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Dead On The Tracks: Mystery, HooDoo and Scandal in Philadelphia

Fort Wayne Jounral-Gazet Sunday, 1915

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette Sunday, August 29, 1915 (3)

On the afternoon of October 27, 1905, the elderly Mrs. Margaretta M. Todd nee von Hoffman announced she was going to take a ride in Central Park. Mrs. Todd donned a silk dress and lavish jewels. Bedecked with diamonds from among the estimated $25,000 worth of jewelry she hid in the secret compartment of her Louis XV table, she called for her carriage.   When she failed to return to her home that afternoon, frantic searches throughout the city of New York did not reveal her whereabouts.  Toward dawn, the answer was startlingly clear:  Mrs. Todd had boarded a train to Philadelphia.  And Mrs. Todd had died under suspicious circumstances. (1)

A flagman for the Philadelphia & Reading railway found a woman on the tracks; her head crushed and both legs severed from the body below the knees.   Calling into the darkness for help, railroad workers in the yard brought stretchers to the scene near the entrance to Fairmount Park.  This as-yet unknown woman was taken to the German hospital and pronounced dead.  Her fingers, wrists, ears, and neck were still covered in diamonds. (2)

Letters and notes in the victim’s purse, which somehow didn’t get lost in the commotion, identified the woman as Mrs. M. Todd, wife of Louis Todd of New York City.

Police and coroners ruled out suicide, agreeing that she could not have scaled the 30′ walls to throw herself on the tracks.   The other theory, that she had mistaken the end of the car for the facilities, did not stand up.  It was murder.

Mrs. Margaretta Todd nee Von Hoffmann was a wealthy socialite. Born into wealth of her own, she had married and lost two husbands, including a jeweler, before her marriage to Mr. Todd was announced.   Margaretta was a Tammany Hall favorite, a belle of Napoleon III’s court in France and by all accounts, a stunning red head in her youth.  She ran an upscale boarding house in her later years and it was as one of her boarders, that Louis got to know Margaretta. (4)

San Diego Union - October 28, 1905

San Diego Union – October 28, 1905 (4)

The details of Mrs. Margaretta Todd’s death created a sensational story from coast to coast. Headlines sang across the country, from San Diego to Manhattan: “Woman Killed by Train,” “Tragic Death of Rich Woman–Found Mangled by a Train.”  The mystery surrounding her death kept the story and society swirling.  The mystery deepened when the identified husband of Mrs. Todd, Mr. Louis L. Todd, denied his marriage to Margaretta in a statement issued to the newspapers.

December 11, 1905 - Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Sun – December 11, 1905 (5)

Pronounced “Louie” like the king, Louis Todd was a hotelier, gambler, and all around risk-taker living in Manhattan in the early 1900’s.  Louis was well known around town with political and business leaders, helping to bring the Republican National Convention to New York city.  With blue eyes and a bushy mustache, Louis was a dapper and distinguished looking gentleman who probably felt pretty comfortable in the posh night clubs and restaurants of mid-town Manhattan. (4)  And, he was married to my great-aunt, Medora Sanford. (5)

A complicating factor in this mystery was Mr. Todd ‘s presence on a train from New York to Philadelphia the same evening Margaretta was killed.  Claiming to have been accompanied by his niece en-route to New Jersey, Mr. Todd was none the less now a suspect in in the murder. (6)

Mr. Todd must have felt a public airing the only course available to both clear his name and calm the familial upheaval a charge of bigamy would probably cause.  In his public statement Mr. Todd denies he was the wife of Margaretta, going so far as to allege he had a written enunciation signed by Margaretta.

The Sun in Baltimore Maryland reports:

He alleged that he had forced Mrs. Todd to disclaim him as a husband in a written enunciation drawn up by Richard C. Fellows, an attorney and witnessed by C. R. Wood, now a cotton planter in the South. (7)

The news of a faked marriage only added to the appeal of Margaretta’s story by newspapers and socialites alike, as did the breaking news of the existence of a new will.  The bickering between lawyers and relatives continued for four more years, finally ending in a settlement between 7 of the parties, being awed into agreement by the “Hoo Doo” surrounding anyone related to the case.

