The Wentz mystery was a remarkable episode in the early 1900s. To explore the historical context of this mystery, it’s imperative to understand rural Appalachian life. Coal companies built many of the towns in rural Appalachia. While most of the western states were just developing, even the smallest towns across the Appalachian range often had modern amenities, such as electricity and trolleys. Nearly every new coal company brought a new community.
It is ironic that the same companies, which brought such progress and prosperity, operated at such a tremendous price to residents. There is much awareness of the abuses endured by coal miners, but attention is seldom focused on life as a neighbor of a coal company. The horrors of just neighboring a company indeed compared to those experienced by miners.
Virginia Iron and Coal
The Wentz family was known for wealth and success in Nineteenth Century Philadelphia. Most of its members were mining magnates, who operated successful companies across the mountainous portions of the eastern United States. It was inevitable they cash in on the black gold craze that swept the central Appalachian range, particularly in Southwestern Virginia. Their largest operation was nestled in Wise County, Virginia.
Pennsylvania native Edward Leisenring (R-PA) purchased 150,000 acres in southwestern Virginia, shortly after the Civil War. The land wasn’t previously used because the land deeds “were in doubt.” In other words, the actual owners didn’t have a printed deed, or they were suspected southern sympathizers whose property had been confiscated, pending pardon. There are no records stating the land was actually for sale when the company obtained it. Leisenring was the company manager until his death, when nephews, Edward and Daniel Wentz, came to his operating headquarters in Stonega, Virginia.
The Virginia Coal and Iron Company incorporated on January 6, 1882. At the time, the company officially held over 100,000 acres that spanned Lee, Scott, and Wise Counties, in Virginia. Company property went as far as Harlan County, Kentucky. The Virginia Company was affiliated with the Stonega Coke and Coal Company, in Delaware.
The Virginia Iron and Coal Company, later became known as the Virginia Iron, Coke, and Coal Company. The company had multiple mines, numerous coke ovens, and millions of dollars in timber. Their coal operations were located in Blackwood, Big Stone Gap, and Stonega.
The wealth and power behind this developing industry had a tremendous impact upon residents. As stated earlier, the acquisition of land was not always done ethically or honestly, although technically “legal.” Even families who had enjoyed their homes for generations weren’t safe. If a coal company took over their land they were deemed “squatters” and evicted. Those who refused to move were charged rent, for living in their own home. If they didn’t pay, the company could pursue legal recourse, which could include physical, forced eviction.
Those who lived off the land were removed from their element. Hunting and gathering was no longer safe. Coal companies frequently patrolled their properties and area residents weren’t even allowed to gather the fruits of the forest. Even innocent activities like hiking, gathering nuts and roots, or chopping firewood were punishable offenses. It didn’t matter if the coal companies had use or interest in these things, it only mattered that someone “trespassed.” Many coal operations also had their own jails.
The company also feared the effects of moonshine on workers. Once it became established, it declared the region “dry,” and even legal alcohol was illegal.
Edward “Ted” Leisenring Wentz was 25 in 1903. Because of the lack of information on him, we can only wonder if he was a business upstart who was eager to impress a skeptical family, or if he was a sociopath.
We do know he was a member of the Leisenring and Wentz families. These established, wealthy families were the epitome of high society. Unlike the society he was a part of, Edward was eager to come to Big Stone Gap as soon as completed his academics.
Era newspapers puzzled over his career choice because Edward was independently wealthy. He had no need to work at all. Edward Leisenring died with no heirs and left his vast fortune to Edward. Rather than oversee global business ventures, or enjoy world travel, Edward wanted to come to a remote area that struggled to establish itself. Dr. James Wentz, Edward’s father, made him the General Manager for the Virginia Coal and Iron Company. Edward’s older brother, Daniel, was the company president. The Wentz brothers owned the finest hounds and kept the finest steeds in the region.
