The Bizarre Tale Of The Heiress And The One-Legged Killer Clown

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, November 26, 2015
iStock_000018137858_Medium
“Quick, send in the clowns. / Don’t bother, they’re here.” —Stephen Sondheim, “Send in the Clowns”

In A Nutshell

History is a strange place. In 1912, heiress Sophia Singer was found murdered. Suspicion fell on the couple she and her fiance had been staying with: a one-legged clown and his wife, a burlesque dancer. They claimed the whole thing was an accident and that they had only meant to rob her of her jewels and her recently inherited fortune. Even so, the clown got a life sentence in Joliet but supposedly managed to escape in 1925.

The Whole Bushel

Sometimes, a story comes along that seems more likely to be seen in a bad cable television horror movie than to unfold in the pages of the nation’s newspaper. This is definitely one of those stories, and it’s a shockingly obscure one. We know just enough about what happened during the trial of the one-legged clown killer that we really want to know more.

Buried in the pages of newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and the Milwaukee Journal are articles written on a bizarre court case that gripped the nation in the last months of 1912. Assembling the story takes some digging.

It all started with the murder of a young heiress named Sophia Gertrude Singer. Singer was from Baltimore, and the last time she was seen alive was in a drugstore in Chicago. It was reported that she bought some stationery, wrote a few letters, then headed out, presumably to her home. After her body was found, the motive became very clear. She had just inherited around $35,000 and had been carrying around $3,000 in jewels and $1,000 in cash. (These were exorbitant sums in 1912.)

The police automatically locked onto the most likely suspects, the couple Singer had been staying with. Charles Conway was found to have been a once-wealthy Indiana native who’d squandered away a fortune, going from being a well-off individual to being a clown with a peg leg. (We’d love to know more specifics about that lifestyle shift.) The Tribune reported that he’d lost his right foot in some sort of high diving accident and replaced it with a peg.

His wife, known by the names Mayme Coyne, May Monte, and most commonly as Mary Conway, was a one-time member of an opera company called the Beggar Princesses. By this time, she had become a burlesque dancer.

Singer’s fiance William Warthen (also occasionally reported as Worthen), whom she had planned to elope with, had been the one to find her body. He claimed that she had been in touch with the clown and the burlesque dancer for a long time, and when they planned on eloping, it was the Conways who offered them a place to stay.

At the trial, he testified that along with her body, he had found the murder weapon: a slingshot. Earlier that week, he said, the clown had commented, “This is what I use to knock ’em down with,” in regards to said slingshot. At the time, he’d thought the man was joking, but they were unnerved enough by the peg-legged clown that they had already started to talk about moving.

When the clown and his wife were arrested in Ohio, they were found in possession of some of Warthen’s clothes. Claiming that Singer had given them the clothes, they also claimed that she had been planning on leaving him.

Eventually, Conway’s wife admitted that her husband killed Singer, using an improvised weapon that was little more than a doorknob wrapped in a handkerchief. He had originally just planned on stealing from her, enough money to pay for an operation that he needed on his leg, and Conway’s wife claimed that her death was a complete accident. When she met Warthen in court, The Daily Star reported that she sobbed and pleaded for his forgiveness.

The jury made a move to convict her for the murder, too, based on the suspicion that she had something to do with planning the robbery that ended in murder.

In the end, the murdering clown with the peg leg was handed a life sentence to be served in Joliet. According to Chicago lore, he managed to escape in 1925 and was never seen again.

Show Me The Proof

Chicago Tribune: Search for clown and actress in murder mystery
The Milwaukee Journal: Alleged slayer and wife taken
The Daily Star: Admits Murder
Chicago Daily Tribune: Conway and wife held for murder
TimeOut Chicago: Looking back at Chicago’s one-legged killer clown of 1912

  • Hillyard

    Clowns to the left of me, killers to the right.