The case was to have come up for trial in the supreme court next Friday.  Speaking of the ‘hoodoo,’ Theodore Davis, one of the attorneys in the case, said today: ‘In addition to the five principal[s] and two lawyers who have already died, two of the other parties involved are now critically ill.  It is no exaggeration to say that there seemed to be a hoodoo that I believe would wipe away all those who figure in the case before the courts could finally settle the disputes. (8)

Margaretta’s murder not only stirred up mysteries about her life, they triggered a cascading series of horrid and mysterious deaths around her; deaths the yellow-journalists of the early 1900’s made much of, reusing the story every time a new death or mystery became known.

Whether, now, it be fate or coincidence, or the inexorable march of seed and fruit a strange series of disasters, a might and terrible sequence of events, has stalked this family.  And about it all there has been a mysterious and symbolic relationship to the history and fortunes of the family.  The whole story is brought out again by the mysterious end in Yonkers, a few days ago, of Sinclair Tousey.  It is a story of unexplained deaths, of dark mysteries, of venal marriage for money, of will contests, of scheming adventure and tragedy. (9)


The story of Margareta M. Todd is a story about time and place as much as it is about her horrid and unsolved murder.  The Sanford family members I talked with, including the grand-daughter of the niece who accompanied Mr. Todd on the train to Philadelphia that night, had never heard this story.  I uncovered the first newspaper article in 2009 while searching for my grand-father’s namesake, Mr. Louis Todd, the husband of Medora Sanford.  My great-grandfather, Medora’s brother, named his son Louis Todd Sanford.  Louis Todd Sanford named my father, Lowell Todd Sanford.  Lowell had no sons, so the Todd tradition ended after two generations of honor to Mr. Louis Lorenzo Todd.


1.Cleveland Leader article – GenealogyBank… Date: Saturday, November 18, 1905 Paper: Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, OH) Page: 4
3. Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Allen County Public LIbrary, Fort Wayne, Indiana, August 29, 1915, Page 44, Volume 38 Number 268
4. San Diego Union article – GenealogyBank… Date: Saturday, October 28, 1905 Paper: San Diego Union (San Diego, CA) Page: 2.
5. Sun article – GenealogyBank… Date: Monday, December 11, 1905 Paper: Sun (Baltimore, MD) Volume: CXXXVIII Issue: 25 Page: 2
6. For marriage: Source Citation: Birth year: 1842; Birth city: Perth Amboy; Birth state: NJ. Source Information: Edmund West, comp.. Family Data Collection – Individual Records [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2000.  For birth information on Medora Sanford,Source Information: U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2007. Original data: Passport Applications, 1795–1905. NARA Microfilm Publication M1372, 694 rolls. General Records Department of State, Record Group 59. National Archives, Washington, D.C., Passport Applications, January 2, 1906–March 31, 1925. NARA Microfilm Publication M1490, 2740 rolls. General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59. National Archives, Washington, D.C., Registers and Indexes for Passport Applications, 1810–1906. NARA Microfilm Publication M1371, rolls 1–2. General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
8. Sunday, October 24, 1909 Paper: Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, TX) Volume: XXVII Issue: 281 Source:

4 comments on “Dead On The Tracks: Mystery, HooDoo and Scandal in Philadelphia

  1. chmjr2
    August 3, 2013

    Wow what a family story.

    • Val Sanford
      August 4, 2013

      Thanks! I’m looking forward to getting more records and reports together. I was in Pennsylvania recently to try to get my hands on the coroner’s report, but they don’t exist anymore. So off to NY for court records of the estate trials.

  2. Rachelle
    August 4, 2013

    This is a provocative story and it really is an article….can’t wait to see it in print!

  3. Pingback: Gustav Scholer: The First Head Coroner of New York | Nicholas C. Rossis

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This entry was posted on August 1, 2013 by in Genealogical Mysteries, Genealogy, History, Mystery, Sanford and tagged , , , .
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