To add further question and confusion, Edward then became the chief patrolman and security force for the company’s vast lands. Instead of hiring a team of professionals, or investing in a security firm, Wentz took it upon himself to personally patrol the boundaries of the company land. He frequently chased trespassers, or physically threw them, off the land. He gained a reputation for punishing any who crossed him, usually with a whip. Several papers described Wentz as, “determined to bend them [the locals] to his will.” He was on a crusade to “run mountain folk out,” or force them to abide by his iron rule.
Wentz also made himself land agent for the company. In terms of the era coal industry, this made him judge and jury on company land. The former property owners, who didn’t pay the rent on their own homes, could be evicted, and Wentz was known to enjoy eviction. Outwardly, he appeared eager to prosecute trespassers and squatters alike. It seemed Wentz enjoyed doing everything he could to make as many personal and business enemies as possible.
Despite his unusual existing “duties,” Wentz also became a member of the “police guard” and several sources stated he also became a Federal marshal. The police guard was a group of men charged with ensuring the justice system functioned properly in remote areas. The Virginia Legislature sanctioned such groups to prevent lynchings, manage crowds at sensational trials, and function as officials at executions. Wentz’s fury was no longer limited to company property. The titles gave him the power to “oversee” the region’s justice system.
The Daniels Raid
One such raid occurred several months before Wentz’s disappearance. He accompanied a group of locals to raid an illicit distillery, somewhere around Black Mountain. The ill-fated raid on whatever “operation” James Daniels had, if any, resulted in a number of deaths. Many suspected the raid didn’t happen on company property, so there was no legitimate reason for company involvement. Daniels suffered several gunshot wounds during the raid. Newspapers later raised suspicion because the raiding men took Daniels to Stonega’s company hospital for “treatment,” where he disappeared. Era law enforcement did not normally take “moonshiners” for treatment of injuries suffered during shoot-outs with them.
As it was, Daniels’s family and friends were not allowed to see him once he was hospitalized. His mother, several siblings, and his friends tried to visit. The secrecy only made his loved ones skeptical. His mother believed the hospital tortured her son until he died. No reason was established as to why Wentz took Daniels from his family, why he was placed in the coal company hospital, or what happened to Daniels after he was hospitalized. The known fact is Daniels did not come out alive.
The Final Hours
Wentz played tennis with John Goodlow on October 13, 1903. He gave no indication of despondency or dejection, which would be important later on. Wentz telephoned his assistant, Samuel Wax, the next day. He said he was going up the river to see Samuel’s brother, Charles Wax. Wentz also prepared to deliver further eviction notices and arrest warrants to trespassers.
He left his home on October 14. He was last seen riding his horse near the Kellyview community, a “flagpoint” on the Louisville and Nashville rail line. Hours later, locals found his horse wandering on the road near Ramsey Creek Ford. They knew something happened, so they notified Daniel Wentz. Daniel assumed his brother was with Charles Wax, but he never arrived. He just disappeared. His brother notified the media and a nationwide frenzy ensued.
The Search for Edward
The search for Wentz was a major event. Every miner was brought out of the mines to assist in the search. Search efforts lasted for nearly two months. The family, suspicious of Wise County residents, hired scores of private detectives. The reward climbed to an unprecedented $50,000. Novelist John Fox Jr., came from New York to join the hunt. Fox and Wentz had been friends for some time.
Weeks became months and the reward continued to climb, peaking at $100,000. Thousands tirelessly searched hills and valleys. Search parameters covered hundreds of miles and went far into Kentucky. Searchers never found a body, or a trace of potential evidence. The entire nation followed the mystery a little too closely, and it began to show. Hoax ransom letters came from as far away as San Francisco, California.
Several months later, every possible lead was cold. A young man abruptly came to the Wentz offices in Big Stone Gap. The well-dressed, eloquent youth stated he knew the kidnappers, and they wanted $25,000 for Wentz’s return.
The family accommodated him as much as possible, but said they needed proof. They said to tell the kidnappers they needed a handwriting sample or one of the personal items Wentz carried with him. The young man left the office empty-handed, but not alone. Several company representatives trailed him until he reached the mountains, where he disappeared just as completely as Wentz had.
For reasons that remain unknown, the Wentz family suddenly refused to talk to the media. The media eventually turned on the family because of their strange behavior.
