performance on August 18 went well and she began immediately working on another benefit program. This time it was to assist the Walter Malone fund.  

While rehearsing this play, she agreed to give a performance of the latest dances at the 19th Century Club on Union Ave. The event was scheduled for Monday night the 20th of September.  

Crowell had been in Memphis for several days that week and was staying at Miss Favar’s apartment. When Crowell was in town and they were out in public, Favar introduced Crowell as her husband. Miss Favar used her married name often and she was checked into Benham Flats as Mrs. F.D. Tompkins. When she spoke of Crowell, she referred to him as her husband, Mr. Tompkins.  

Crowell hired a black man named Thomas Porter, as a chauffeur, to drive Miss Favar around town in Crowell’s car. On Monday night Porter drove them to Lyceum Hall to pick up Joe Cue then to the 19th Century Club. Porter waited outside with the car for them to return. 

Miss Favar danced in several numbers that night. In one she danced with a Spanish male dancer Joe Cue. His real name was Goldun Sedano. Miss Carrie Benham, daughter of the owner of Benham Flats, was backstage just before Miss Favar and Joe Cue danced. Miss Benham had a ring she wanted Cue to wear during his performance. He agreed to wear the ring after some discussion and once the dance ended, he returned the ring.  

The performance ended around 11:30 PM. When Favar and Crowell walked out of the 19th Century Club, Crowell was a little ahead of Favar and Miss Benham. Crowell told Porter he would drive the rest of the night and Porter could go home. Crowell, Miss Favar and Miss Benham got into Crowell’s car and left.  

This is where questions begin to surface regarding the timeline of events. According to the testimony of Carrie Benham at the inquest, she, Miss Favar and Crowell arrived back at the apartment at about 12:30 AM. She stated she accompanied Miss Favar to the front door and entered the apartment with her.  

A resident who occupied the apartment below Miss Favar stated she heard noises from Favar’s apartment that sounded “like someone bouncing a football” and somebody walking around at about 6:30 am. A question arose as to when they actually arrived home. That question was, did they arrive home at 6:10 when the downstairs neighbor began hearing noises or were they in for the night when Miss Benham left them.  

It was at first thought that the suspect might have been in the apartment waiting for them when they arrived home between 6:00 and 6:30. This came into question immediately. Both were dressed in night clothes when they were found. It was more likely they were asleep when the suspect entered the apartment. 

At some point Detectives accepted the 12:00 to 12:30 time given by Miss Benham. There was no evidence or testimony that would place this time into question.  

The timeline of events was a very important part of the case. The Favar-Crowell investigation would run into conflicting information like this again and again. Detectives had to sort it out and try to come up with the most accurate solution possible. It took time. 

According to a statement given by Miss Benham, She and Miss Favar walked up to the apartment from the street while Crowell drove the car to the east side of the Apartments to park. Favar and Miss Benham entered the apartment through the front door. Miss Favar asked her to help un-pin the costume she was wearing, and she did so. Crowell was heard coming up the stairs to the back door and Favar asked Miss Behnam to let him in. Before she could walk over to the back door Crowell opened it and came in.  

Miss Favar said, “That is strange, I remember locking it before we left.” Crowell brought Favar a glass of water and Miss Benham started to leave. As she was leaving the apartment, Crowell remarked that she would not see him anymore as he was going home the next day. The time was about 12:30 to 12:45.  

This would be the last time Favar and Crowell were seen alive.  

A gap in the timeline was a critical issue for investigators. Some of the questions regarding time of death were available through Dr. Leroy’s postmortem report. The problem is, in those days, time of death was mostly an educated guess. The blood in the apartment could have shed light on it also, but a lot of it was obliterated by the firemen and others walking around. Postmortem lividity could have played a part along with rigor. There were also indications that the blood on the floor and bed had not dried. All of this is used to help fix the time of death.  

This is where preserving the crime scene and chain of evidence becomes critical. It verifies and cements the sequence of events into the timeline and can convict or exonerate a suspect. Crime scene Investigation is very sophisticated today, but contamination can nullify it if care is not taken. 

