Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Chillingworth Murders

Marjorie McKnight Chillingworth
(This story has been revised to remove the link to the Historic Hartman House Bed & Breakfast. Two reasons. First and foremost, someone replaced my link with an X-rated link. Second, the Historic Hartman House is no longer open as a bed and breakfast and is not open to the public. To the reader who reported the hacked link to me, thank you.)
         On September 22, I posted a little historical fiction piece in response to Rachel Harrie’s Second Campaign Challenge. If you haven’t seen it, or would like to re-read it before you go on, this LINK will take you right to it.  Several of the comments to my story asked for more information. Since the challenge ended on October 3, I felt it was now okay post the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey says without defeating the 200 word limit. 
The disappearance and presumed murder of Judge Curtis E. Chillingworth and his wife, Marjorie McKnight Chillingworth was the most shocking event of its time in Palm Beach County, both for who the victims were and why they were murdered. The Birth of an Imago was based on what is known about the true last moments of Marjorie Chillingworth’s life.
            One of my dad’s favorite routes north from Delray Beach to North Palm Beach after a Sunday afternoon at my grandparents, was to travel north next to the ocean along A1A as far as possible. There was no super highway I-95 through Palm Beach County in those days and although the drive was slow-going, the ocean was always to our right and it was beautiful to smell and see as we meandered home.
            At one point in Manalapan, a small town tucked up next to the ocean south of Palm Beach, A1A takes a hard left turn away from the beach. As we approached the curve, a big house sat directly in front of us facing south.  Even before I knew whose house it had been, the house and the beach beside it always felt surrounded by a feeling of melancholy even to me as a child.  A beach is a hard thing to infuse with such a sad feeling, but there it was, dampening the sunshine. I don’t remember exactly when Dad told me about the Chillingworth murders, but I can tell you that from the moment he did, I understood that this place had earned its sadness.
When we approached the house, I’d stop my mindless chattering from the back seat and look out the window solemnly as we passed. I’d even go so far as to kneel silently on the back seat and stare out the back windshield as the car moved around the next curve and the house disappeared from sight.

Judge Curtis E. Chillingworth
Florida Archives Photo

            Around 10:00 p.m. on June 14, 1955, Judge Chillingworth and his wife, Marjorie, left a friend’s house for their “beach cottage” on the shoreline in Manalapan, Florida. The weather on the fourteenth was slightly rainy and it was a typical steamy summer Florida evening. The Chillingworths disappeared into the balmy night sometime after returning home and never reappeared.
            On June 15, a carpenter showed up at the house to build some playground equipment for the Chillingworth grandchildren. He found the door open and realized the house was empty.
            At 10:00 a.m., Court was ready to start in West Palm Beach, but Judge Chillingworth, habitually punctual, was nowhere in sight. No one answered the telephone at the Chillingworth home and his staff grew alarmed. The police were alerted and drove over to the house to investigate.
            The was no sign of the Chillingworths but the beds had been slept in and it appeared that only pajamas and slippers were missing. Concerns heightened when two rolls of tape were found-one in the house and one on the beach. When drops of blood were spotted on the walkway from the house to the beach, the investigation accelerated.
            At first, it was thought to be a kidnapping but no ransom note was ever found and the case grew cold.
PBC Sheriff's
Office Photo
            The crime was still unsolved when in November, 1958, a bootlegger named Lew Gene Harvey vanished overnight. His wife remembered that her husband had left the house that night with “John Lynch.”  Lynch was an alias used by a man named Floyd Albert “Lucky” Holzapfel. Floyd had a criminal past and had been arrested one time along with Joseph A. Peel, Jr.  At the time, Peel was a local attorney and West Palm Beach’s only municipal judge. Peel hired Floyd to beat Peel’s law partner to death for the proceeds of an insurance policy. The partner survived and fingered both men.

PBC Sheriff's
Office Photo
            The police started digging and found that Peel had been reprimanded by Chillingworth, his supervisor, for representing both sides in a divorce. Peel had been told that one more breach of ethics like that and he’d face disbarment.  This terrified Peel as he had a nice little side income generated by alerting bootleggers and other criminals to impending search warrants and subpoenas. When police left his office with important documents in hand, Peel would be on the phone calling in a warning to the crooks. He was well paid for the inside information and by jeopardizing his secret stream of income, Chillingworth had unwittingly stepped into the gun sights.