As with every high profile disappearance, theories came from all directions. Some rumors suggested he had an accident, and died in some remote region of the mountains. Others stated the mountaineers that he oppressed for so long finally murdered him, and incinerated his body in one of the company’s coke ovens. Other rumors suggested he was kidnapped, but the kidnappers wouldn’t request a ransom until the search was officially called off.
Eventually, the theories returned to Wentz and his family. One stated he’d willingly abandoned his job to enjoy his fortune elsewhere. According to this theory, Wentz’s own family also suspected he abandoned his post, and that was why they hired an army of their own detectives.
The majority of the public soon believed Wentz was ambushed by a group of vengeful mountaineers. Unfortunately, nothing about this case, or those involved, would ever be resolved. Even today, more questions than answers linger.
David Raleigh was a miner at Pardee, but also kept livestock at his home. He searched for a lost cow on May 9, 1904. He inadvertently stumbled across a partially decomposed body, in familiar clothing. He’d found Edward Wentz.
Raleigh was briefly famous. Most who still followed the case assumed he would get the $100,000 reward. They were curious as to how he would spend the fortune. The Wentz family stunned everyone when they said Raleigh would only get $5,000 from the company, not them, and only after a conviction. Of course, there weren’t any suspects, so there never was a conviction. There’s no record of his receiving any amount.
While the authorities finally had a body, it didn’t provide answers or clarity. Wentz’s body was found a single mile from where his horse wandered the previous October. Despite thousands of searchers, several packs of bloodhounds, and the unbelievable amount of terrain covered, the body wasn’t there before. A local named William Hayes was responsible for searching that particular area. He stated his men didn’t find any body or weapon when they searched. The bloodhounds were likewise unable to locate a viable scent.
Wentz had been dead for some time, although the authorities couldn’t pinpoint an exact time of death. The corpse was in fair condition. Several small portions of his hair and clothing were burned from a recent forest fire, but he was identifiable. Most locals knew him just by his clothing. A pearl button was on the ground near the body, but no efforts were ever made to locate the owner. It was assumed the button belonged to a female, and the era’s lingering Victorian mind-set believed women weren’t capable of murder.
Bullitt, the Wentz family attorney in Wise County, visited the scene on May 10. He believed Wentz struggled with a group of outlaws because three shells had been fired from his weapon. The Daniels’ raid had occurred only weeks before Wentz’s disappearance, and Bullitt suspected the victims had sought revenge. Daniel Wentz supported Bullitt’s opinion.
The formal autopsy was held on May 10, along with the coroner’s inquest. Newspapers reported the procedure took place in one of Black Mountain’s caverns. Wentz’s right hand was missing. His clothing had numerous holes, but his body only had a single bullet wound. A .32 caliber bullet entered the front of the body, passed through the heart, and settled next to the spine. Powder burns indicated the bullet came from direct range. Attending physicians discovered his blood had pooled in his back and the back of his legs. It was proof that he died lying down. Wentz was found almost sitting upright, against a log. Doctors Malcolm Campbell and J.K. Kelly found the bullet’s entry wound. Wentz had died of blood loss.
Wentz’s Smith & Wesson was found 18 feet from his corpse. Three bullets were fired, but no one could guess what he was shooting at. Wild animals were blamed for the missing hand. Wentz also had several missing teeth, some sources say 3, while others report as many as 12 were gone. This suggests a physical fight, although the coroner’s jury was about to deliver another shock.
A Secret Engagement
Most of Wentz’s immediate family, as well as the nation, were stunned to learn he had been engaged for almost a year at the time of his death. His betrothed was Cornelia Brookmire, of St. Louis, Missouri. Brookmire was a long-time friend of Wentz’s sister-in-law. For some reason, the immediate family objected to the union, but no reason was given as to why. Brookmire was wealthy in her own right.
She came to Wise County after the body was discovered. She remained at Wentz’s home for a month, in full mourning garb. She also talked about Wentz’s odd personal behaviors. She said he was once romantic and impetuous. Their relationship was sudden. They enjoyed a brief romance, he proposed, and she accepted.