When Officers arrived at the scene, people, including members of the press, were walking around inside the apartment. Items were being handled and any evidence on the floor was being obliterated. As far as is known, the scene was never isolated and controlled.  

The crime scene at Miss Favar’s apartment was badly compromised from the start. It created many unanswerable questions.

Initially it was found that all Miss Favar’s rings were missing. It was unclear if any other jewels were taken. No evidence of any cash was found in the apartment. Her purse was found on the floor and appeared to have been gone through. Deep inside the purse in a hidden pocket two $20 dollar bills were found. Her trunk containing her costumes was opened and had been rifled through with some of the garments on the floor. The tray was removed and there were stains of some kind on it that appeared to be blood. Papers were strewn around the room.  

Miss Favar was still lying in bed face down. Her arms covered her face and head. Later Assistant Fire Chief John Moore told Police he had seen many burn victims in that position using their arms to protect their face and head from the heat and flames. Crowell was lying in the entrance to the living room on his back with his head against the doorway. His throat was deeply cut and there was a small puddle of blood around his neck and shoulders.  

Initial impressions at a homicide scene are the keys to the investigative trail officers will follow. This homicide had earmarks of anger given the number of blows to Crowell’s head and the method used to kill the victims. The intention of the suspect and the method he used to attack the victims was obviously intended to end their lives.  

The motive was initially believed to be robbery with the intention of not leaving any witnesses behind who might identify the perpetrator. The level of violence involved could also suggest anger. The type of anger generated by rejection, or the obsessive behavior of a person infatuated with one of the victims.    

On the 22nd, Police picked up Chauffeur Thomas Porter and Benham Flats janitor, Guy Palmer for questioning. After questioning, Palmer was released while Porter remained in custody. Police eventually came to the conclusion neither had any involvement in the homicide.  

Fred L. Bradley was interviewed by Memphis Police Tuesday after he arrived in Memphis. He told Chief Roper and Detective Jack Klinck he was in Memphis on Sunday the 19th. He met with Miss Favar regarding the building of the sets for the upcoming play she was rehearsing. 

Bradley told police that Favar had about $1200 in cash and Jewels in her possession valued at about $1000. He described his connection to Favar as a business relationship. He also admitted they had known each other for several years and that he loved her. He appeared to be surprised when told of Miss Favar and Crowell sharing an apartment.  

Police released Bradley late Tuesday afternoon after interviewing him for about two hours. He told them a straightforward story and he was not a suspect at the time. Bradley went to Benham Flats apartments after the interview, accompanied by officers, and then to the funeral home to arrange for burial of Miss Favar’s remains.  

Details about Miss Favar’s life were beginning to surface through police department investigation and newspaper inquiries.  

Friends and others told of attention from many men whom she charmed and then turned away. An old friend from Los Angeles, Dr. Edwin Hyde, corresponded with Miss Favar from time to time over the years. He stated she would write to him telling of men in almost every town who became infatuated with her and wanted to marry her. Dr. Hyde told her it would be better if she married and settled down.  

After the death of Fred Tompkins Favar told Dr. Hyde she would never marry again. In many of the letters to Dr. Hyde she told of men proposing to her whom she rejected or ignored. He stated he warned her that it would one day get her in trouble. Dr. Hyde said she laughed at the warning.  

A group of letters between Bradley and Miss Favar and a few from Crowell were found in the apartment. 

Correspondence between Favar and Bradley was mostly of a business nature. Only one or two could be called love letters. Several of the ones from Crowell were signed “Your Husband, James Crowell ”.  

She and Bradley seemed to be able to work together and get along. They traveled together for almost 5 years and lived in the houseboat together in Greenwood for about 2 years. It was never really clear on what level their relationship worked. Favar indicated that Bradley was jealous of attention from other men over the years. Favar never really defined her feelings for Bradley as far as information was available. It was established that Bradley had strong feelings for Miss Favar by his statements to Police during questioning. On what lever Miss Favar returned these feelings was never established.  

They found a place where they could work and live together. It is likely that Bradley’s feelings caused him to accept what level of attention he was given by Miss Favar.  He chose to live with it on that level in place of not being a part of her life. 

Next in the series – What was in the letter sent to the Commerical Appeal? 

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