The police set up a sting and pretending to be good ol' boy friends of his, got Holzapfel drunk one night, and encouraged him to confess to the Chillingworth murders. Of course, his “friends” taped the whole confession and the ugly truth about the Chillingworths’ mysterious disappearance finally emerged.

PBC Sheriff's
Office Photo
            We have only the words of the murderers as to what happened that night and no one but the two of them ever knew the whole story. According to them, Holzapfel and his friend George David “Bobby” Lincoln rowed their little skiff about four miles off of the coast and proceeded to wrap Mrs. Chillingworth in chains.  The Judge told Mrs. Chillingworth, “Remember, I love you.” And she replied, “I love you, too.” Holzapfel turned to Mrs. Chillingworth and saying, “Ladies first,” shoved her out of the boat and into the water.

            Some versions of the story say that Judge Chillingworth jumped in after her to attempt to save her, but she sank from sight. The Judge, having grown up on and in the ocean in Palm Beach County, was an excellent swimmer and almost escaped, even with his hands taped and lead weights on his feet. But one of the men hit him on the head with a gun. The two dragged him back on the boat, tied an anchor around his neck and pushed him overboard to drown also.

            The 200 word story I entered in the Challenge was actually the third story I wrote. The first two just didn’t speak to me the way the last moments of Marjorie Chillingworth did. By all accounts, she was an educated, gracious, loving wife and mother, active in the Garden Club and well respected and loved by all who knew her. She was the very model of a 1950s socialite wife. The majority of the story always seems to focus on the Judge and not much seems to be in the public domain about Marjorie and her life. In writing about the last moments of Mrs. Chillingworth, I put myself in that boat and tried to imagine what she was feeling–the confusion,  fear, anger, and the sadness.

          It’s no wonder that the house and beach beside it still resonate with the echoes. God rest their souls.


  1. What a fascinating story! I'm a thriller enthusiast, and this historical piece really grabbed me. And I loved your entry in the contest. Great job in using the assigned words!

    And thank you, as well, for your kind comment on my blog. Please consider me a new follower.

  2. What a horrible fate. Homicidal impulse is someone could be so cold, so brutal, as to tie a man and his wife in chains and then drop them in the sea. The only thing that could have made this worse is if they had been fed to sharks.

  3. What a sad, cruel and evil story. I can understand the feelings of sadness surrounding the house.

  4. Chilling. And your entry for the contest is wonderful--chilling as well. What makes it work for me is the calmness in the narrator's voice. Almost like it is being told by one of the murders years and years after the event--after he has gone over it a thousand times in his mind.


  5. Wow. Explains your story. But sadly it explains nothing about why such evil can exist in the world. It's something that I guess most of us can never understand, and maybe not even the perpetrators of such horrible events. How even to begin?

    Tossing It Out

  6. Nice blog.



  7. Wow! Sitting at the computer I decided to google the murders as I was once a little girl riding along A1A and feeling exactly the same feelings as I passed that house. To this day, when I visit Florida and head towards the inlet, it still makes me feel shivers.II wonder how many other little girls out for a Sunday ride along that same route, with their families, sitting in the back seat of the family car felt the same as we did- if they still remember as we do??

    1. Anon: Thanks for the comment. I really think any of us who grew up here have those memories from time to time. It's part of the weave of the County. I'm glad you found the article and hope you enjoy some of the other posts!

  8. Thought you might want to know that you link "Historic Hartman House" takes you to which is 18+ and older / explicit ADULT material kind of took me by surprise..

    You did a great job on the Chillingworths my parents were "acquaintances" of theirs. As both kept rather to themselves they were not know to have many friends, though my mom did know Mrs. C in the Garden Club to which both belonged. The trial of Judge Peel showed how little he valued human life. There was a lot more to this tragic tale of murder and strange group of players involved... could make a good movie if one was so inspired...

    1. Anon. Thank you for the heads-up on the link. I've removed it. I'll also let the owners of the Historic Hartman House know. Thank you so much for your comments on the story. I've been fascinated with it since childhood. I would love to talk with you more if you are so inclined. Please feel free to e-mail me directly at

      Best wishes and thank you again.