She said the formal engagement was in the summer of 1903, but Edward was no longer interested in her or matrimony once she accepted. Her parents were Mr. and Mrs. James Brookmire. Her father was a prominent St. Louis businessman. No reason for the secrecy was ever established.
An Iron Will
Wentz’s family was in for another surprise when Edward’s safe was opened. Not only did he have a will, he already bequeathed his fortune to the fiancée he had so little interest in. Edward’s wealth, at the time of his death, was projected to double within a decade. His company controlled the iron and ore mines, but he also had interests in the railroads and timber industries.
Some believed Wentz’s body was hidden by thick undergrowth and brush, but that never explained how the smell of decomposition eluded thousands of searchers, as well as bloodhounds. Others believed he was held prisoner for several months, and his captors brought him through the area where a struggle ensued.
One lesser-known theory held that Wentz committed suicide because his family refused to accept his fiancée. According to this, his father had said he would terminate his position in Big Stone Gap if he married Brookmire. Why this might have any influence remains unknown. He had no need to work, in any regard.
Perhaps the most baffling element of the case was the absolute silence, despite an astronomical reward. The reward for information was usually said to be $55,000. That same amount adjusted for inflation would be a staggering $1.5 million today. In an area known as much for poverty as it was lawlessness and feuds, not even a massive fortune brought information. The lack of information suggests the murder was not done by mountaineers at all, but an unknown someone from somewhere else.
The Front Row in Kangaroo Court
Local authorities didn’t always appear entirely reasonable. On one occasion, they seemed to support the family’s paranoia. Two outlaws, Silas Isen and Tom Wright, were arrested while in a Tennessee jail on unrelated charges.
Authorities justified the arrests because the outlaws had clothing in their home “similar” to Wentz’s, even though Wentz’s body was fully clothed when found, and no clothing was missing from his effects. The outlaws’ home was in Glamorgan, but they were jailed in Tazewell County, Tennessee. The authorities claimed the two tried to run a “blind tiger” on Wentz’s property. They said they’d confiscated the suspected men’s mail, and their letters hinted at a much worse crime the two committed earlier. No lasting charges ever came about.
A Strange Verdict
The public assumed it was murder when they found the body. Wentz strived to be ruthless with locals. He’d tortured, sued, and jailed more people in his short time as manager, than most companies did over a number of years. The coroner’s jury returned the strange and unexpected verdict of “accidental shooting.”
The verdict wasn’t the only strange thing. Edward’s brothers came to escort his body back to Pennsylvania, but not a single relative wanted to visit the scene where his body was found. The Wentz family made a tremendous public outcry against the ruling, but made no effort to pursue an independent investigation. They dismissed their legion of private detectives. The family chartered their own train to take Wentz back home.
Dr. John S. Wentz, Edward’s father, made headlines shortly after the discovery of his son’s body. Around May 12, he told the media his son did not commit suicide. He claimed those who murdered him just wanted people to think that. He claimed Edward didn’t even have a revolver on him when he disappeared, and all his weapons had been at home. This was unlikely, as Wentz was out to deliver eviction notices and arrest warrants.
Dr. Wentz further charged the Wise County coroner’s jury lied to protect an unknown associate, and this unknown associate murdered his son. When he realized he was legally liable for his slanderous statements, he retracted them. He then denied he’d ever spoke such hostile words against the jury. His attitude spoke a great deal of his prejudice against mountainfolk, overall. The jury wasn’t comprised of mountaineers or moonshiners, but employees from their very own company.
The great mystery of E. L. Wentz was forgotten decades ago. Wentz’s partner in moonshine raiding, Stonega’s Chief of Police James King, died on July 24, 1903. Researchers suspect he was shot and killed during the Daniel’s raid.
The Virginia Iron, Coke, and Coal Company later became Penn Virginia. It’s still in operation today, although no longer in Virginia.
Edward’s fiancée, Cornelia Brookmire, nearly drowned aboard the RMS Republic when it sank in 1909. She married Howard F. Gillette, of Chicago, around 1911.