A Socialite, A Baby, and Blackmail: Scandal and High Society in Prohibition Era St. Louis

This article continues the Becker Brief of March 17, 2016 on the events surrounding the 1931 kidnapping of Dr. Isaac Kelley, a St. Louis area physician. During the trials of his kidnappers three years later, a St. Louis socialite was implicated in the plot to abduct Dr. Kelley. Her trail for the kidnapping was followed by accusations of illegal baby purchasing and blackmail.

When Adolph Fiedler, the owner of the “recreation parlor” where Dr. Isaac Kelley’s kidnappers had plotted, testified at kidnapper Angelo Rosegrant’s trial in September 1934, he specifically implicated Nellie Tipton Muench in the plot. Mrs. Muench, a fixture of St. Louis society, hardly seemed to fit the profile of a criminal schemer. The sister of a Missouri Supreme Court judge, and the wife of a doctor, she had once run a posh St. Louis dress salon. However, her socialite exterior masked a double life. Her dress salon, she claimed, mainly catered to wealthy and influential men buying baubles for their mistresses. There were whispers that the shop was deeply in debt, and that her billing practices for purchases made there were less than honest. She’d also had brushes with the law before-in 1919, she was arrested for stealing jewelry from a guest at a St. Louis hotel.

Fielder’s testimony brought her to the police’s attention anew. Fiedler testified that Mrs. Muench, meeting with the other kidnappers at his parlor, convinced them to specifically target Dr. Isaac Kelley. According to Fielder, Mrs. Muench said that she moved in the same social circles as the doctor, and claimed that she would be able to easily lure him away from his home. Despite this testimony, Nellie Tipton Muench’s trial for the kidnapping of Dr. Kelley concluded in October of 1935 with her acquittal. Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Mrs. Muench aloofly declared, “I was not guilty. The jury vindicated me. I never had a doubt. That’s all.” Her complacency was short-lived, however, as secret and illegal activates she had engaged in during her kidnapping trial were about to come to light.

Seeking to gain the sympathy of the jury while on trial for Dr. Kelley’s kidnapping, Mrs. Muench had decided to have a baby, reasoning that surely no jury would convict a new mother. Mr. and Mrs. Muench’s twenty-plus year marriage had thus far been entirely childless, but she did not let this deter her. Mrs. Muench’s lawyer quickly helped her to buy the newborn baby of an unwed St. Louis couple for $50.00, but the infant’s untimely death in July of 1935, before her acquittal on kidnapping charges, once again left Nellie Tipton Muench scrambling for a child.

Wilfred Jones, the lawyer, next procured for her the baby of a 19 year old servant from Pennsylvania named Anna Ware. Mrs. Muench, at last in possession of a sympathetic prop for use during her trial, dramatically presented the child as her own, calling it, “a gift from God in my time of distress.” Perhaps hoping to milk her new-minted motherhood to its fullest extent, Mrs. Muench also began to engage in a blackmailing scheme. She had been having an affair with a colleague of her husband’s, Dr. Marsh Pitzman, and now convinced him that the child which she had recently bought was actually a product of their affair. Couching her demands in love letters, she asked for money to avoid the scandal which revealing the child’s “true” parentage would surely cause for Dr. Pitzman. This intrigue-the first baby’s death, the procurement of the second baby, and the blackmailing-had all happened in the run up to Nellie Tipton Muench’s acquittal on kidnapping charges. Within two weeks of this acquittal, however, she would be back in jail.

The woman who sent her back to jail was the second child’s true mother. Anna Ware, the unwed servant, wanted her baby back. She brought a legal suit against Mrs. Muench, demanding her child be returned to her. In short order, a court ruled that there was no evidence that Mrs. Muench had given birth to a child, and returned the baby to Ware. Mrs. Muench and her accomplices-her husband, Ludwig Muench, who had certified that the child belonged to his wife; Wilfred Jones, the lawyer who had procured the Ware baby; and Mrs. Helen Berroyer, a friend of Mrs. Muench’s who had brought the first purchased baby to the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis to die-then went on trial for their role in buying the babies and blackmailing Dr. Pitzman. All four were found guilty on charges of illegally obtaining the child and mail fraud and were each sentenced to several years in prison. The saga of court cases and intrigue begun five years earlier, on the stormy night when Dr. Isaac Kelley was lured from his house by his kidnappers, came to a close in late 1936.

The four conspirators were sent to jail. Newspapers at the time gleefully reported that the imperious Mrs. Muench, arriving at the jail, was forced to trade her mink coat for a calico dress. Jail officials said that the former socialite turned kidnapper and blackmailer could look forward to helping with, “the daily scrubbing of the white-tiled floor.”

Newspaper clippings on the kidnapping of Dr. Kelley and the trials of Mrs. Muench are held at the Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives, in the 1936 Saint Louis Medical Society scrapbook.

There are multiple newspapers articles on the kidnapping from the time accessible through the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections. For a modern discussion of the case, see descriptions in Barry Cushman’s “Headline Kidnappings and the Origins of the Lindbergh Law.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch also has excellent photos to complement this story, including a mug shot of Nellie Tipton Muench.